A Brazil Beyond Bolsonaro

Is this a passing and forgettable phase in Brazil’s rich history? 

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is hosting on November 13 and 14, the summit of BRICS. A non-western group, this challenges, in principle, the world order dominated by US and its allies.

This is the second time that Brazil is hosting this summit. But the Brazil of today is hugely different from what it was when it hosted the last BRICS summit in 2014.

Bolsonaro has upended the traditional foreign policy and global profile of the country with his radical rightwing personal beliefs and prejudices, as well as his often polarising rhetoric.

This was demonstrated on Thursday when Brazil voted against the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the US embargo on Cuba. Going against 187 members of the UN who supported the resolution and joining US (besides Israel) is unprecedented and shocking, not only for outsiders but even for Brazilians.

Naturally, there are lot of question marks about Brazil’s credibility and credentials as a major power. How will the pro-western and Trump-admiring Bolsonaro (who is even nicknamed ‘the Tropical Trump’) fit into the worldview of BRICS?

Will he be a passive player or will he try to subvert the group from within? Is this a passing and forgettable phase in Brazil’s history?

Is Brazil’s foreign policy embarking on permanent changes? To answer these, one should examine the nature and contents of Brazil’s power package and its long term potential in comparison to the other major powers, both actual and aspiring.

Brazil has been acknowledged as a “future power” because of its inherent strength and potential. The critics, of course, joke that it has managed to remain and will always continue to be only a “future” power.

Expectations raised during economic booms crashed during cyclical busts and disruptions of democracy by dictatorships in the past. Many Brazilians had finally thought that they had “arrived” during the euphoric years of the presidency of Lula in the period between 2003 and 2011. But after Lula, there has been nothing but disappointment and disillusion.  

Golden years  

Brazil’s global profile reached unprecedented new heights during the presidency of Lula who pursued proactive and visionary foreign policies. During his term, the economy saw high growth and at the same time, poverty and inequality were reduced with successful inclusive development policies.

The country had discovered enormous pre-salt oil reserves and was already a global pioneer in the use of sugarcane ethanol as fuel.

In 2010, Petrobras raised an unprecedented $70 billion through global IPO.

President Lula was ecstatic when he said “It wasn’t in London, it wasn’t in New York, it was in our Sao Paulo exchange that we carried out the biggest capitalisation in the history of capitalism.”

Petrobras overtook Walmart and Microsoft to become the fourth largest company in the world in terms of market value.

Former Brazil President Lula da Silva. Photo: Reuters

Lula took initiatives in the formation of regional groups such as UNASUR and CELAC as part of its regional leadership role, besides strengthening Mercosur.

Brazil took over command of the delicate Chapter Seven UN Peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2004 and spent over a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance, etc. It co-founded the IBSA alliance with India and South Africa in which the three aspiring democratic powers from the three continents agreed to work on a common agenda.

Brazil had joined India, Germany and Japan in the campaign for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The country was active in the BRICS alliance. Lula had even dared to mediate in the Iranian crisis!

Brazil was an active player, mover and shaker in the UN and multilateral fora. There was a new confidence and optimism with which it sought its place among the global powers.

Also watch: Brazil’s Politics After Lula’s Conviction

Unfortunately, the Car Wash and other corruption scandals have discredited political and business leaders, many of whom, including Lula, are in jail now. The Brazilian economy has slowed down from the “go go” growth period to a “so so” slow performance these days, that the GDP growth declined to less than 1% in 2018.

Disruptive and uncertain foreign policy 

President Bolsonaro has shaken the confidence of the world in Brazil with his extremist and disruptive ideological fights. He is an anti-globalist and considers climate change as a “Marxist cultural plot.”

He is also a fierce anti-socialist, both within and outside Brazil. He has refused to congratulate the leftist Argentine president-elect Alberto Fernandez and is boycotting his inauguration ceremony. This is a serious breach of the post-dictatorship tradition of Brazil-Argentina’s strategic partnership of the last four decades.

Bolsonaro is also threatening to disintegrate Mercosur, which has been the main framework of Brazil’s regional integration. His statements on Amazon and climate change has disconcerted Europeans. He wants to align the foreign policy of Brazil to that of the US and seeks closer links with rightwing leaders of Israel, Hungary, Poland and Italy. He is influenced by ultra conservative gurus like Steve Bannon and Olavo de Carvalho.

Ernesto Araujo, Bolsonaro’s foreign minister and a career diplomat, is even more obscurantist and anachronistic. As a bonus, he is unpopular among his colleagues in Itamaraty, the foreign office.

But the good news is that there are sufficient sensible and pragmatic forces within the administration which have the power to restrain Bolsonaro’s adventurous streaks.

