Image: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a ceremony of Aviator’s Day at Brasilia Air Base on October 23, 2020. Source: Reuters / Adriano Machado.
The United States government has mismanaged the relationship with Brazil during the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. The best it can expect after October’s presidential elections is a frosty coexistence, with either a re-elected Bolsonaro or former President Lula returned to power. Bolsonaro would be emboldened to continue his efforts to erode democratic checks and balances and would intensify the economic development of the Amazon. Lula would be warily pragmatic with the United States, which he blames for his 538 days of incarceration, but would make a political virtue of his independence from U.S. foreign policy goals. Either way, even a clear win for either candidate would require far defter post-election U.S. diplomacy on Brazil than has been evident to date. A more likely outcome of the October election, however, is far worse for Washington—Bolsonaro’s refusal to accept defeat and a Brazilian replica of the insurrectionist events of January 6, 2021. U.S. silence and passivity over the past four years as Bolsonaro has undermined the country’s democratic institutions and values, and parallel U.S. inattention to the Brazilian left during that time, risks a major failure of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, with consequences for broader regional diplomacy.
One of the most troubling developments globally, also reflected in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, is the tendency for democracies to morph into dictatorships or authoritarian populist regimes by eviscerating independent institutions and consolidating power in the hands of a leader. Many studies describe how populists do this, methodically dismantling independent centers of power. Usually, populists first attack civil society by labeling organizations as “foreign agents” to curtail outside funding sources. Then populists accuse journalists of being disloyal and in league with an imagined internal enemy. Soon, they decry courts as partisan and remove judges from office. Finally, they tame legislatures to manipulate elections. In short order, the populist has changed the rules of the game. Even if once elected democratically, the authoritarian populist needs little time to undermine democratic legitimacy.
Bolsonaro has followed this authoritarian populist playbook for four years, with virtually no U.S. public or private pushback. He has attacked judges as partisan figures who cannot be trusted, criticized Brazil’s outstanding electronic voting system (which he says the left is preparing to manipulate), castigated the media as purveyors of fake news, and lambasted civil society (which he often contends is in the pay of foreign interests intent on undermining Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon). He has said that only fraud or God will remove him from office. He has ensured more guns are in the hands of private citizens. More chilling are statements by his son Eduardo, a senator, that it would only take one corporal to shut down the Supreme Court and that the January 6 insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., were poorly organized and led and should have had a better plan. In March, his social media manager, son Carlos, traveled to Russia with Bolsonaro to meet Putin and his team. Bolsonaro’s latest statements argue that the military or a private company that Bolsonaro contracts should run a parallel presidential vote count. Taken individually, none of those things are normal for a politician or his family members in a democratic society. But taken collectively, they should have alarm bells ringing in Washington.
It’s worth reflecting on the two stages of U.S. policy towards Brazil during the Bolsonaro administration, both of which showcase unfortunate tendencies in U.S. diplomacy in Latin America. The period covered by President Trump’s administration offers an example of the U.S. tendency to personalize policy. In those years, U.S. officials put a lot of eggs in the Bolsonaro basket, paying less attention to the Brazilian left than would have been normal for U.S. diplomacy. Trump saw in Bolsonaro a right-wing populist, a Latin American reflection of himself that he found gratifying. As a result, the policy professionals in the U.S. government largely acquiesced to a personalized policy approach to Brazil, in furtherance of marginal objectives, like interim bilateral trade facilitation agreements or formalization of ongoing security cooperation arrangements. The personalization of policy is rarely wise, and in U.S. embassies, it risks shaping political analysis to reflect what diplomats think Washington wants to hear. In my view, this happened in Brazil.
Many observers expected President Biden to change this dynamic. Yet, he appears instead to have engaged in transactional diplomacy in Brazil—remaining silent in the face of Bolsonaro’s serious democratic backsliding in exchange for Bolsonaro’s support on important environmental commitments associated with the COP-26 process (which no one in Brazil believes will be kept). U.S. silence has become more disturbing in the face of one of the most insidious Bolsonaro policies, his persistent efforts to re-politicize the Brazilian military. While the military enjoys a positive reputation in Brazil today, it follows more than a generation of patient efforts to rebuild its credibility in the wake of the 1964-85 dictatorship. Brazilian peacekeepers became United Nations stalwarts in over 50 peacekeeping missions globally. In recent weeks, however, Bolsonaro’s work began to bear fruit when the navy chief endorsed Bolsonaro’s unfounded criticisms of the voting system.
