In any case, Carter’s gesture was sufficiently bold that it reverberated in Brazil for years afterward. The military regime no longer enjoyed unconditional support from Washington – a fact that was not lost on the generals, or the opposition. Thanks to the hard work of committed activists and pressure from the Brazilian people, the military finally yielded power in 1985.
The trip carried a cost for Carter himself, however. During the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, allies of Ronald Reagan accused Carter of taking relations with Brazil and other authoritarian governments to a low point in the name of human rights. Carter stood by his principles, as always. He lost his bid for reelection. Yet you could say that America’s loss was our gain. Carter’s good works in the region – and the world – were only beginning.From what I understand, Democrats in the US Congress pushed a more human rights-oriented foreign policy in the early and mid-1970s. However, their concerns fell on deaf ears during the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. With the election of a president interested in promoting human rights as a cornerstone of US foreign policy, Congress had found their partner, their leader.
Carter required his ambassador's to report on human rights conditions in their countries to which they had been posted and he and the Congress worked to condition US military assistance to various Latin American governments on their ability to take human rights seriously. The US cut off military assistance (to a certain extent) to a number of governments while others, like Guatemala, declined US military aid instead of promoting human rights. They did not appreciate the conditions upon which further US military assistance would be delivered. In Guatemala's case, their government's decision was also tied up in the fact that they did not believe that they had much to learn from the US in order to fight their counterinsurgency - the US had just lost wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Nicaragua's Somoza had no interest in improving his country's human rights record which led the US to cut back on support for him and to look for an alternative. The Sandinistas were not exactly the alternative that Carter was looking for but he was willing to risk their coming to power rather than double-down support for Somoza. Carter even invited Daniel Ortega to the White House.
Carter and his policies were not perfect. Carter suspended US military aid to El Salvador following the murders of four US Churchwomen in December 1980, after he had already lost the election. However, weeks later, he reinstated that aid even though the Salvadoran government had demonstrated no serious effort to investigate or punish those involved. He feared, at least politically, losing another country - El Salvador - to anti-American forces. 1979 was a rough year for US short-term policy with revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter had also paid a price politically in the US by negotiating the return of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians.
While Cardoso reflects upon Carter's legacy in Brazil, I always loved this quote from neighboring Argentina. Carlos Memen, elected president in 1989, was a prisoner during the dirty war. In Exiting the Whirlpool, he is quoted as saying:
"I was in jail when Reagan won, and those who held me captive jumped for joy."Hard as it is to believe, Congressional Democrats and Carter made it extremely difficult for Reagan to reverse human rights as a cornerstone of US policy towards Latin America (one of many cornerstones if that makes any sense). Reagan was clearly able to increase support to authoritarian governments throughout the region but not as much as he wanted to. The moral and tactical failures of Reagan's policies and developments on the ground in Latin America would then lead Reagan to lukewarmly embrace democracy promotion as a key element of US policy (at least when he thought it convenient).