Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

Brazil’s Foreign Policy:  A Regressive Path?

By Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues*

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Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes speaks at a MERCOSUR meeting regarding the situation in Venezuela. / Divulgação / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Dilma Rousseff’s foreign policy was less active than President Lula’s, but Brazil has lost prominence in international politics even faster since her impeachment almost exactly one year ago.  According to the Soft Power 30 survey, Brazil now ranks 29th in international influence, having ranked 24th in 2016.  One reason is both domestic and political:  President Temer’s government has had to struggle to be recognized as legitimate.  The other is strategic: a wrong bet made by the new heads of Brazil’s foreign affairs.

  • Temer left the Ministry of Foreign Relations in the hands of the Social-Democratic Party (PSDB), appointing São Paulo Senator Jose Serra – at that stage a potential presidential candidate – as foreign minister. Temer and his PSDB partners’ most important project was to align Brazil more closely with the United States.  In parallel, they sought to progressively dismantle the South-South international policy that President Lula championed and President Rousseff continued, with its focus on the BRICS countries.
  • Their approach was based, however, on the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. election, and they had no “Plan B” for collaboration with the Trump Administration and its significantly different view toward Latin America and Brazil. Unable to rescue the heart of his policy, Serra resigned after nine months, claiming health issues, and another PSDB senator and political ally, Aloysio Nunes, took the job with a clear plan to align Brazil with the international market.  Brazil’s application to the OECD was done fast and without controversy.

At the same time, several important issues have been disempowering Brazil’s foreign policy.

  • MERCOSUR and UNASUR. The most important diplomatic capital Brazil built in the past 20 years – launched by President Cardoso, deepened and revamped by Lula, and maintained by Dilma – was the broad South American cooperation built in MERCOSUR and, later, UNASUR.  Temer has refocused the former on trade and essentially abandoned the latter.  The country’s vision for broad integration has fallen prey to ideological suspicions.
  • Venezuela. By shaming President Maduro as a dictator, Brazil essentially disqualified itself as a possible neutral player in efforts to resolve the Venezuela crisis, the most important challenge in South America today.  Many Brazilian observers believe Brasilia’s absence could mean a blank check to a still unknown and unpredictable White House policy on Latin America.  President Trump’s recent suggestion of a possible military intervention in Venezuela has deepened those concerns.
  • Corruption. The Temer Administration is poorly positioned to push for the sort of initiatives that many governments and societies need to combat corruption.  The problem has deep roots, but Temer’s rise to power in the wake of a campaign attacking alleged corruption by Lula and Dilma gives greater salience to his own shortcomings.  The Attorney General’s Office and the Lava Jato investigators have accused him and most of his ministers of corruption.  This makes Brazilian foreign policy fragile and contradictory in this field despite the government’s efforts to cast itself as a champion of integrity.  It is much more like “a saint with feet of clay,” according to a Brazilian saying.

President Temer and his Foreign Ministers’ two-pronged approach to foreign policy entails risks for Brazil’s international clout.  By deconstructing the so-called “ideological diplomacy” of Lula, Dilma, and their Workers Party, the new team is eliminating an agenda that has achieved unity, albeit in fits and starts, of the continent around a series of issues relevant to them all.  Their efforts to refocus policy on trade and financial issues – essentially a neoliberal agenda that most of the region has rejected – may ultimately yield them economic and political benefits at home, but at the cost of moving Brazil off center stage and reducing its ability to provide regional leadership in the future.  The country’s inability to drive a regionally-supported resolution in Venezuela is already being felt.  Even if this reorientation of foreign policy is ultimately successful, the political capital that gave Brazil a higher international profile as a major world democracy will be difficult to rebuild. 

September 6, 2017

*Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.