Tag: brazil

Obama’s Trip to Latin America

As Ted Carpenter notes below, President Obama is departing on an important trip to Latin America. The countries that he will visit exemplify the macroeconomic stability and advancement of democratic institutions now found in much of the region.

Brazil, by far the largest Latin American economy, has enjoyed almost a decade of sound growth and poverty reduction. Chile is the most developed country in the region thanks to decades of economic liberalization, a process that has also made it Latin America’s most mature democracy. And El Salvador is undergoing a delicate period in its transition to becoming a full-fledged democracy with its first left-of-center president since the end of the civil war in 1992.

In an era when most Latin American nations are moving in the right direction—albeit at different speeds, with some setbacks, and with notable exceptions—the United States can serve as a catalyst of change by contributing to more economic integration and the consolidation of the rule of law in the region.

Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s assurances that he’s interested in strengthening economic ties with Latin America, his administration is still delaying the ratification of two important free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. President Obama also continues to support a failed war on drugs that significantly exacerbates violence and institutional frailty in the region, particularly in Mexico and Central America.

It’s good that President Obama’s trip will highlight significant progress in Latin America, but his administration’s policy actions still don’t match the U.S. goals of encouraging economic growth and sound institutional development in the region.

Obama’s Latin America Trip

President Obama’s trip to Latin America is likely to focus on economic topics, but two security issues deserve scrutiny during his stops in Brazil and El Salvador. 

Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Brazil has become somewhat frosty, especially over the past year.  U.S. leaders did not appreciate Brazil’s joint effort with Turkey to craft a compromise policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.  The Obama administration regarded that diplomatic initiative as unhelpful freelancing.  And when Brazil joined Turkey in voting against a UN Security Council resolution imposing stronger sanctions on Tehran, the administration’s resentment deepened.  Obama should not only try to soothe tensions, he should shift Washington’s policy, express appreciation for Brazil’s innovative efforts to end the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue, and consider whether the milder approach that the Turkish and Brazilian governments advocate has merit.

In El Salvador, worries about Mexico’s spreading drug-related violence into Central America are likely to come up.  El Salvador and other Central American countries are seeking a bigger slice of Washington’s anti-drug aid in the multi-billion-dollar, multiyear Merida Initiative.  President Obama should not only resist such blandishments, he should use the visit to announce a policy shift away from a strict prohibitionist strategy that has filled the coffers of the Mexican drug cartels and sowed so much violence in Mexico, and now increasingly in Central America as well.  Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working any better with currently illegal drugs.

Bribes to Brazil to Continue

An amendment to end what Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) rightly called “lunacy” failed this afternoon in a depressing show of cowardice on cotton subsidies. The amendment [Amendment No. 89] would have ended payments to Brazilian [yes, sic] cotton farmers that cost U.S. taxpayers $150 million a year.  The House rejected the amendment 183 to 246. 

Republicans – those stalwart fiscal conservatives! – voted 75 in favor and 164 against. The Democrats showed more courage and voted in favor of the amendment 108 to 82. (These numbers are according to C-SPAN; I will post an update if they prove to be incorrect).

The deal on cotton is one of the more shameful aspects of U.S. trade policy. As I blogged last year, U.S. taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to Brazilian farmers in a deal to ward off retaliatory tariffs Brazil has the right to impose on U.S. goods. That right was granted them by the World Trade Organization in the face of the United States’ continued failure to bring its cotton subsidy program into line with its obligations to other WTO members. Rather than cut off the subsidies to the powerful cotton lobby, though, the United States Trade Representative instead opted to do a deal with the Brazilian government.  (No bribes for the poor African cotton farmers also harmed by the price-suppressing effects of U.S. subsidies, though.)

The Hill article (linked to in the first paragraph of this post) points out that some members (presumably the Republicans who voted against the amendment) were concerned that ”the move [to cease the payments to Brazil] could create a trade war if Brazil decided to retaliate.” It doesn’t seem to occur to those concerned members that one way to avoid a trade war would be to abide by international obligations and cease subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers. It would also shave a few million from that huge deficit about which they profess to be concerned.

Dilma Announces Spending Cuts in Brazil

The new Brazilian government of President Dilma Rousseff has announced spending cuts of 50 billion reais (approximately $30 billion) this year. This amounts to approximately 1.3% of the country’s estimated GDP for 2011. Despite good intentions, that is still a very timid effort in curbing the size of government in Brazil: Total government spending (including state and local levels) runs at almost 40% of GDP.

Perhaps the timidity of the proposal is explained by the fact that curbing the size of government is not the motivation for the spending cuts. Nor is it to avoid a looming fiscal crisis. Brazil’s estimated budget deficit for 2010 was 2.3% of GDP; not good, but still a far cry from the fiscal woes of Europe or the U.S.

Dilma’s reason for cutting spending lies in the helplessness of Brazil’s Central Bank in containing the rise of the real without harming the economy. The real has appreciated against the dollar by 38% in the last two years (thanks in large part to Ben Bernanke’s policies at the Fed).  Efforts to contain this appreciation by intervening in the foreign exchange market and building up reserves led to a rise in inflation, which closed at 5.9% last year. The Central Bank has raised interest rates in order to curb inflation, but at 11.25% they are already too high and constitute a heavy burden on Brazil’s productive sector. Moreover, high interest rates are a magnet for foreign money seeking high returns, which drives up the value of the real even further.

