Subimperialism and multipolarity: Brazil’s dilemma

A look at sub-imperialism and multipolarity in Brazil historically and into the future.

In the Open Veins of Latin America Eduardo Galeano described an 1870 genocidal war of regime change waged on Paraguay by a Triple Alliance of its neighbors, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, on behalf of British imperialism. The target, nationalist president Solano Lopez, died in battle. The country lost 56,000 square miles of territory. Paraguay’s population was reduced by 83.3 percent.

By the end, Galeano wrote: “Brazil had performed the role the British had assigned it.” Before the intervention, “Paraguay had telegraphs, a railroad, and numerous factories manufacturing construction materials, textiles, linens, ponchos, paper and ink, crockery, and gunpowder… the Ibycui foundry made guns, mortars, and ammunition of all calibers… the steel industry… belonged to the state. The country had a merchant fleet… the state virtually monopolized foreign trade; it supplied yerba mate and tobacco to the southern part of the continent and exported valuable woods to Europe… With a strong and stable currency, Paraguay was wealthy enough to carry out great public works without recourse to foreign capital… Irrigation works, dams and canals, and new bridges and roads substantially helped to raise agricultural production. The native tradition of two crops a year, abandoned by the conquistadors, was revived.”

After the war: “it was not only the population and great chunks of territory that disappeared, but customs tariffs, foundries, rivers closed to free trade, and economic independence… Everything was looted and everything was sold: lands and forests, mines, yerba mate farms, school buildings.”

Summarizing all this, Galeano wrote: “Paraguay has the double burden of imperialism and subimperialism.”

“Subimperialism,” Galeano continued, “has a thousand faces.” Paraguayan soldiers joined an intervention against the Dominican Republic in 1965, under the command of a Brazilian general, Panasco Alvim. Paraguay “gave Brazil an oil concession on its territory, but the fuel distribution and petrochemical business [was] in U.S. hands.” The U.S. also controlled the university, the army, and the black market as well, of which Galeano wrote: “Through open contraband channels, Brazilian industrial products invade the Paraguayan market, but the Sao Paulo factories that produce them have belonged to U.S. corporations since the denationalizing avalanche of recent years.”

Elaborating on Brazil’s sub-imperial function since 1964, Galeano wrote: “A very influential military clique pictures the country as the great administrator of U.S. interests in the region, and calls on Brazil to become the same sort of boss over the south as the [U.S.] is over Brazil itself.”

Ruy Mauro Marini Analyzes the Phenomenon

It is perhaps no coincidence that the leading scholarly authority on sub-imperialism is the Brazilian scholar Ruy Mauro Marini. Mauro’s 1977 article was published shortly after Galeano’s book. To understand “global capitalist accumulation and subimperialism” some background on the theory of imperialism set out by Lenin is in order, and more recent books like Zak Cope’s The Wealth of Some Nations and Patnaik and Patnaik’s A Theory of Imperialism teach the theory eloquently.

The key concepts are unequal exchange and value transfer, magical processes through which the wealthy countries exchange smaller amounts of labor for larger amounts of labor from the poor countries. The mechanisms are many: patent regimes, Western corporate control of Global South resources, denomination of oil and other commodities in U.S. dollars, IMF and Western-bank loan terms and draconian rescue packages, Western arms sales and military training programs—all backed up by the threat of sanctions, coups, invasions, and “color revolutions,” which happen frequently enough to remind Global South governments to stay in line.

In Imperialism, Lenin described the pressure on wealthy countries to “go imperialist:” winners in the Western domestic market invariably consolidate and tend towards monopoly; these winners are invariably coordinated increasingly through banks and financial interests; throwing new investments in to a mature market brings lower returns than they can get in newly opened ones, so the financiers seek colonies to get high returns on their growing piles of capital; the colonies also address their interests in labor and raw materials that are cheap (or ideally, free, through theft).

Mauro shows how this dynamic can lead to sub-imperialism if the context is right. Sub-imperialism, he writes, is “the form assumed by the dependent economy when it reaches the stage of monopoly and finance capital,” and it has two basic components.

The first is a “relatively autonomous” expansionist policy that functions under the overall umbrella of U.S. hegemony.