The military faction, the neo-liberalistic economists and trade lobbies, along with the professional diplomats have succeeded in containing damages and changing the direction and discourse of Bolsonaro in some cases.

More than 100,000 women gathered in downton Rio to protest against then far-right candidate Bolsonaro who then became president. Photo: Cataraca Livre

Notably, Bolsonaro wanted to shift the Brazilian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, spoke in favour of US military intervention in Venezuela and started off with a strong anti-China stand. But the pragmatists have prevailed on these issues. In the third week of October, Bolsonaro made a state visit to the Middle East and Chine and made the right statements.

The presidency of Bolsonaro appears to be a passing phase. Bolsonaro is an accidental president who was a beneficiary of the wave of public anger with the Car Wash scandal and the excesses and corruption of the established political leadership.

He does not have a large political party nor any positive and consistent political agenda. He has been in nine different political parties in 20 years. None of these is a serious mainstream one.

He belongs to a minority fringe group with extremist beliefs not accepted by most Brazilians.

He is not an incorrupt angel either. He, his three politician sons and his political party have been accused of corruption and abuse of power.

He has not taken any major constructive long term policy initiatives for poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, education, healthcare and other fundamental issues of the country. He does not have a positive, constructive and unifying vision for the country. He plays to his fringe audience just as Trump does, going against the feelings of the majority.

Brazil will certainly bounce back from the Bolsonaro aberration and become a normal country again after the next elections.

In the long term, Brazil continues to enjoy many distinct advantages and stronger fundamentals in comparison to existing global powers as well as other emerging powers.

Superpower in soft power

Among the major powers, both existing and aspiring, Brazil  stands out distinctly as a “super power in soft power”. Brazil is a most cheerful, colourful, charming and romantic country.

Brazil triggers feelings of alegria (joy) and happiness, and conjures images of the carnival, bossa nova, the Copacabana and Ipanema.

In contrast, the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and India all evoke emotions which are wrought by their roles in world history.

The US evokes anger with its image of Uncle Sam; Russia, carnivorous and hungry, gives rise to fear;  China makes the world afraid and suspicious; the UK and France, are stuck in past imperial glory; Germany and Japan are guilt- ridden; and India moves slowly with its argumentative population.

Super power of peace 

Some powers such as Germany, Japan, US, UK, France, China and USSR have caused massive death and misery with their  wars. For US, war is business. The US tries to dominate by dividing the world, creating conflicts and selling arms. The US has invented wars such as the war on communism, war on drugs, war on terrorism and the war for regime change.

Brazil is an authentic ‘power for peace,’ anchored in solid foundation and strong fundamentals of peace, as evident from the following:

  • Brazil is the only major power which has not had a war in the last 150 years.
  • The Brazilian armed forces have a unique and enviable challenge in their military doctrine. They cannot find any enemy countries to target themselves against, in their military strategy. So they focus on perceived vulnerabilities of the country.
  • Brazil is not considered as an enemy by any country or neighbour. Even Argentina looks upon Brazil only as a football rival and at worst tries to put obstacles for Brazil’s ambition to become a  permanent member of the UN Security Council. The Argentine agenda against Brazil does not go beyond these. Thanks to Mercosur, Argentina is fully integrated with Brazil in trade, industry and economy.
  • Despite having borders with 10 out of the 12 South American countries, Brazil does not have any territorial disputes with neighbours.
  • Brazil is lucky that it is very far from the global hotspots of conflicts and instability. The region is free from nuclear arms, terrorism and threat of wars.
  • Brazil is free from the curse of terrorism. It did not experience a 9/11 or an attack on parliament or a subway or a marathon. So the country is free from the paranoid mindset of countries who are victims of terrorism and continue to live in fear of possibilities of terror strikes in the future.
  • Brazil does not face any domestic conflicts or separatist movements arising from religious, ethnic, linguistic divisions. It has one religion and one language. It has no extremist fundamentalist groups which threaten most of the other major powers.

Food and energy security

Some powers such as China, India, Japan and Germany face challenges arising from food and energy security concerns and their dependence on imports. But Brazil is not only self sufficient but also has surplus for exports.

Brazil is an agricultural super power. It is the world’s largest exporter of beef, chicken, sugar, soya, orange juice and coffee besides being a significant exporter of soya, maize, cotton, tobacco, bananas, pork and ethanol.

Brazil can increase production and exports and feed several hundred more million people of the world. It has lot of surplus land which could be brought under agriculture without touching the Amazon.

Also read: The Amazon Doesn’t Need Our Prayers, It Needs Accountability

The Brazilian climate and regional variations make it possible to grow two to three crops throughout the year. The country is blessed with abundant (20% of global fresh water reserves) water resources.

