Trump, Bolsonaro, and the Future of US-Brazil Relations
“Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” 1 Corinthians 15:33
Jair Bolsonaro will become Brazil’s next president after winning the South American nation’s October 28 runoff elections. The seasoned politician is well-known for a series of controversial and offensive statements, which include homophobic, sexist, and racist insults, as well as support for Brazil’s former military dictatorship. And yet, he emerged victorious with around 58 million votes.
Can the US government work with such a leader? Answering this question requires a discussion about the eternal conflict in international relations: choosing between national interests and morality.
(Some of) Bolsonaro’s Declarations
In spite of successfully campaigning as an “anti-establishment” candidate, Bolsonaro is anything but that. In 1991 he became a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro to the lower chamber of Congress, and he has been reelected six times since then. He is also a retired army captain.
Throughout his tenure in Congress, he has often made extremely controversial and offensive remarks. For example, he stated in a 2011 interview with Playboy that he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son… I would prefer my son to die in an accident than show up with a mustachioed man.” He also insulted female lawmaker Maria do Rosario in 2003, stating “I would not rape you, because you’re not worthy of it,” and then pushing her away (video in Portuguese). Similarly, he has critiqued quilombolas, individuals of African descent, declaring that “they don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation anymore.”
Nevertheless, his ideological stances have also earned him support from certain segments. For example, his constant praise of the Brazilian military, even his controversial support of the 1964–85 military regime (he has said that “the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture and not kill”), has earned him support from the armed forces. It certainly helps that he is a retired officer himself, while his vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired army general.
President-elect Bolsonaro will take power on January 1, 2019, and his main priorities will likely be domestic, such as improving citizens’ security, improving the economy, and battling corruption. This last issue was a pillar of his presidential campaign, as he profited from the population’s anger at the never-ending series of corruption scandals, such as Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), which led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
Can the US Government Work with President Bolsonaro?
The short answer is yes. Leaving his offensive remarks aside, President-elect Bolsonaro has said what that the Trump White House wants to hear in terms of foreign policy. For example, he has repeatedly criticized Venezuela. Likewise, there are ongoing discussions about whether Brazil may move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the US example, in order to improve bilateral ties with Israel (particularly regarding defense issues).
Trade between the two countries is high and benefits the US (which President Trump will like). According to the US Trade Representative, “the US goods trade surplus with Brazil was $7.8 billion in 2017, a 93.6% increase ($3.8 billion) over 2016 [and it] has a services trade surplus of an estimated $19 billion with Brazil in 2017, up 9.6% from 2016.” Even more, there is also the multibillion-dollar deal between Boeing and EMBRAER (a powerful Brazilian aerospace company), which could be extremely lucrative for both sides. Even more, Paulo Guedes will be the new super minister of the economy, a move that has increased confidence from international investors, as he is regarded as one of the “Chicago Boys.”
Washington-Brasilia relations soured during the Obama-Dilma Rousseff era when Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies were monitoring foreign leaders, including the Brazilian president at the time. Bilateral relations have improved since then, but they could always be better, particularly at a time when the US needs strong allies in Latin America as the socio-economic and political crisis in Venezuela worsens. In other words, the pieces are in place for a Washington-Brasilia rapprochement. Trump and Bolsonaro’s similar attitudes and ideologies bolster this theory, and some specialists to argue that they would get along quite well should they ever meet.
With that said, from a moral point of view, Washington should not work with Bolsonaro. His aforementioned statements mean that state protection and support for minorities and the LGBTQ community in Brazil will be at risk once he assumes office. There is also concern about the future of Brazil’s indigenous communities and Amazonian environment, given Bolsonaro’s support of agro-businesses.
Similarly, the president-elect’s repeated praise for the 1964–85 military regime, which is known for torture, disappearances, and executions, is also concerning. He appears to plan to take strong measures to combat crime and lawlessness. However, one of Brazil’s (many) problems is its history of law enforcement officers who carry out human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions. Latin America does not need another leader who supports draconian measures in the name of public safety.
There are plenty of common objectives at the foreign policy and trade levels that could ensure the US and Brazil under Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro could have a mutually beneficial relationship. Even an alliance could be in the making. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s lengthy history of racist, sexist, homophobic, and violent statements makes him the type of leader that the White House should stay away from.
Alas, geopolitics tends to favor national interests and the personal preferences of those in power, rather than morality and respect for human rights. In short, sadly, national interests tend to trump human rights.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: President-elect Jair Bolsonaro on November 6, 2018, at a plenary of the Chamber of Deputies during a session of the National Congress to commemorate the 30 years of the Citizen Constitution. By Mark Brandão for Federal Senate, via Flickr.