Sao Paulo: On November 3, as millions of Americans were heading to polling stations across the country, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told his supporters that he “doesn’t agree with opinion poll numbers” and was confident that Donald Trump “would emerge victorious”.
It was important for Brazil’s interests – both in diplomacy and economy – to show “loyalty” to Trump, he added. On November 8, Sunday, more than 24 hours after Joe Biden was declared winner in the US election and congratulated by most world leaders, including Brazil’s neighbours, Bolsonaro maintained an uneasy silence. A day earlier, Bolsonaro had slammed Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of Brazil’s House of Representatives, for “rushing” a congratulatory message to Biden, shortly after American networks called the election in his favour.
Since the election night, after Trump spoke about “fraud” in polling, the Brazilian president has been batting for the Republican candidate. “There is always a strong suspicion of interference by other powers in the final result of the ballot box,” Bolsonaro said, without directly mentioning the word “fraud”. But his third son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, retweeted a post from a far-right Brazilian blogger who supported Trump’s arguments that he was being robbed of a victory.
Eduardo is not just Brazilian president’s son; he is a member of the House of Representatives and heads its Foreign Relations Committee. Last year, Bolsonaro wanted to send him to the US as Brazil’s ambassador because he “speaks English” and was “friends with Donald Trump’s children”. That plan fell through as Bolsonaro could not muster enough votes for confirmation in the Congress, but Eduardo, who brags about his proximity with the Trump clan and also represents Steve Bannon’s far-right organisation in South America, is known as Brazil’s de facto foreign minister. He has the president’s ear on foreign policy matters.
On Friday, as it became clear that Biden had much easier path to victory than Trump, Bolsonaro was advised to stop rooting for the US president. “Hope is the last thing that dies,” Bolsonaro said. On Saturday, when it was evident that Biden would win, Bolsonaro faintly hinted at preparing the ground to form a relationship with a future Biden administration.
That will require a lot of work – especially at the Brazilian end.
Trump of the Tropics
Since coming to power in 2019, Bolsonaro has positioned himself as a close ally of Donald Trump. A self-declared admirer of the American, when he bumped into the US president at the United Nations in 2019, Bolsonaro said to him: “I love you.” To which, Trump replied: “Nice to see you again”. On his visit to the US this year, Bolsonaro was openly campaigning for Trump. “He will be re-elected,” said the Brazilian leader in the swing state of Florida, where the Latino vote is the deciding factor. And on August 16, speaking on his weekly social media broadcast, Bolsonaro again stumped for Trump. “We support Trump. We are sure that we will strengthen our relationship a lot.”
By giving his open – and brazen – support to Trump in the middle of a tough election, the Bolsonaro government not just violated diplomatic norms, it also went against the Article 4 of the Brazilian Constitution, which prohibits “intervention” in other countries. On September 18, the Brazilian government allowed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit the city of Boa Vista in Roraima, a state which has a border with Venezuela, presumably to meet refugees from the neighbouring country. Pompeo was received by Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araújo close to the international border, and not in the national capital Brasilia as is the norm.
Such optics just 46 days before the US election evoked a stinging rebuke from Rodrigo Maia, the House speaker, who called it an “affront to Brazilian foreign and defence policies”. A group of Brazilian senators, too, took the government to task for letting Pompeo use Brazil as an electoral platform and attack the president of a neighbouring country. “We have international agreements and strict rules imposed by our Constitution regarding interference in another country. It was very clear to all of us the interference of this American citizen in Brazil to take advantage of the situation during the elections in the US, using Brazilian territory to favor the candidate Trump. This is unacceptable to all of us,” Senator Kátia Abreu, an influential politician and a former federal minister, said in September.
In his two years in office, Bolsonaro has done little but serve as Trump’s surrogate in South America, even at the cost of hurting Brazil’s interest. Taking cue from Washington, Bolsonaro has often attacked China, which is its biggest trading partner. Like Trump, he announced to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, thus risking a boycott of Brazilian products by many Arab countries. He has attacked multilateral organisations like the WHO, thus shrinking Brazil’s international role. In the footsteps of Trump, he campaigned against the seriousness of COVID-19, which has killed more than 162,000 Brazilians so far. And in Trump-like denial of climate change, Bolsonaro has let the Amazon rainforest burn with little effort to contain the raging fires. Brazil’s image across the world is badly tattered.