The rainfall is reasonable and most of the agriculture is rain-fed unlike India which depends on irrigation and pumping of ground water.

Both China and India have long term water problems. With Embrapa’s advanced research and development, Brazil has brought under cultivation millions of hectares of arid land in Matto Grosso.

Deforestation caused by an Illegal gold mine and encampment within Yanomami Park, July 2018. An estimated 20,000 illegal goldminers (garimpeiros) have entered Yanomami Park, one of Brazil’s biggest indigenous reserves, located in Roraima and Amazonas states, near the border with Venezuela. Image courtesy of Rogerio Assis / ISA.

Brazil has emerged as a global player in energy. Like India, Brazil was dependent upon crude oil imports in the seventies. Today India is even more dependent on imports while Brazil has become a net exporter. In 2018, crude oil was the second largest item of exports of Brazil, which has the capacity to produce five million barrels per day. The credit goes to Petrobras’s innovative competence in deep sea drilling and production technology with which pre-salt reserves have been discovered.

Brazil gets nearly two-thirds of its electricity from hydro-electric projects. Itaipu alone has the capacity to generate 14000 MW. There is scope to produce even more hydroelectric power.

Brazil is a pioneer and global leader in the use of sugarcane ethanol as fuel. With the use of ethanol, Brazil has cut down petrol use by 50% and has also reduced pollution.

Most of the new vehicles in Brazil have flexi-fuel engines. Brazil is working with US and a number of Latin American countries to  standardise fuel ethanol production, use and trading globally. Sugarcane ethanol is more fuel efficient and environment-friendly than the corn ethanol used in US.

Big and blessed

Brazil is the fifth biggest country in area and population and the seventh largest economy in the world. Its survival is not dependent upon any single commodity or just exports.

Brazil has the world’s largest forest cover in Amazon, which contributes 20% of earth’s oxygen and has become the lungs of our planet.

It has abundant mineral wealth and has large reserves of minerals such as iron ore, tin, copper, bauxite, manganese and gold.

A tract of Amazon jungle is seen after a fire in Boca do Acre, Amazonas state, Brazil August 24, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Bruno Kelly

Brazil enjoys a moderate and agreeable climate and does not suffer from extreme heat or cold. It has some of the best beaches in the world.

More importantly, Brazil is not prone to extreme natural calamities such as earthquakes, cyclones, tornados, volcanoes or typhoons.

Brazilian spirit

Brazilians are so much attached to the Brazilian way of life and feel so self-reliant and confident that they stay in Brazil itself. On the other hand, India and China suffer from brain drains since many scientists and high-tech experts emigrate to the US and other ‘developed countries’ for better professional prospects.

Brazil is a country of predominantly young population and does not have the problems of ageing and decline in skilled human resources faced by countries such as Germany and Japan.

With their blend of “coffee with milk” (café con leite) complexion and free mix of people of European, African (the largest outside Africa), Japanese (the largest outside Japan) and Arab origin, Brazil is a true melting pot.

Some major powers are weighed down by their historical baggage and long traditions. But Brazilians are forward looking and open in their outlook.

Truly independent foreign policy

China is allergic to the D word (democracy), the F word (freedom) and the H word (human rights). India is alert for the K word (Kashmir) and is wary of the S word (self determination). But Brazil has no such allergies.

The US will never have a neutral policy towards the Middle East since the powerful Jewish lobby has taken away policy-making from the state department. The Cuban emigres have hijacked the US policy towards Cuba. India’s policy towards the Gulf will always have to take into account its large Muslim population. But Brazil does not have such domestic lobbies.

The five Permanent members of the UN Security Council use the United Nations to protect and promote their interests and those of their friends and punish their adversaries. So their policies are always agenda-driven and rarely objective. But Brazil is truly neutral.

Brazil has one of the best diplomatic services in the world, admired and respected for its professionalism and commitment. The Brazilian diplomats in UN, WTO and multilateral fora are known for their proactive, positive and constructive roles. They are seen as bridge builders who inspire confidence and trust to all sides in negotiations. They are different from the aggressive,  agenda-pushing and polarising diplomats of the P-5 in the UN Security Council.

The Brazilians feel at home with all races. They also get along culturally with US which has similar history and forward-looking nature. This fact gives comfort to the western powers who see India, China and Japan whose cultures, histories and mindset are totally different from the western ones, with suspicion.

Brazil has one of the highest wealth disparities in the world with acute poverty and rich people. With this, Brazil qualifies in both the camps of the Global South and North. It fights on both sides.

As part of the developing world, Brazil pursues South-South cooperation and solidarity. As an emerging power, it seeks change in the status quo of global power equations. It resents the unilateralism of US and the domination of the western powers. But at the same time it seeks an OECD membership into the club of the rich world.

