Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.
In his first speech as president-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro only made two brief mentions of foreign policy. First, he said he intends to “free Brazil and the Itamaraty [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] from international relations with an ideological bias and maintain relations with developed nations.” And, without referring directly to his opponent, he said that “[Brazil] cannot continue to flirt with socialism, communism, populism, and leftist extremism.”
Second, the far-right Bolsonaro said he valued the telephone call made by U.S. President Trump to congratulate him on his victory. After the call, Trump posted on his Twitter account that he and Bolsonaro agree that “Brazil and the United States will work together in commerce, military affairs and everything else.”
The statements from Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), after his victory over Fernando Haddad of the Workers Party (PT) on October 28, reinforce some patterns from the lengthy campaign. During the campaign, Bolsonaro’s ideas on foreign policy were reductionist, obsessed with strengthening relations with the United States, with a strong focus on a direct relationship with Trump, a move away from governments he considers ideological (Venezuela is his favorite example), and the promotion of Brazil as an international trading partner.
The mixture of neoliberal aspirations (anchored by his economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, a graduate of the University of Chicago) with nationalist rhetoric point to a foreign policy defined by contradictions, difficult to understand both in terms of formulation and execution.
Bolsonaro evokes the period of the Cold War when he talks about fighting communism and when he defends the military dictatorship. The first countries he intends to visit are Chile, the United States and Israel. There’s nothing pragmatic about that triad. All three countries are run by right-wing governments, and it’s clear that Bolsonaro wants to mark a clear break from his leftist predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.
From his speeches and interviews, it is evident that Bolsonaro is part of an emergent wave of neo-nationalists. His positions against multilateralism, migrants and human rights position him close to neo-fascism, according to various Brazilian academics and political analysts. The political leaders and governments with whom he prefers to relate, only help to confirm the president-elect’s neo-nationalist leanings.
Bolsonaro would be the first case of a neo-nationalist to emerge from a democratic country in the Global South. For this reason, many have dubbed him “Tropical Trump.”
Another neo-nationalist characteristic Bolsonaro has demonstrated is an aversion to regional integration processes, and his stated preference to emphasize bilateral relations.
International trade: How will Bolsonaro adapt the relationship with China?
The president-elect has not mentioned China among his priorities. In fact, it has been the government in Beijing that, after congratulating Bolsonaro, has declared the importance of its relationship with Brasilia. China is the main buyer of Brazilian products. In addition, China is the main Brazilian partner among the countries that make up the BRICS. It also controls the group’s New Development Bank, which is opening a regional office in Brazil and is a strategic source of resources outside the Bretton Woods system.
It is not clear how Bolsonaro intends to accommodate the strategic relationship with China and, at the same time, establish a similar link with the United States.
Similarly, it is not known how Bolsonaro will manage the relationship with Argentina, which he hasn’t mentioned as a priority. From the first civil government of the democratic transition under President Jose Sarney (1985-1989), Argentina has been Brazil’s main partner in South America. After the creation of Mercosur, its importance as a strategic partner in politics and the regional economy. After China and the United States, it is easily Brazil’s third most important partner. Any potential decision to reorient Brasilia from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile would be a strictly ideological decision, which is exactly what Bolsonaro has criticized the Lula and Rousseff governments for doing.
The “new Itamaraty”
In the Bolsonaro campaign’s official governing platform, the only mention of foreign policy is titled “The New Itamaraty.” In short, the document states that the Bolsonaro government will stop relations with dictatorships. It says that “we will stop praising murderous dictatorships and despising or even attacking important democracies such as the United States, Israel and Italy.” It emphasizes that the emphasis will be put on bilateral relations and trade agreements.
If the incoming government follows through on its platform, all of the integration processes in which Brazil participates—Mercosur, Unasur and Celac—will be in question. Since the administration of Cardoso (1995-2002), one of the main pillars of Brazilian foreign policy has been the relationship with Argentina and, as an extension, the strengthening of South American integration. From a more economic perspective, though not without political and strategic logic, the Cardoso government made a strong commitment to Mercosur. The Lula government (2003-2010) continued to emphasize the importance of Mercosur as an international political body.
Defense: A second lane of foreign policy?