The second is what Mauro calls a “medium” organic composition of capital. To explain this concept an example comparison will suffice: an economy with a high organic composition of capital is one where workers use advanced, costly machinery that itself required a lot of labor to produce (the word “composition” refers to how much so-called “dead labor” went into the machines on which the “living labor” is now laboring). These are the workers in the vacuum labs making nanometre-precise computing chips. An economy with a low organic composition of capital is one where workers labor with their hands or simple tools, cutting sugar cane with machetes as day laborers. Their work is called “unskilled” and their wages are proportionately lower.

In 1977, Mauro argued that in Latin America, only Brazil had both the medium organic composition and the relatively autonomous expansionist policy. But what about today? And what about in other regions?

Generalizing the Concept

Are there sub-imperialists in South Asia? Pakistan exercises its ambitions in Afghanistan under U.S. hegemony. Imran Khan was overthrown in a coup for withdrawing support for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan; his successors have worked hard to prove their subordination to the hegemon. India meddles in the affairs of its small neighbors like Bhutanand does so under U.S. hegemony; Western corporations certainly have an immense footprint in both India and Pakistan.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Turkey qualify as sub-imperialists though both showcase how each sub-imperialist is a special case. In Africa, South Africa has been analyzed as a sub-imperialist and tiny Rwanda could well qualify as a Central African version.

Who doesn’t fit? None of the U.S. Five Eyes partners (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or UK) nor Japan, nor Israel, since all are high-income countries with higher than “medium” organic composition of capital.

Nor do China, Russia, or Iran fit the sub-imperialist mold. They may exercise hegemony—or contest it—in their regions, but they do not do so under the umbrella of U.S. hegemony.

This brings us back to Brazil and to the changes in the world since the writings of Mauro and Galeano on sub-imperialism.

Sub-Imperialism and Multipolarity

Until very recently, unilateral U.S. hegemony was the basic fact of world affairs.

No one could contest the U.S. invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq, or Haiti or its destruction of Yugoslavia and Libya. But Russia and Iran did contest the U.S. plan to dismantle Syria in 2015.

When Yemen voted against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990, they were told that it was “the most expensive vote they ever cast” and punished economically. But by 2022 many countries remained neutral in the Russia-Ukraine War despite Western demands that they support Ukraine. India and China ignored Western demands that they refuse to buy Russian energy, expanding a series of options for trading commodities in currencies other than the U.S. dollar. African countries need not beg Western commercial banks for development finance: they can examine Western offers side-by-side with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. In 2023, China brokered a peace deal that restored relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These developments reveal a historical change from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. The world has been under unipolar Anglo-American hegemony since the 1750s. There were world empires prior to that (notably the Spanish and Portuguese) but China and India each had around 25 percent of the world economy even at that time; a few centuries earlier, before the devastation of the Americas, the world was even more multipolar, if much less globalized.

If we are indeed moving away from the unipolar historical pattern, current sub-imperialists have some re-thinking to do: the U.S. umbrella is not what it once was.

Sub-Imperialism or Multipolarity? Which Way for Brazil?

With Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) back in the president’s office in Brazil as of 2023, the country faced this precise dilemma. In his previous tenure, Lula acted as both a multipolarist and a sub-imperialist. An early proponent of multipolarity (before the moment had even arrived) through his advocacy of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and of Latin American integration, Lula’s Brazil played the sub-imperial role as well, leading the morally compromised and disastrous UN mission to take over the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Some of the military officers who led the Haiti occupation helped overthrow Lula’s party in the coup that led to his jailing and eventually to Bolsonaro’s destructive presidency.

Bolsonaro was certainly, symbolically sub-imperialist: he saluted the U.S. flag and marched under the Israeli one. But most of his time in office was characterized by a disastrous COVID-19 response, genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples, and a general incoherence on foreign policy. Bolsonaro participated in a regime change stunt in Venezuela but tried to stay out of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Lula returned to office in a context of weaker domestic left-wing movements but a stronger multipolar context. Lula’s Brazil voted with the West in the condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but Brazil was told by Russian diplomats that Russia understood the vote.

