Why Take Asylum in Brazil?

I hear Panama is nice.

The president of Ecuador, who was voted out of office by the country’s congress last week, has fled to Brazil. Lucio Gutierrez escaped with his family from Quito on Sunday and will have asylum in Brazil for two years. Why did Brazil give Gutierrez shelter?

Brazil’s ambassador to Ecuador says the move doesn’t “represent a value judgment or any positive or negative sentiment” about the former president and that whisking him away simply conforms to diplomatic tradition. Latin American nations do have an unusually long history of granting formal political asylum to rulers on the run. Provisions for political refugees in the region have been laid out in a number of international treaties, going back to the Treaty of International Penal Law of Montevideo in 1889 and the Havana Convention on Political Asylum in 1928. In 1957, Brazil signed the Convention of Territorial Asylum, which gives it the right to admit political refugees without “giving rise to complaint by any other state.”

None of these treaties compels a nation to offer asylum, of course. Brazil happens to have granted asylum to Gutierrez, but any signatory country could have done the same. Brazil turns out to be a popular destination, though: Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner has been there since 1989, and former Paraguayan president Raul Cubas followed him 10 years later.

Panama may be even more hospitable than Brazil: Another former president of Ecuador, Abdala Bucaram, escaped to that country, as did Jorge Serrano Elías of Guatemala and Raoul Cedras of Haiti. Panama also offered asylum to Jean-Bertrande Aristide in 2004, but he refused.

So, why might Brazil have opened its doors to Gutierrez? Brazil has been involved in Ecuadorean politics for many years. A long-running border dispute between Peru and Ecuador was first resolved with the Rio Protocol of 1942, which made Brazil a chief mediator between the two. When the issue flared up again in the ‘90s, Brazil once again intervened.

The offer of asylum to Gutierrez may also be a part of Brazil’s continuing effort to represent itself as a major player in South American politics. Last year, the country joined Germany, Japan, and India in bids to get permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. Brazil also offered to lead the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti after last year’s armed rebellion.

Or it may be that Gutierrez has personal ties to Brazil. He is said to have friends in Rio de Janeiro and to own property in Mato Grosso. He may have also developed close relationships with Brazilian leadership in the course of the border negotiations with Peru.

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Explainer thanks Anthony Pereira of Tulane University, Phillip McLean of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and James Cavallaro of the Harvard Law School.