Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama appealed to rising democracies such as Brazil to help spread the democratic message globally, declaring that “we need your voices to speak out” and reminding them that “part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” Yet over the past several months, various major Western media organizations and other influential Western voices have strongly criticized Brazil’s reluctant stance on the deepening political crisis in neighboring Venezuela, where more than 30 people have been killed and more than 1,500 detained in a wave of angry protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro and a paralyzing standoff between the government and the main Venezuelan opposition parties.

An article in the Economist, for example, recently stated that “most of the region has been uncritical of Mr Maduro since the protests began in early February; Brazil, the regional heavyweight, has been characteristically mute.” The Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled “Venezuela Crackdown Meets Silence in Latin America,” reported that “Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff has stayed on the sidelines.” A New York Times article reported that Dilma Rousseff “has not commented on the crisis in Venezuela” and that “Brazil’s foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, has also sidestepped any Maduro critique.” The Times quoted Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, saying that “now it’s, ‘We’re focused on democracy in our own country, but if something happens with a neighbor we are not going to say anything.’”

Criticism has come not just from sources outside Brazil but from within Brazil as well. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote in early March that Brazil’s current government was acting with “incredible timidity” in the face of human rights abuses in Venezuela.

Bitter Polarization

The Venezuelan government’s response to the demonstrations has indeed been deeply problematic. As substantiated by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Venezuelan police, or in some case armed militia groups (known in Venezuela as colectivos), have detained, beaten, or robbed numerous reporters. According to the CPJ, “media blackouts, arrests and a campaign of harassment against dissenting voices has become a hallmark of this administration.” The United Nations and its secretary general have expressed concern about human rights violations in Venezuela and asked for the deaths to be investigated.

In late February, Twitter users in Venezuela periodically lost access to photos on the platform, and after that, San Cristobal, an opposition stronghold, reportedly lost Internet connectivity altogether. As quoted in the New York Times, an association of Spanish journalists denounced the “genuine information blackout” in Venezuela and said in a statement, “The freedom of the press is a fundamental right in democracies, which is why all efforts to cut it off are a grave setback.” The arrest of opposition figure Leopoldo López on trumped-up charges and the exclusion of opposition politician María Corina Machado from the Venezuelan congress for supposedly violating the constitution by addressing the Organization of American States at the invitation of Panama have further strengthened international criticism. Furthermore, two mayors have been sentenced to a year in jail for failing to remove road barricades put up by antigovernment activists.

Of course the political situation is far from a simple story of wrong against right. Some protesters have initiated violence and the opposition bears some responsibility for so many demonstrations turning violent. Yet clearly the government has reacted with undue harshness, is demonstrating some significant antidemocratic tendencies, and is not defining any productive path toward an end to the political standoff.

A Soft Line

Brazil has so far taken a noticeably soft, even passive line toward the current crisis. Rather than at least issuing statements pointing out that both the Venezuelan government and opposition share some of the blame, Brazil has co-issued three rather bland communiqués through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and Mercosur. The latter statement was particularly controversial among those hoping to see Brazil productively engaged, as it was generally interpreted as being soft on the Maduro government, characterizing protesters as antidemocratic forces.

In response, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo defended his country’s strategy, arguing in an interview with Folha de São Paulo that the Mercosur statement had been “misunderstood.” Yet when the reporter asked whether Mercosur leaders had tried to send a message to President Maduro, the foreign minister replied that “Maduro did not need a message”—hardly a sign that Brazil was eager to try to exert some positive influence on the Venezuelan government.

It would be wrong, however, to argue that Brazil’s passive rhetoric so far vis-à-vis the Venezuelan crisis is proof that it does not care about defending democracy in the region. Quite the contrary: over the past decade, helping consolidate democracy in the region has become one of Brazil’s principal foreign policy goals. Starting during Cardoso’s presidency (1995–2002), Brazil has often assertively engaged in political events in the region, diplomatically intervening when political crises have threatened democracy. Partly to strengthen regional institutions and partly out of fear of being seen as a bully, Brazil usually acts through Mercosur and UNASUR—a strategy that, while correct in principle, at times leads to less agile actions than acting bilaterally might. In addition, Brazil has been more concerned about constitutional crises and the possibility of an undemocratic removal of any presidents in the region than about what some Brazilian officials consider to be “procedural aspects” of democracy, such as free speech.

An important test of regional leadership is whether Brazil can help bring the government and the opposition in Venezuela to the table to overcome the current standoff. A negotiated settlement must oblige the government to disband the armed militia groups, release all those imprisoned for peacefully taking part in street protests, end restrictions on both the printed media and social media, and allow greater space for political activity generally. In return, the opposition must give up any aspirations of ousting President Maduro outside the normal electoral channels, and commit to curbing violence in protests.