There are economic considerations beyond the organic composition of capital that can drive Global South leaders back into the criminal arms of the U.S.—dependence on natural resource exports and foodgrain imports are tendencies that are difficult to reverse, especially in democracies like Brazil that are vulnerable to coups or regression when the right-wing returns to power.

Perhaps Brazil will be the vanguard of multipolarity in the Americas, or the sub-imperialist agent undermining BRICS from the inside. The changing world includes possibilities never contemplated by Galeano, Mauro, or Lenin.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

AER 118: Emergency broadcast on the Attempted Coup in Brazil!

The (failed) Jan 8 coup attempt in Brazil – an emergency broadcast

It’s just me on this emergency broadcast in the spirit of “do a coup, get a pod”. Angry opponents of the Lula’s newly elected government in Brazil (with some security forces help) stormed government buildings on January 8 claiming fraud. Lula’s government survived and is now taking measures against future coups. These are being called authoritarian. But Lula’s been overthrown (and been a political prisoner) before – very recently, in fact. I go over the last time Lula was in power, read Pepe Escobar’s interesting article about the coup, and refer some other good sources to follow like Jones Manoel and Brian Mier’s Brasil Wire – not to mention the Anti-Empire Project’s Special Correspondent for Brazil who I’ve interviewed twice, Diana Aguiar.

AER 115: Lula’s back! Will there be another coup?

Lula’s come back

On October 30, Lula was elected to the presidency after surviving a political persecution that threw him behind bars and kept him from running in 2018, paving the way for Bolsonaro’s disastrous term. Brazilian scholar-activist Diana Aguiar is back to answer questions like: is Lula’s government coup-proof? What will he be able to do in power? What will the right-wing do out of power? What happens in the region and what’s Brazil’s role in the world going to be in the next four years?

Brazil and Haiti

For those of you who will watch the Bush address tonight, I wish you well on the masochistic enterprise. I am capable of reading the texts after the fact, but mental health preservation precludes me spending too much time watching these people on television.

Other things to report. The Brazilian commander of the UN ‘peacekeeping mission’ in Haiti that is to take over the occupation of that country soon was interviewed for Correio Brazilense and the interview was translated into english. It is interesting, and quite sad, to hear a Brazilian answering a question like this:

[Lefcovich] Isn’t Brazil legitimizing US intervention and the ousting of [former Haitian] President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ?

like this:

[De Oliveira] No. That is a biased interpretation. As far as the United Nations and participants in the Minustah [United Nations Multi-Dimensional Stabilization Mission in Haiti] are concerned, Aristide tendered his resignation. I agree that there were some doubts concerning this matter at one point, but an Itamaraty [Brazilian Foreign Ministry] delegation has toured several Caribbean countries and ascertained that they endorse Brazil’s participation in this UN force. Furthermore, the current situation in Haiti is more stable than at the time of Aristide’s resignation. Schools, hotels and banks are operating normally. Life is returning to normal for the Haitian people.

This is a real shame. One might have hoped that Brazil, a country that has suffered a US coup (in 1964) and knows what US intervention is like, a country with a left regime in power, would have done a better job of standing up for the sovereignty and the will of the people of a Latin American country. That Colombia’s regime and the Venezuelan elite are willing to shoot themselves in the head to do the US’s bidding is no surprise; that Brazilian agents of the state are repeating US lies in public fora and sending troops to ratify occupation is tragic. So long as the US can get third world countries to occupy one another, there’s very little hope against imperialism.

The entire interview is below.

BBC Monitoring: Commander of Brazilian peacekeeping contingent views mission challenges in Haiti.

Text of “exclusive” interview with Brig-Gen Americo Salvador de Oliveira, commander of the Brazilian peacekeeping contingent in Haiti, by Sandra Lefcovich at Army General Headquarters : “The challenge will be to disarm Haitians”, published by Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense web site on 21 May.

Brigadier General Americo Salvador de Oliveira, 56, has been working very hard to cover every detail of his upcoming mission as commander of the Brazilian peacekeeping contingent in Haiti.

De Oliveira joined the army 37 years ago and this will be his first assignment with a UN peacekeeping force. He has served as commander of the Officers’ Training School in Rio de Janeiro, and as military attache in Germany for two years. “I feel nothing but pride. It is a stimulating challenge and a unique experience,” the general told Correio during an exclusive interview at Army General Headquarters. As part of his preparations for the mission he has had seven vaccinations so far.