Joe didn’t start the fire
Bolsonaro’s unabashed display of affection and loyalty – clearly one-sided – to Trump may put him in a bit of jam when Joe Biden moves into the White House on January 20, 2021. The two already have had a tiff. In the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump, the Democrat said, if elected, “he would immediately begin to organise the hemisphere and the world to provide $20 billion for the Amazon, so that Brazil no longer burns the Amazon”. If Brazil did not stop burning the Amazon, “it will face significant economic consequences”, Biden added. That was enough for Bolsonaro to blow his lid, as he called Biden’s statement as “regrettable and disastrous”. “Our sovereignty is non-negotiable,” Bolsonaro said.
During his campaign, Biden repeatedly attacked Trump for his failure to address the issue of climate change. Given the constituency of his Democratic Party, which includes a lot of young people, and pressure from the progressive wing which wants nothing short of a Green New Deal, Biden is all set to take the US back to the Paris climate accord by an executive order on the first day of his presidency. Trump ignored – and encouraged – the destruction of the world’s biggest rainforest, taking pressure off Bolsonaro as fires ate huge chunks of the forest on a daily basis.
Biden will not be so indulgent. And the Brazilians know what is coming. On Saturday, after Biden became president-elect, Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a former general who also heads the National Council of Amazon, appeared on television, talking in a conciliatory tone about how Brazil and the US are members “of the same Western civilisation”. The two countries share the same objectives, said Mourao, stressing that “each one has to seek his interests”.
That was quite a climbdown by Mourao, who had just weeks ago told Biden to “look after your own country” after the Democratic leader mentioned the Amazon and Brazil a couple of times during the presidential debates.
Isolated, we stand
In January 2019, when Bolsonaro assumed presidency, the Brazilian foreign policy took a sharp ideological turn. With Eduardo Bolsonaro reading from Bannon’s far-right playbook and foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, who has repeatedly extolled Donald Trump as a figure who would “save the Christian West”, busy aligning Brazil’s interests with that of the US, the country’s foreign policy has almost gone off the rails. Recently, Araújo sent shockwaves across the Ministry of External Affairs as he pronounced that it was alright for Brazil to “become a pariah” in the world.
Now, with Trump set to leave the White House in 70 days or so, experts are discussing how Brazilian foreign policy will adjust to a new reality they were not prepared for. While some guess that Biden’s victory may lead to a “reinvention” of the foreign policy of the Bolsonaro government, which abandoned the Brazilian tradition of multilateralism. But it won’t be that easy. According to Celso Amorim, who served as Brazil’s foreign minister during Lula presidency, Bolsonaro “mimics Trump when he denies climate change, social distancing measures and the use of masks in pandemic, and his contempt for minorities, misogyny and homophobia”. In an interview to Carta Capital magazine this week, Celso Amorim said that Bolsonaro’s support for Trump campaign “is the result of pure fanaticism”. “Bolsonaro believes he is in a crusade against communists,” said Amorim.
The Bolsonaro government took Trump’s “America First” more seriously than the US president himself, so much so that Brazil gave in to several of American demands voluntarily, even hurting its own interest. In fact, Brazil’s trade deficit with the US has increased under Bolsonaro. “While Bolsonaro removed import tariff on ethanol from US, Trump raised the tax on Brazilian steel. In 2020, Brazilian exports to the US fell by 31.5% compared to the same period last year,” said Amorim.
In the end, Bolsonaro’s support was not enough to keep Trump in power. Biden’s victory has suddenly energised Bolsonaro’s opponents who know that without Trump’s protection, he will be on a sticky wicket. But Amorim warns that the structural interests of the US do not change even under the Biden administration. “What changes is the way of acting, the style, and the values that will have influence,” says Amorim, adding that nuances are important in international politics. “In Latin America the nuances can mean the difference between invading Venezuela or not and dragging Brazil or trying to strike a coup in Bolivia or Ecuador.”
Biden has given no indication that he will be less hawkish than Trump on Venezuela. Also, as containing China’s increasingly growing influence in South America has a bipartisan support in the US, Biden will try his best to stop Brazil from going into the Chinese orbit, especially in the fields of 5G technology and a coronavirus vaccine.
As Biden would breathe down his neck on the Amazon fires, climate change and pandemic, Bolsonaro will come around – even if reluctantly. On Sunday night, Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reported that Araújo had requested his foreign ministry departments to prepare reports about the impact of a Biden administration on Brazilian foreign policy. Biden had been leading Trump in all polls for months. His win was very much expected, if not guaranteed. Araujo’s waking up to this reality only on Sunday (November 8) just shows how lost is Brazil’s foreign policy right now.
Probably, Brazil under Bolsonaro is not prepared for life without Trump in the White House.
Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Note: Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll has been corrected in this article after it was published.