A short news item in Brazil's news magazine Veja this week suggested that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is considering running for United Nations secretary general after he leaves office at the end of this year. If true, that would explain a lot of things.
Until now, the conventional wisdom was that Brazil's recent foreign policy of open support to the world's most ruthless dictatorships is tied to the country's emergence as a new power in the world economy, and its desire to flex its muscle as a new -- and fiercely independent -- player in international affairs.
That's probably true. But the Veja report -- stating that Lula "has been sounded out by more than one person to be a candidate for U.N. Secretary General in 2011" -- is adding a new element to the puzzle of what's behind Brazil's foreign policy. The Brazilian government says it will not comment on the magazine's report.
Diego Arria, a former chairman of the U.N. Security Council, told me that "Lula would be a very strong candidate because of Brazil's weight as an increasingly independent power, and because of his international prestige." He added that Lula may be catering to an anti-U.S. climate at the United Nations "to position himself as a strong candidate for Secretary General."
In recent days, Lula has made some shocking statements that are hard to understand coming from a former union leader who opposed military dictatorships. In an interview with The Associated Press, he compared Cuba's peaceful oppositionists who are waging hunger strikes with "bandits."
Lula, who recently visited Cuba and posed smiling with that country's military dictator Gen. Raúl Castro shortly after political prisoner Orlando Zapata died from a hunger strike, said that hunger strikes should not be used "as a pretext" to defend human rights. Lula added, "Imagine if all bandits who are imprisoned in Sao Paulo went on a hunger strike and demanded freedom."
Days earlier, Lula had reiterated his decision to visit Iran in May, despite international efforts to impose sanctions on that country amid growing evidence that its regime is building nuclear weapons in defiance of international rules.
Lula gave Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a much-needed propaganda boost late last year, when he gave him a red-carpet welcome in Brasília only months after the Iranian autocrat had proclaimed himself winner of highly controversial elections in Iran.
In addition, Brazil is increasingly using its vote at the United Nations "to protect countries with appalling human rights records," such as North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka, according to a report by Human Rights Watch last year.
Does Lula have a chance of becoming U.N. Secretary General? Most diplomats say current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean diplomat whose term expires Dec. 31, 2011, is expected to run for reelection. Most of the recent U.N. chiefs serve two consecutive terms.
"Lula's name would be an honor to Latin America, but it's a tradition for Secretary Generals to run for reelection, and I don't see a reason why Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would not go for a second term," Chile's U.N. Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz told me.
Others noted that, if for some reason Ban decided not to run, Asian countries may want to have one of their own diplomats at the job for another five years, in keeping with the tradition that each region gets a two-term mandate. And many point out that Lula doesn't speak English or French, a major obstacle for a candidate to the top U.N. job.
My Opinion: Most likely, Ban will get a second term, even if many countries would want a higher-profile U.N. chief. Lula is more likely to be offered the job of head of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, whose current director Jacques Diouf of Senegal has been on the job since 1994 and is on his way out.
Lula would be a perfect candidate for that position because of his successful "Fome Zero" anti-hunger program in Brazil and the international recognition it has given him. In addition, the FAO has never had a Latin American chief.
Granted, Lula may find that job too small, but -- considering his awful human rights stands -- it would be the perfect place for him.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.