Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro celebrate during a runoff election in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 28, 2018
It was early fall in southern Florida, and a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 gathered at a steakhouse to see a right-wing presidential candidate whom most experts were dismissing as too radical, divisive, and inexperienced to win office.
The candidate was not Donald Trump but Jair Bolsonaro, a retired Brazilian army captain and longtime member of congress whose tough talk about corruption, praise for Brazil’s former military dictatorship, and promises to give police “carte blanche” to kill drug traffickers and other suspected criminals were, by October 2017, already beginning to propel him upward in polls. Many in the crowd had themselves fled Brazil’s spiraling violence and the worst recession in its modern history, which had caused the economy to shrink nearly ten percent on a per capita basis from 2014 to 2017. The 300,000-strong diaspora in Florida, like many of their relatives back home, were hungry for the most anti-establishment figure they could find.
Bolsonaro took the stage 40 minutes late and delivered a speech unlike that of any significant Brazilian presidential candidate in recent memory. He defended the legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship, vowed to protect the country from communists and “thieves,” and slammed “fake news” back home. “What I’m saying there [in Brazil] is very similar to Trump here,” Bolsonaro concluded. “If I’m elected, you can be sure Trump will have a great ally in the Southern Hemisphere.” And then, as the crowd chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” Bolsonaro turned around and saluted a TV image of a waving American flag.
A year later, Bolsonaro has accomplished the once unthinkable: he has won the presidency of Latin America’s largest country, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of the region’s population and a roughly equal share of its GDP. And, as his speech in Florida suggested, Bolsonaro will likely preside over the biggest foreign policy shift in that country’s recent history—a change that will have important reverberations throughout the Americas and across the globe.
BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND VENEZUELA
Bolsonaro has made clear his intention not only to be one of Washington’s strongest allies but to borrow much of his international agenda directly from Trump’s playbook. He has promised to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, decisively counter China’s economic advances, and consider a radical regime change policy in Venezuela. (He originally promised to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, as well, but has since gone back on that pledge.) The list goes on.
It is worth pausing to note just how much of a departure this is from precedent. Brazil has long charted an independent foreign policy course. Even during the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, and which mostly enjoyed strong support from Washington, to salute the American flag would have been politically suicidal for a Brazilian leader. The same was true under the administration of President Fernando Collor de Mello (1990–92), who embraced the so-called Washington Consensus of deep market reforms. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994–2002) had a warm personal relationship with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, but did not hesitate to tangle with Washington over issues ranging from pharmaceuticals patents and U.S. military assistance to Colombia to relations with Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chávez and Peru’s former President Alberto Fujimori. Cardoso resisted attempts to create a hemispheric free trade area, ultimately helping sink the initiative. More recently, the leftist governments of Brazilian presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011–16) frequently sparred with the United States over issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, the Edward Snowden leak, and Brazil’s attempts to build a more multipolar world order.
Why would Bolsonaro break so dramatically with tradition? To be sure, angry, exhausted voters in Brazil view anything that signals change positively. But the deeper answer lies in a dilemma that has redefined the way many Brazilians see the world in recent years. On one side is Venezuela, which has devolved into economic chaos, authoritarianism, crime, and mayhem. Bolsonaro and his supporters have carefully cultivated a narrative in which recent presidents—particularly Lula and Rousseff—were hell-bent on taking Brazil down this same road. On the other extreme is the United States, where (again, in the social media reality created by Brazil’s ascendant right) Trump is a popular, enlightened leader of a strong, safe, prosperous nation. In this binary world, anything that brings Bolsonaro closer to Washington is immensely appealing to his base.
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