A fortress made of BRICS

The BRICS countries are building a formidable global power base but there are still cracks in the foundations

With the addition of South Africa to the group late last year, the emerging markets bloc has expanded its reach and capability considerably. It now has fingers in pies cooking in all corners of the globe and each member-state has a rough home ‘region’ where it is the dominate force. Brazil has majority sway over Latin American affairs, China rules the construction industry in Africa and Russia has diplomatic and industrial control throughout the former Soviet Union nations. But the way they influence and react with each other – let alone other countries – is both a cause for celebration and concern.

China is the most successful of the BRICS. It competes with Brazil in Latin America and rivals South Africa throughout Africa, be it through construction contracts in Angola or oil agreements in Sudan. Its conveyor lines drive European businesses back home and its markets are being opened up to foreign firms. It is powerful militarily, diplomatically and economically. China also is skilled at both comforting and irritating rival BRICS. It is happy to let South Africa be a diplomatic voice for Africa while it maintains its industrial strength there. But it has annoyed India by cosying up to Pakistan recently with economic agreements and plans for motorways and railways between the two countries. The transport links would pass through a part of Kashmir that India sees as its own and that Islamabad ceded to Beijing in 1963.

The other powers have also tried to carve out distinct paths across the globe. Brazil is promoting itself as a leader of a new international diplomacy by flexing its negotiation muscles and by engaging with Iran and the Middle East. Russia is still sending rockets to the International Space Station and is arguably the closest of the BRICS to Europe. India is starting to move its weight in South East Asia and has belatedly broken free from its comfortable domestic engine room to engage with African nations and make its nuclear-backed voice heard. South Africa is aiming to make the continent it foots its own, at first through diplomacy (President Jacob Zuma recently met Colonel Gaddafi for talks), and later by possibly challenging China industrially.

There are many sticking points. China and India have a disputed border and Beijing is cross that Delhi lets the Dalai Lama use India as his base-in-exile. Diplomatically, Brazil and South Africa are making an impact on the world stage, while quietly letting China continue to invest in their ‘home’ regions. But while China powers on, Russia is stalling and South Africa relatively inexperienced as the baby of the club.

It is up to Brazil and India to move the BRICS on from a second-class talking-shop to the most important international alliance. An Argentine writing his doctorate on Argentina and Brazil’s economies recently told me that “Brazil is big, very big – too big in fact” and the same could be said for India. They are outgrowing their respective Latin American and sub-continental origins and it is time that they give China a rest from pace-setting. They are certainly all building themselves up quickly and strongly and the West ignores them at its peril.

Hotting up on the Equator

Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa but it has large, and questionable, ambitions.

Last week, this blog looked at the friendships and enmities between different Latin American countries and Colonel Gaddafi, (see ‘An Arab and his amigos‘– 05/04/11) but could help be on hand for Gaddafi from another Spanish-speaking source?

The tiny country of Equatorial Guinea sits snugly in the central western corner of Africa. The current head-of-state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, came to power after deposing his uncle in a coup and then sentencing him to death by firing squad.

Gaddafi also came to prominence after overthrowing the establishment and there certainly seem to be many similarities between Equatorial Guinea and Libya:

1) Longevity of leaders

Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been the president since 1979; Gaddafi since 1969.

2) Political parties

Although a couple of opposition parties have been officially ‘legalised’ in Equatorial Guinea, they have only won a handful of seats during Obiang’s three decades of power. Gaddafi has long proclaimed that he is just a revolutionary leader, not a president, and there has been no formal government, let alone functional opposition, in Libya during those 41 years in power.

3) Protest marches demanding social and political reform

Any attempt by Equatoguinean opposition movements (Popular Union, Convergence for Social Democracy, Progressive Democratic Alliance) to show their united condemnation of the repressive regime is stamped out quickly. All reporting of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is banned. All protests are quashed by the police. Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea and he went on a hunger strike in February calling for democratic and social reform and in protest at the corruption, malpractice and maltreatment of which he accuses President Obiang’s government. He had to flee to Spain soon after he started his fast. The current situation in Libya shows why leaders such as Obiang fear the consequences (civil war, foreign intervention) of mass demonstrations.

4) Oil

Equatorial Guinea has huge reserves and its wealth is rocketing, with a GDP far in excess of its neighbours, although it seems that the cash is simply heading straight into the government’s bank account. However, the situation is changing in Libya, where most of the oil is now in rebel-held land.

5) African Union

Obiang is the present Chair of the AU and has used his position to support the Gaddafi regime. Last month, Obiang praised what he called Gaddafi’s ‘readiness’ for ‘political reforms.’ He also ensured that the AU denounced ‘any form of foreign military intervention’ including a no-fly zone. Gaddafi was head of the AU in 2009-10.

As we have seen with Ivory Coast, (Jose dos Santos of Angola, another repressive, long-term president, sending aid to condemned Laurent Gbagbo), the strongmen club of Africa starts to worry when one of their own is in trouble and has no shame in letting it be known where their loyalties lie. Obiang is leader of the AU at the moment and cannot demonstrate worthy, multi-national leadership unless he shows a willingness to sort out his own, impoverished country first.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.