[Lefcovich] US military personnel are not exactly welcome abroad. Do you believe that Brazilian military personnel are regarded in a different light, even though they are also foreigners ? [De Oliveira] Our reconnaissance group deployed to Haiti in March this year has ascertained that relations could hardly be better. The Haitian people like Brazilians very much. There was a two-day holiday in Haiti after Brazil won the latest World Cup. They admire our Ronaldinho and other soccer players.

[Lefcovich] How is security nowadays ? [De Oliveira] According to the information we have, the situation is currently stable. The various groups have drawn back and are not resorting to violence.

[Lefcovich] What will be the scope of action of the Brazilian contingent ? [De Oliveira] We will not engage in drug enforcement operations. One of our missions will be to disarm groups that espouse political ideologies and the actions we take will depend on the situation, because in Haiti there are many weapons in the hands of the people and no-one will hand them over willingly. The United Nations is developing a disarmament strategy.

[Lefcovich] Are you saying that drug enforcement will be left in the hands of the police ? [De Oliveira] Yes. The situation in Haiti is similar to that of our country. Drug enforcement will be left to the police. The United Nations has asked for 6,700 military personnel and 1,622 policemen. We must emphasize this point so as to avoid the misconception that armed forces personnel are being sent abroad to fight organized crime and drug trafficking in Haiti instead of Rio de Janeiro, right ? These are two separate issues.

[Lefcovich] Why is the mission in Haiti important for the army ? [De Oliveira] Our mission is to participate, together with other countries, in a multinational UN force that will ensure stability in Haiti, which is what the temporary force deployed there has been doing to date. This stability will help reestablish the democratic process with a view to elections as of 2005. Hence, our status in Haiti will be that of a friendly, impartial, non-hostile force deployed within the framework of the United Nations.

[Lefcovich] Isn’t Brazil legitimizing US intervention and the ousting of [former Haitian] President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ? [De Oliveira] No. That is a biased interpretation. As far as the United Nations and participants in the Minustah [United Nations Multi-Dimensional Stabilization Mission in Haiti] are concerned, Aristide tendered his resignation. I agree that there were some doubts concerning this matter at one point, but an Itamaraty [Brazilian Foreign Ministry] delegation has toured several Caribbean countries and ascertained that they endorse Brazil’s participation in this UN force. Furthermore, the current situation in Haiti is more stable than at the time of Aristide’s resignation. Schools, hotels and banks are operating normally. Life is returning to normal for the Haitian people.

[Lefcovich] Do the armed force have the necessary resources for this mission ? [De Oliveira] Yes. The required materiel must comply with UN standards and we are acquiring whatever was lacking.

[Lefcovich] What about salary cutbacks ? [De Oliveira] Well, that is not a source of concern, our personnel are all volunteers ; they would go no matter what. Military personnel will earn more because whatever they make will be in addition to their domestic salaries.

[Lefcovich] Is the army concerned about the fact that money is being spent on peacekeeping missions despite funding shortages to pay the salaries of military personnel ? [De Oliveira] The army is not concerned because we are doing what the armed forces are supposed to do. We do worry when police forces fail to do their job and we are called upon to carry out missions that are not within the purview of the military. We are not trained to fight organized crime.

[Lefcovich] That would be the case in Rio de Janeiro. [De Oliveira] The army has never refused to help out, but one must go about it the right way. We are tasked with upholding law and order, but all other means must be exhausted for us to step in.

[Lefcovich] You are saying that your job in Haiti would be different from that in Rio de Janeiro ? [De Oliveira] We are going to Haiti not as policemen, but as the Brazilian Armed Forces contingent within the framework of a multinational peacekeeping mission.

[Lefcovich] Are soldiers forbidden from making contact with Haitian women ? [De Oliveira] It is not forbidden, but it is not recommended. Haiti has the highest rate of AIDS cases in the Americas, second only to Africa. Condoms will be distributed.