Brazil has the freedom to judge international issues based on pure merit and deal with them objectively.


Brazil’s long term challenges include poverty, inequality, insecurity, drug trafficking, corruption, infrastructure, healthcare and education. But the problems of Brazil are solvable in the medium term unlike some of the serious long term developmental problems of huge magnitudes faced by India and China.

India has the most challenging problem of providing food, education, healthcare and infrastructure for a 15 million addition to its population every year. Most of India’s energy is wasted in tackling day-to-day issues of conflicts between communities and other such problems arising from the vast diversity of the country with so many languages, religions and castes.

Besides the large population, China has an even more fundamental problem on democracy. No one has a clue as to how China is going to come out of its communist dictatorship and become a normal democracy and be part of the contemporary civilised world.

Although race is not an issue in Brazil, it is a fact that most of the poor, less educated and most disadvantaged in Brazil are the Afro-Brazilians. There are very few blacks who are cabinet ministers, business leaders, civil servants or diplomats. The Afro-Brazilians are invariably in the role of domestic servants in the stories of most Brazilian TV soap operas. Only now, some universities have started affirmative action programmes. But Brazil does not face any major racial tension or issues unlike in the case of the US.

The Brazilians are aware that economic strength alone will not get UNSC permanent membership as Germany and Japan have found out. The Permanent members of the UNSC who are all nuclear powers, have respect only for hard power.

Brazil regrets having signed away its nuclear power status option, although they do not admit it publicly. But it is too late now to change.

Women holds a sign that reads “Not Him” during demonstrations against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil September 29, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Adriano Machado

Brazil is misaligned with the world by its protectionist and introverted trade policies while most other economic powers are forming, expanding and joining ever more alliances and signing FTAs. The Pacific Alliance shines as an open, dynamic and forward looking trade group in contrast to the inward looking Mercosur struggling with many internal issues.

The Mercosur-EU FTA concluded recently risks being torpedoed by Bolsonaro’s climate change policy and his personal attack on President Macron and his wife.

Brazil has a poor record in development assistance in comparison to other powers. Conscious of this past negligence, Lula had started providing technical, financial and developmental assistance to less developed countries, especially in Africa. He had written off the debts owed by some poor countries. He opened more embassies in Africa and provided technical assistance for agricultural development in some countries. But these initiatives have been frozen or reversed by the Bolsonaro government.

The only external challenge to the rise of Brazil as a global power is the US, which does not want a hemispheric rival. The US will not forget how its proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was killed by Lula along with Chavez and Kirchner at the Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas in 2005.

The US did not like the efforts of Lula to restore President Manuel Zelaya after the latter was overthrown in a US-supported coup in 2009. The US was against Lula’s efforts for integration of Latin America to make it as a collectively strong entity and resist external intervention.

Brazil as a global strategic partner of India 

India perceives Brazil as a peaceful and benign power, without past sins or future threats. It appreciates Brazil’s open and pragmatic approach in a non-prescriptive and non-polarising way and its firm belief in a multipolar world and multilateralism.

It believes that Brazil could make the UN better and the world safer as a global power and permanent member of the UN Security Council. Both India and Brazil have common worldview and aspirations and face similar challenges.

Over the years, India and Brazil have built up rapport in working together in many global fora and multilateral negotiations. They had taken initiatives for UNSC reforms and presented their candidatures to permanent membership along with Germany and Japan.

The Brazil-India strategic partnership flourished during the presidency of Lula, who attached special importance to India. Pity, Lula is no longer the president. Modi and Lula would have formed an unbeatable ‘dream team’ with their global vision and assertive and proactive approaches.

Brazil used to be the top trading partner of India in Latin America. No longer. Mexico has overtaken Brazil. India’s trade with Brazil in 2018-10 was $ 8.2 billion of which exports were $ 3.8 billion and imports $ 4.4.

India’s investment in Brazil is about $ 3 billion while Brazilian investment is under $ 200 million.

India is still committed to its “strategic partnership” with Brazil.

But India is not sure of reciprocity on the part of Bolsonaro. It seems that India is not in his priorities. But there is some hope that he could change as he has done in the case of China.

After his anti-China statements and visit to Taiwan, he has now come around to accept the reality of the importance of China for a Brazil under pressure from Brazil’s own agribusiness and exporters’ lobbies.

It is after seeing this positive Chinese experience that India is said to be inviting Bolsonaro to be the chief guest for the 2020 Republic Day celebrations. In any case, India believes in a long term partnership with Brazil as a country, beyond Bolsonaro.

Ambassador (retired) R. Viswanathan, a Latin America expert, was the first Consul General of India in Sao Paulo in 1996-2000.