Brazil’s recalcitrant president risks isolation after Trump defeat
For Jair Bolsonaro, abandoning Donald Trump was never going to be easy. Three weeks after Joe Biden’s victory, the Brazilian president is the only significant world leader — apart from Vladimir Putin — not to have congratulated the US president-elect.
The two rightwing populist presidents had forged not only a close personal relationship, but an alignment of foreign policies, with Brazil hitching its wagon to Mr Trump’s White House on issues from climate change to relations with Venezuela and China.
Now with Mr Biden promising an overhaul of US foreign policy — and a fresh focus on the environment — Mr Bolsonaro faces a stark choice: dramatically adjust Brazil’s international stance or maintain course and risk isolation.
“Biden’s victory is an earthquake of tremendous proportions for Brazil’s current foreign policy, which relied almost exclusively on a special relationship with Trump,” said a senior diplomat working on US-Brazil relations.
“I think Biden is pragmatic and will reach out to Bolsonaro, but the Brazilian government will have to change course, especially in the areas of environment and its ideological foreign policy, in order to be able to create a ‘modus vivendi’ with the new US administration.”
It is a sentiment echoed to various degrees by several other diplomats in Itamaraty — Brazil’s famously multilateralist Foreign Office — who have seethed quietly for the past two years as Latin America’s largest nation followed the US in promoting conservative causes far removed from their traditional remit.
Preventing religious persecution, for example, became a priority under Mr Bolsonaro — a vocal evangelical Christian — despite the country having little historical expertise on the issue.
One adviser to Ernesto Araújo, Brazil’s foreign minister, said he expected the “cultural and religious issues” to disappear from the bilateral relationship with Mr Biden and that Brazil would face diminished support from the US on key policy objectives, such as its admission to the OECD.
But he cautioned that change would be gradual, pointing out that the “US State Department has been hollowed out in recent years and needs to recover its capacity. And Latin America has never been a priority” for Washington.
Observers say the fate of Mr Araújo — Brazil’s populist foreign minister who is close to Mr Bolsonaro — will offer an indication of how Brazil intends to proceed. If he stays in the post, Brazil is likely to maintain its present position on foreign policy. If he is replaced, it would signal that Mr Bolsonaro is ready to deal with Mr Biden.
Any change, however, could have repercussions for Mr Bolsonaro’s domestic standing.
“The Biden victory will change the internal dynamics within the government, giving the military and the economic teams more leverage. But it is not an easy game as Mr Bolsonaro’s base is crucial and Araújo is much loved,” said Monica Herz, a professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.
The question of if and how Brazilian foreign policy will evolve is a pressing one because Mr Biden has already singled out Brasília. In his final debate with Mr Trump, the president-elect said he would create a multibillion- dollar fund to protect the Amazon rainforest from deforestation and threatened economic sanctions if Brazil did not comply.
In an ominous early indication of potentially stormy seas ahead, the Brazilian president responded that the country would respond with “gunpowder” if it was punished — a comment that elicited widespread mockery among Brazil’s netizens.
Most analysts think, however, that Mr Bolsonaro will change his tone once he begins to feel pressure from the Brazil’s business elite, which recognise the importance of good relations with the country’s second largest trading partner.
“Bolsonaro will step by step moderate his speech and try to adapt his narrative. He will be compelled,” said Hussein Kalout, a former government secretary for strategic affairs, adding that Brazil could use the rollout of 5G as an olive branch to build relations with the Biden administration.
“Bolsonaro is now between a rock and a hard place. He doesn’t have many options. That is why he will be more pragmatic.”