[Lefcovich] Will the fact that Brazilian soldiers do not speak the language – which was not the case in Angola – be a problem ? [De Oliveira] We are taking steps to deal with it. We are taking with us 10 French interpreters to deal with government officials, but the population speaks Creole. We are compiling a French-Creole-Portuguese dictionary for the troops. Given our people’s ability to adapt themselves, however, I believe our troops will come back speaking Creole.

Source : Correio Braziliense web site, Brasilia, in Portuguese 21 May 04

Brazil and the NYT

When the US decided it was going to add a little extra humiliation for foreigners to the process of traveling through that country (which multinational transportation networks, especially in the Americas, have made difficult to avoid) by fingerprinting and scanning them, Brazil decided to do the same to US visitors of Brazil. This was greeted with gasps all over the world. The temerity! Galeano wrote about it, eloquently as usual:

“Many condemned this normal act as an expression of perilous insanity. Perhaps, if the world were not so misconditioned, things would be seen in another light. At bottom, what was abnormal was not what the Brazilian president Lula did but the fact that he was the only one to do so. What was abnormal was that everyone else simply accepted the conditions that Bush imposed on the rest of the world with the exception of a privileged few that were held beyond suspicion of terrorism and evil-doing.”

Well, President Lula has done it again. This time, Larry Rohter, the NYT bureau chief, accused Lula of being a drunk. His visa was cancelled.

Unlike the fingerprinting at airports, there are legitimate reasons why Lula ought not to have done this. But the private media, especially the US media, in Latin America, especially in Venezuela but also in Brazil, are instruments of destabilization. Perhaps the media and governments should consider a negotiated solution: the media will stop lying and participating in foreign attempts to overthrow democratic regimes; those regimes will stop doing things like these.

The truth is, this is the only incident of its kind I’ve heard about — for the most part, governments are fulfilling their end of the bargain. Reuters story below.

By Axel Bugge
BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has run into fierce criticism at home and abroad over his decision to expel a New York Times correspondent who wrote about his heavy drinking, with one critic calling him a “dictator of a third-rate republic.”

It will be the first time a foreign journalist has been thrown out of Brazil since the end of a 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The nation’s military rulers even jailed Lula, a former militant unionist who made his name standing up for the oppressed.

The government defended its move to cancel the visa of Larry Rohter, New York Times bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro. It said the article, which ran on Sunday, offended his honour.

The government said there was no chance it would reverse the expulsion.

“The Brazilian government is not going to retreat on this issue,” Lula’s spokesman told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s our responsibility to defend Brazil.”

Many Brazilians thought the story itself unfair. But the government’s reaction was slammed by Brazil’s opposition, human rights groups and media watchdogs, who called it an attack on press freedom.

“This was absurd, an immature decision by a dictator of a third-rate republic who does not understand the role of government,” said Sen. Tasso Jereissati of the centre-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party opposition.

The furore follows other spats between Brazil and the United States over trade policy and fingerprinting at airports.

It is also another distraction for the Lula government, which has just emerged from a corruption scandal and is struggling to get Brazil’s economy back on track and make good on its electoral promises of broad social reforms.

Two former presidents backed the expulsion. But Lula’s predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso did not, saying there were misinformed articles all the time but “I never thought of taking reprisals against a journalist.”


Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the issue was not about press freedom. The article “was intended to diminish the figure and dimension of the president.”

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that the expulsion could “do irreparable damage to freedom of expression in the country.” And U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the decision was “not in keeping with Brazil’s strong commitment to freedom of the press.”

New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said there was no basis for Rohter’s expulsion and the paper “would take appropriate action to defend his rights.”

The government’s move gives Rohter, a veteran Latin American correspondent, eight days to leave Brazil once police inform him he has lost his visa. He is now travelling outside Brazil.

The reaction prompted some to question if Lula overreacted.

“What was wrong with the story was that it said Lula’s drinking was a national worry, which is wrong, but the government’s response has become a national question,” said analyst Carlos Lopes.

Lula, who took office in January 2003, is known to enjoy a drink or two and Brazil has a generally relaxed attitude toward alcohol.

Lula’s personal doctor of ten years told Reuters the president did not have a drinking problem.

“I never noticed alcohol abuse,” cardiologist Roberto Kalil said in a phone interview. “He’s a normal, healthy person.”