Many predict Bolsonaro will lose his reelection bid this year, and serious questions remain about how he might respond to electoral defeat. Former President Lula, the current polling favorite, is a pragmatist and worked constructively with the United States during his two terms, 2003-10. He could work well with the United States again if elected in November, but his public comments raise questions about how he views the United States in the wake of his imprisonment, a long pause in substantive American dialogue with the Brazilian left, and what is considered as the U.S.’ enabling silence on Bolsonaro’s excesses. Many on the Brazilian left believe the United States was involved in Lula’s conviction and incarceration. Should Lula win, Russia and China will certainly portray these issues to Lula in ways to maximize their influence.
It would have cost little for the United States to have maintained closer high-level conversations with the left in Brazil over the last two years. True, Lula and his party were implicated in significant corruption scandals, like most of the Brazilian political elite has been, and Lula himself was incarcerated on corruption charges until his release in November 2019. But public integrity investigations involving Bolsonaro and his family did not prevent him from having multiple high-level meetings with President Trump. It is difficult to discern what was gained from this shortsighted approach, other than a more fraught 2022 election season in Brazil and, potentially, a more complicated relationship with some of Brazil’s most influential national leaders. Here, too, the Biden administration remains largely silent. If the United States lacks influence in a Brazil again led by President Lula, the seeds are being sown now.
The best case for the United States is a clean win by about 10 points for either Bolsonaro or Lula in October. This scenario would likely avoid the brewing diplomatic crisis associated with Bolsonaro’s laying the groundwork to challenge the results if he loses. Yet even a clear win would leave the United States exposed in Brazil. A re-elected Bolsonaro would be emboldened to accelerate his authoritarian political project and develop the Amazon. He represents a powerful agribusiness constituency that regards Amazonian economic development as akin to the United States developing the West. A clear Lula win would be less comfortable for the United States than many surmise. U.S. policymakers underestimate the left’s resentment towards the United States.
The worst case would be a Brazilian version of the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., as Bolsonaro falsely tries to cling to power after an election defeat. This outcome would be tragic for Brazilians and undermine U.S. influence even further in Latin America. More broadly, a Brazil that turns inward following electoral chaos would be bad news for the entire region.
Brazil has diplomatic relationships in Latin America that could materially advance difficult challenges. For example, the time is ripe for a constructive approach to the situation in Venezuela. It is less important to “name and shame” than it is to find solutions that heal the festering wounds that this conflict has caused. It is not easy for the United States to play this role since it has identified itself with one side. Perhaps it’s time for a government of national unity in Venezuela that would serve for at least one full electoral term. Cabinet portfolios could be divided with opposition parties. A small and trusted “group of friends” could play the kind of role for Venezuela that the guarantors, including Brazil, played in resolving the Ecuador-Peru border conflict in 1995. The solution to the problem could have several stages, with the ultimate goal being internationally observed national elections. Peru is a country that may also benefit from close coordination and quiet diplomacy in the months ahead as that deeply divided society seeks a path forward. Its inability to resolve problems over time resulted in horrendous terrorism challenges and now seemingly intractable political disputes. The Northern Triangle of Central America remains an area of intense interest for the United States because of migration generated by state failures, but there is room for constructive Brazilian diplomatic engagement too. Brazil has outstanding experience in establishing and insulating from political manipulation the multiple independent institutions that make democracy function. Brazilian diplomacy in those countries, as well as with more weighty partners like Mexico, could make a substantial difference to the outcomes for those societies. And, of course, there is Cuba and Nicaragua, where the United States has no constructive relationships and where trends are negative. Which country in the region is better placed than Brazil to nudge those countries in a more positive direction? Being effective means making incremental progress, not necessarily vanquishing an opponent.
Brazil’s importance as a democratic heavyweight and its potential as a diplomatic leader makes U.S. passivity during the Bolsonaro administration all the more difficult to understand, especially coming from the Biden administration. The minimum expected for U.S. diplomacy in Brazil today should be public visits to judicial and electoral authorities and public statements reflecting full confidence in their independence and professionalism. It should include private messages to senior military figures, cautioning them to remain a disciplined non-political force in the event of electoral disputes. And it should involve private messages to Bolsonaro and his key supporters that affect the cost-benefit analysis he makes as he contemplates his electoral period decisions. There is still time to make a difference, but it’s fast running out.
Scott Hamilton is a former senior U.S. foreign service officer who retired in April, 2022 after almost 30 years of service. His most recent assignments were Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires in Cuba, and Director for Central American Affairs in Washington, DC. He also served at the US Mission to the OAS, and in Colombia and Ecuador, among other assignments. He is a graduate of Oxford University, Harvard Law School, and the National Defense University.