In April 2002, President Cardoso was active in behind-the-scenes negotiations to return the then Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, to power in the forty-eight hours after he was deposed by a coup d’état. The incoming government led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva kept working with all sides to assure continued political stability. While today’s crisis in Venezuela is different, Brazil will yet again have to engage and assume regional leadership, whether through UNASUR and Mercosur, or bilaterally. With trust largely eroded between the government and the opposition, it seems increasingly unlikely that Venezuela can solve the crisis on its own. A credible outside arbiter is needed.

Why Brazil Holds Back

In contrast to the Venezuelan crisis of 2002 and 2003, when Brazilian Presidents Cardoso and Lula were able to positively influence the internal dynamics in Venezuela, Brazil today is a far less credible mediator than it was a decade ago.

Back in 2003, Lula insisted on including the United States and Spain in the group “Friends of Venezuela,” which helped bring the government and the opposition together. Lula’s move proved crucial as it convinced the opposition to seriously engage in the debates. Lula may have been a left-wing president, but he was still seen as a legitimate and relatively impartial mediator. Both he and Brazil have since then lost this status, principally in the eyes of the Venezuelan opposition. After Chavez’s death, Lula—still one of the most powerful political actors in Brazil and highly influential with the current administration—actively supported Nicolás Maduro’s campaign, a move that firmly placed Brazil in the chavista camp.

While one should be careful not to exaggerate the importance of ideology when explaining Brazilian foreign policy, it is certainly true that the strong affinity with chavismo of leading Brazilian foreign policy makers, such as presidential adviser Marco Aurélio Garcia, has played an important role.

Yet economic interests are likely even more important in shaping Brazil’s thinking and action. Large Brazilian construction firms have projects in many parts of Caracas. While many other foreign firms have been expropriated or castigated by the Venezuelan government, Brazilian investors have received preferential treatment—though now an increasing number of payments are being severely delayed to Brazilian investors as well. According to Valor Economico, a Brazilian business daily, Venezuelan public sector companies now owe Brazilian companies $2.5 billion. If political tension and conflict increases still further in Venezuela, Brazilian business interests would be increasingly in danger from the spillover economic problems. Accordingly, a growing number of private sector representatives have attempted to put pressure on Dilma Rousseff to take a clearer stand.

Yet the Brazilian president’s centralizing leadership style and limited interest in foreign policy—especially as she is preparing for the upcoming presidential election—have turned Brazil into a far more hesitant and less visible international actor than was the case under Cardoso or Lula. A growing number of critics point out that in addition to failing to develop Brazil’s regional vision further, Rousseff’s foreign policy is characterized by a lack of participation and overall diplomatic retreat, in sharp contrast to Lula’s highly active, albeit sometimes controversial, foreign policy. While Presidents Cardoso and Lula provided their foreign ministers with ample room for maneuver (a writer in Foreign Policy once wondered whether Celso Amorim, Lula’s foreign minister, was “the world’s best”), both foreign ministers under Rousseff have faced strong internal restraints.

The Latest Developments

In late March the UNASUR foreign ministers issued a statement calling for peace and respect for human rights in Venezuela, urging “all political forces” to engage in dialogue and thus supporting the government somewhat less than in previous statements. Such nuances may be noted by the two sides involved, but it is unclear how much they help turn UNASUR into a legitimate mediator. Establishing such legitimacy is a crucial test for this regional organization—after all, its creation rests on the claim that South American nations, as compared with all nations of the Western Hemisphere operating through the Organization of American States, are able to successfully protect and defend democratic order in South America.

Whether UNASUR will be able to reduce tensions and start a constructive dialogue between the opposition and the government is yet unclear. Representatives from the UNASUR group obtained a commitment from President Maduro to accept a mediator, possibly from the Vatican, to coordinate talks with the opposition. The key question, of course, is how far UNASAR members are willing and able to exert pressure on both sides to engage in a serious dialogue.

Considering how polarized Venezuela is, the road to compromise and reconciliation is certain to be long and difficult. President Maduro feels cornered and routinely describes even the moderate opposition as “fascists.” Jailed opposition candidates may never come to trust the government again. This is particularly the case for the more radical wing of the opposition that has openly vowed to remove Maduro from power before the next election.

UNASUR’s attempt to mediate in the Venezuelan conflict is a multilateral undertaking and an interesting experiment to determine the degree to which the continent is capable of solving its own problems. Yet given that the United States is largely staying out of the discussion, Brazil is by far the most important actor, and thus the best placed, at least theoretically, to assume leadership. If things go wrong, it will be the Brazilian government—not UNASUR—that will, rightly so, be blamed for failing to defend democracy in the region.

An earlier version of this article was published on March 31, 2014 on the blog Post-Western World.

Oliver Stuenkel is an assistant professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo and a member of the Carnegie Rising Democracies Network.

The Carnegie Endowment gratefully acknowledges the support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development for the Carnegie Rising Democracies Network. The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed herein.