Helio Ramos holds the post of Ambassador of Brazil to Italy, Malta and San Marino since September 2019. From 2016 to 2019, he was the Special Advisor to the President of the Chamber of Deputies. He was Consul General in Miami (2011-2016), Minister Counsellor at the Embassy in Lisbon and Alternate Representative to the Community of Portuguese Language Countries – CPLP (2004-2006). Over the course of his diplomatic career, he worked in Washington (1995-1999), Lima (1990-1991) and Rome (1985-1988), as well as Executive Secretary and ad interim State Minister of Mines and Energy (1999-2001) back in Brasilia.

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The interview

InvestorVisa: How could you sum up the current status of political and diplomatic relations between Rome and Brasilia?

Ramos: Relations between Brazil and Italy are traditionally positive. They have been built on shared history and on cultural and human bonds developed through time. Besides our common values, we have a solid economic and trade relationship and significant potential to further our cooperation in other areas such as the defence sector. Our Strategic Partnership provides us with a framework to follow and develop our bilateral, regional and multilateral collaboration on these and many other topics.

The Embassy can count on the support of SECOMs, the trade promotion agencies in Italy. Could you give a rough estimate of their contribution to the development of trade relations with foreign partners?

The Trade Promotion Sectors (SECOMs) of Brazilian embassies and consulates provide a wide range of services to assist Brazilian companies. Through their networking efforts, they facilitate the organisation of meetings with foreign parties, both public and private. They usually help in arranging Brazilian participation in international trade fairs, where they handle procedures involving institutional stands, from their allocation to their use. They often organise trade promotion events to advertise Brazil, its products and its companies. SECOMs can extend their assistance to foreign companies seeking to buy Brazilian products or invest in Brazil.

How have economic relations between Italy and Brazil been in recent years? Have the two states recognised that robust economic diplomacy could be mutually beneficial and help strengthen their relationship?

Brazil and Italy possess valuable channels to promote talks on economic issues, such as the Council for Economic, Industrial, Financial Cooperation and Development; and the Joint Commission for Science and Technology. We also intend to proceed with the structuring of the Dialogue between our Defence Industries. In spite of the restrictions imposed by the health crisis, particularly with regard to face-to-face meetings, economic diplomacy held the course, finding other ways to operate. Videoconference meetings, seminars and trade promotion events have become part of the new routine.
Italians are among Brazil’s main trading partners. In 2020, bilateral trade flows amounted to USD 6.5 billion. Italy was Brazil’s 12th trading partner worldwide and 4th in Europe. The pandemic had a powerful negative impact on international trade as a whole. However, we can say that commerce with Italy experienced the second smallest reduction among all of Brazil’s European main partners. I cannot think of a better testament to the solidity of trade between Italy and Brazil, even when faced with the greatest crisis of our time.
Italian investing in Brazilian companies also contribute to reinforcing the perception of how important the economic relationship between the two countries is. In 2019, Italian direct investment in Brazil, by shareholding, amounted to USD 17.4 billion, an amount that placed Italy as the twelfth largest source of foreign investment in Brazil. Italian companies hold shares in strategic sectors such as infrastructure, electricity production and distribution, telecommunications and the automotive industry. In 2020, despite the crisis, some of the largest Italian companies announced their expansion plans in Brazil, with investments worth more than EUR 6 billion reaching up until 2023.

Unfortunately, Brazil is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic. Did the health crisis affect Brazil economic system or its ability to work with its main international partners?

Despite the limited vaccine supply worldwide, the immunisation campaign in Brazil has started, and its results are palpable among those who already received their dose. Our diplomatic network supported, when needed, the government’s efforts to secure the necessary supplies for the Brazilian health system.
Data indicate that the economic recovery is already underway. In the first quarter of 2021, Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 1.2% over the previous three-month period. Compared to the same quarter of 2020, it grew by 1%. At current values, GDP reached BRL 2.048 trillion. This figure means that the economy is back to the same level reached in the fourth quarter of 2019. Brazil’s economic outlook, as anticipated by the Central Bank’s “Boletim Focus”, improved: GDP growth is expected to be around 5% in 2021. Trade with our main economic partners has played an essential role in this recovery process.

Has Brazil developed a long-term strategy for its relationship with foreign markets? Is Italy regarded as a potential partner, also taking into account the chance of a higher degree of integration with the entire European market?

Finalizing the Mercosur-European Union Trade Agreement is a priority. The deal will give birth to one of the largest free trade areas in the world, involving almost a quarter of the global economy and a market of over 700 million consumers. According to our projections, Italy will be one of the countries that will benefit the most from it, especially in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Mercosur is willing to acknowledge 350 European geographical indications. Fifty-seven will be Italian ones, including cheeses, oil, cured meats, wines and other excellences of Italian agriculture.
It is worth noting that the cultural and historical ties that unite Italy and Mercosur countries give it a privileged status among other European countries. This kinship also influences companies’ choices of suppliers, business partners and new investment markets.

Do you think that Embassies and the diplomatic network as a whole can play a more prominent role in the future as far as economic diplomacy goes? If so, how?

Understanding local peculiarities is of great value when dealing with the process of internationalisation of companies. We know that the Internet has facilitated the exchange of information, but a few selected types of knowledge can be privy only to those working in close contact with locals in their country. Being in a privileged position to know each country’s reality is just one of the advantages of having an efficient diplomatic network. Diplomatic agents working in the field can build an extensive network of contacts, the so-called “networking”, among public and private institutions. Therefore, although it is difficult to quantify the value brought by their contribution, there is no doubt that the permanent presence of embassies or consulates abroad provides an additional and essential element of trust. Thus, Brazilian companies seeking to export to new markets or even open branches in other countries will feel safer in doing so.
I am also aware that trade barriers are continuously changing their shape. Protectionist measures applied to some industries tend to be disguised as alleged environmental concerns while actively harming consumers. Brazilian agriculture, avowedly sustainable and competitive, has been the target of such attacks through misrepresentations and generalisations. When confronting these unfair practices, our diplomatic network tries to correct them by disseminating objective data, which is the best remedy against falsehoods and partisan arguments.

Are there specific Embassy programs to support intercultural dialogue?

Cultural exchanges between our societies occur spontaneously for the most part. Italian immigration, which began in 1870, has left a legacy of more than 30 million Brazilians with Italian ancestors, as well as a great familiarity between our societies. The Embassy in Rome promotes activities and initiatives with the dual aim of strengthening these ties and, at the same time, disseminating the artistic production of the new generations. In addition to specifically organised events supporting various types of cultural expression, the Embassy is in charge of the Brazil-Italy Cultural Centre (CCBI) at Palazzo Pamphilj. Portuguese courses offered there are complemented by other activities that seek to provide the student with knowledge about Brazil that goes beyond language.