Brian Winter from Americas Quarterly (my former intern-employer!) wrote a useful explainer entitled What to Expect from Jair Bolsonaro. It’s a realistic and useful look at what’s to come in the wake of Bolsonaro’s likely 2nd round election on October 28th. Underlying this likelihood, the first DataFolha polling released post-Round 1 has Bolsonaro winning 58% of the vote.
One aspect of the article that I left uncovered in my last post was Bolsonaro’s likely impact on US-Brazilian relations, and the expectation that he will firmly tether himself and his policies to Trump’s.
Bolsonaro’s team has held meetings with U.S. officials in recent months – common practice during campaigns – and made clear that if elected he will be an exceptionally loyal ally on foreign policy. “It’s like (Washington) made a list of what it wants from Brazil, and they read that list back word for word,” said one person with knowledge of the discussions.
Indeed, you may have to go back to the “carnal relations” of Argentine President Carlos Menem during the 1990s to find a South American government that aligned so enthusiastically with Washington. What does it mean in practice? A much tougher line against Venezuela (and Cuba), full cooperation on anti-drug issues, the possible move of Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and enthusiastic support for Washington at the United Nations and other international bodies.
While alignment on these mostly US-centric policy goals may seem like minimal concessions to a country historically unconcerned with regional, let alone international policy, I’m especially curious to see if Bolsonaro will join Trump in its actions against China, which I believe is a much trickier tightrope to walk, given China’s existing entrenchment in the country.
It’s not impossible to imagine the US and Brazil joining forces in their economic strategy towards the Chinese. As I’ve written in the past (Trump, China, and the Americas – Part 1 and Part 2, and US/LatAm policy update) Trump’s distance and general incoherence towards a foreign policy in Latin American has created a vacuum that the Chinese has eagerly begun to exploit, propping up supportive, autocratic leaders via investment and long-term loans in exchange for access to land, consumers to purchase Chinese products, and benefits to Chinese soft power in a part of the world traditionally dominated by United States influence.
However, Bolsonaro’s ascendance may have essentially solved Trump’s LatAm problem for him – if President Bolsonaro completely parrots the US stance towards the rest of the world, and especially its antipathy or conflict-seeding towards China, a substantial wedge would be created in Latin America, where most of the countries are connected via free trade agreements. A muscular Brazil aligned with the US seeking to exercise its will as a regional power could force smaller Latin American countries to renegotiate trading terms with China, and fall in line with the new Brazilian order.
In the process, Trump/Bolsonaro and their respective trade and finance ministers could also set the stage for a US-Brazil free trade agreement along the lines of similar agreements recently signed with our Asian allies (useful explainer on Trump’s trade ‘strategy’ here per the NYTimes: Trump’s Trade Strategy is Coming into Focus). While likely inconsequential for Trump, I imagine this would prove incredibly popular in Brazil, where consumers routinely pay exorbitant markups on electronics and other imported goods, making Brazil the most expensive place to buy an iPhone in the world. Even Brazilians wholly unconcerned with politics would likely laud this accomplishment as a tangible result of Bolsonaro’s tenure and further his popularity in the country.
Winter concludes that Bolsonaro’s cozying to Trump is likely to result in less US (and international) criticism for extrajudicial killings and torture, as well as other actions that fall outside of the constitution or broader Democratic norms. If Trump’s defense of actions by Putin, Kim Jong-un, Duerte, and other leaders is any indication, this is a fairly safe assumption to make, and a dangerous outcome for a country that will become increasingly in need of international watchdogs and accountability.
For Bolsonaro and Trump, the likely election result seems like a win-win – in exchange for his fealty to Trump (something that Trump is sure to appreciate), Bolsonaro is likely to receive cozier economic terms and increased bilateral trade as a bulwark against China. In the process, there will be ample invitations to the White House, and plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his leadership in the country, region, and broader international landscape (something Lula unsuccessfully tried to do via quixotic mediations on the Iranian nuclear program, socialist/capitalist relations in Cuba, Venezuela, etc.)
For the “Brazilian Trump,” as he’s increasingly being labelled, Trump himself represents a gift-wrapped reset for the two countries, and vice-versa for the Donald. What a world.