One of the important changes that Bolsonaro is going to implement is the centrality of the Ministry of Defense in his cabinet. Brazil was the last country to create a Ministry of Defense in Latin America, during the Cardoso administration. Since then, the defense portfolio has kept a low profile and has been occupied by civilians (politicians or diplomats). For the first time, a soldier occupies the role of defense minister in the Temer government.
From very early in his campaign, Bolsonaro indicated that General Augusto Heleno was going to be his defense minister. Heleno is a charismatic leader in the army, and was previously the first chief commander of MINUSTAH (the UN mission in Haiti). Bolsonaro has a great admiration for Heleno and invited him to be vice-president, but the general turned down the offer. It is nevertheless expected that the general will wield considerable influence in the new government. If this is true, the Ministry of Defense’s influence will extend beyond issues of defense and begin to influence foreign relations and foreign policy.
Among the most important issues on Bolsonaro’s defense agenda linked to foreign policy is the situation in Venezuela and the fight against organized crime at the borders. With regard to the relationship with Caracas, there is fear on the part of analysts critical of Bolsonaro that he will establish an agreement with the U.S. and Colombia for an eventual military intervention in Venezuela. This hypothesis finds strong resistance in the armed forces as well as in the Itamaraty, and has also been denied by Bolsonaro and his interlocutors. Brazil has been one of the voices in the Lima Group that has criticized Trump for his statements in favor of intervention in Venezuela. And there is equal fear that the government of the State of Roraima, which borders Venezuela and has received thousands of Venezuelan refugees, will press Bolsonaro to close the border or restrict access of Venezuelans to Brazilian territory.
Human rights and the environment: Areas of potential international conflict?
The issues of human rights, the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups is an area where a great repressive wave is expected during the Bolsonaro administration. This is partly explained by his conservative and aggressive rhetoric against various groups, including women, indigenous people, afro-Brazilians, quilombolas (descendants of slaves) and LGBTI Brazilians. This is partially explained by the position of Bolsonaro’s supporters—many of whom come from far-right political parties or are evangelical Christians—who seek to implement an agenda based on religious values, with a subsequent regression in human rights.
With respect for the multilateral arenas of human rights, including the United Nations, much remains unclear. Bolsonaro has said more than once that he would take Brazil out of the organization, although he has since denied and reinterpreted these declarations. Nevertheless, the country will have, for the first time since the end of the military dictatorship, a president who does not value the respect and protection of human rights in the sphere of international multilateral organizations.
The fact that Bolsonaro defends torture as a legitimate means of obtaining evidence (in the context of the military dictatorship) and is in favor of the Amnesty Law that confers immunity to the dictatorship’s criminals will generate a possible confrontation between his government and the Inter-American Human Rights System. Brazil has been convicted in two cases dating from the period of the dictatorship in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Araguaia and Vladimir Herzog cases). But the issue of investigation and punishment for crimes against humanity is still blocked in Brazil by the Amnesty Law. In the face of international pressure, will Bolsonaro decide to leave the Court? The same could happen with Brazilian membership in the UN Human Rights Committee. It would not be a surprise if the Bolsonaro government withdrew from human rights bodies that do not affect its main membership with the Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN.
In terms of environmental issues, in which Brazil exercises great leadership in international forums, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy could put at risk the political and diplomatic capital that the country has amassed. This is true for two reasons: first, because the president-elect wants to review the ownership of important indigenous and quilombola territories where environmental preservation is proven by reports from scientific bodies and environmental monitoring, such as the National Institute of Space Research (INPE); the second is that the important political support the Bolsonaro government will receive from ruralists, who defend agricultural expansion over forest areas. Deforestation in Brazil is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and the Amazon.
Everything stated in this article is based on the candidate’s statements and on his published governing platform. As a federal deputy for almost 30 years, Bolsonaro’s positions have barely evolved. The voters who have elected Bolsonaro agree with the belief or perception that he is an independent politician who does not belong to the system and who will fulfill his promises. If this is true, Brazil’s foreign policy will lose various characteristics that have been built up during the democratic period: the strong relationship with Argentina, significant investment in regional integration, commitment to and defense of multilateralism, the adherence to international human rights bodies, and a turn to an emphasis in South-South relations.
All that political and diplomatic capital would be quickly diluted if Bolsonaro follows through with his campaign promises. (It’s worth mentioning that some of these processes have already begun with the Temer government.) The main reason for these changes is the arrival of a new right-wing ideology that will define the country’s direction, including its foreign relations, for the next four years and beyond.