Cutting government spending wouldn’t seem like the favored policy alternative of a left-wing technocrat such as Dilma Rousseff. However, it is the best way to bring down interest rates and control inflation under the present circumstances. It remains to be seen if the cuts do the trick, but they are certainly a positive sign from Brazil’s new president.

Brazil’s Drug Czar: Let’s Look at Portugal’s Experience with Decriminalization

In yesterday’s Brazilian daily, O Globo, Pedro Abramovay, the drug czar of the new Brazilian administration, said that Portugal’s experience with drug decriminalization should be considered as an alternative to Brazil’s current anti-narcotics policy. This comes on top of Rio Governor Sergio Cabral’s call for drug legalization and of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s criticism, along with other prominent Latin Americans, of drug prohibition. By officially weighing in on the side of harm reduction, Latin America’s giant can have a significant effect on the debate over this hemisphere’s drug war.

Brazil Caves

Notwithstanding the efforts of four brave congressmen, the belated concession to reality by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, and the misgivings of trade analysts including myself, it appears that the “temporary” deal struck by Brazil and the United States in April to ward off Brazil’s retaliation for WTO-illegal U.S. cotton supports is here to stay:

The government said a deal agreed between the two countries in April to head off up to $829 million in World Trade Organization-sanctioned retaliation against U.S. goods would stay in place until a new U.S. farm bill is passed [in 2012]…

“Brazil doesn’t rule out taking countermeasures at any moment,” Roberto Azevedo, Brazil’s envoy to the World Trade Organization, told reporters in Brasilia. “It is just a suspension of this right”.

He said Brazil could retaliate at any time if the United States did not uphold the agreement, but added that Brazil had no interest in retaliating.

“This process of negotiation and reform is better than retaliation that doesn’t bring benefits to anyone in Brazil’s private sector.” [Reuters]

You will recall that the deal includes about $147 million worth of taxpayers’ money given to Brazilian cotton farmers in the form of “technical assistance,” just so we can continue our own insane cotton support programs without fear of U.S. exporters (including holders of patents and copyrights) being hit by retaliatory trade barriers and unpunished piracy.

Brazil in some senses has the right idea, of course. They recognize, correctly, that retaliation in the form of increased tariffs on American imports only hurts their own consumers, hence their stated desire for “negotiation and reform” instead of santions.  But they sure do have a lot of faith in the willingness of Congress to enact reform without serious pressure from, among others, aggrieved trade partners.

I hope their faith and saint-like patience is rewarded. In the meantime, we have (at least) two more years of subsidizing Brazilan farmers in addition to our own.

Is Hillary Clinton Ignorant about Geography, Fiscal Policy, or Both?

Hillary Clinton recently opined that Brazil was a great role model for the idea of soaking the rich with higher tax rates. She didn’t really offer evidence for that specific assertion, but Politico reports that she did say that “Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere and guess what — they’re growing like crazy.”

I’m not sure if “growing like crazy” is an accurate description, particularly since poor nations normally have decent growth rates because they start from such a low baseline.

But let’s excuse that bit of rhetorical excess and focus on the really flawed portion of her remarks.

Contrary to her direct quote, Brazil does not have the “highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere.” It may have the highest tax burden in South America. And it may even have the highest tax burden in all of Latin America, but its overall tax burden of about 24 percent of GDP is slightly below the aggregate tax burden in the United States.

I suppose I should issue a caveat and say there’s a very slight chance that the recession has temporarily pushed U.S. tax receipts as a share of GDP below the Brazilian level, but that isn’t apparent from the IMF data. Moreover, there’s no doubt that the tax burden in Canada is significantly higher than the Brazilian burden.

So Secretary Clinton either was unaware that the United States and Canada are in the Western Hemisphere, or has no clue how to read fiscal statistics.

But let’s suspend reality and assume that Brazil has a higher tax-to-GDP ratio. Would that somehow be proof that Brazil is a role model for class-warfare taxation? There is no precise definition of that term, to be sure, but high tax rates on the rich presumably are a necessary component of any class-warfare system. Yet Brazil’s top tax rate is 27.5 percent. That’s not exactly a low-rate system such as Hong Kong, and it’s 27.5 percentage points higher than the zero-percent rate in the Cayman Islands, but it also happens to be significantly lower than the 35 percent (soon to be 39.6 percent) rate in the United States. If that’s class warfare, sign me up for the Brazilian approach.

I suppose it’s possible that Brazil’s top tax rate recently has been boosted, but that didn’t show up in a Google search. And even if the rate was just increased, that would hardly be proof of Secretary Clinton’s strange hypothesis that high tax rates and/or high tax-to-GDP rates are a magical formula for growth. That would require looking at future economic performance with the higher top tax rate, not the recent growth rates with the 27.5 percent top tax rate.

But pointing out Secretary Clinton’s mistakes seems a bit rude and I do like to be a gentleman, so let’s at least give her points for consistency. Earlier this year, she urged higher tax rates on the so-called rich in Pakistan, so at least she doesn’t discriminate in her desire to punish success.