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Decoding Bolsonaro’s “make Brazil great” foreign policy

Brazil’s new far-right leader could apply his nationalistic message in ways that will have consequences abroad.

Jair Bolsonaro on October 28, 2018.
Ricardo Moraes-Pool/Getty Images

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president-elect, has promised to “make Brazil great again.”

For Bolsonaro and many of his supporters, that primarily means restoring “law and order” and rooting out government corruption. But that nationalistic message will have consequences outside Brazil’s borders, and could even shift the country’s role in the region and the world.

To be clear, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy is still coming into focus. He seemed muddled at times during the campaign — declaring he would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, for example, before changing his position and promising to stay in.

But he has expressed disdain for international institutions, including the United Nations, which he’s called a gathering “for communists” and threatened to leave. He has also said he prefers bilateral deals, especially on trade. But whether his stances hint at a real rejection of multilateral engagement or represent political pandering during campaign season will reveal themselves more clearly when he takes office on January 1.

Bolsonaro’s far-right views could also bring Brazil closer to more conservative governments in the region, such as Colombia and Chile. It may also mean tighter ties with the United States. The president-elect has often been compared to President Donald Trump and has expressed admiration for him in the past, telling supporters in the US last year, “Trump is an example to me  ... I plan to get closer to him for the good of both Brazil and the United States. We can take his examples from here back to Brazil.”

The primary example Bolsonaro seems to have taken is Trump’s “Make America Great Again” strategy, reconfigured for Brazil. Bolsonaro promised — and his voters seem to crave — Brazil’s return “to the roots of religion, of character, of national pride,” Britta Crandall, a Latin American studies professor at Davidson College, told me. That means a focus inward on domestic priorities, such as cracking down on crime and corruption, that will restore Brazil’s status as a rising power. Bolsonaro is responding to the desire of Brazilians, Crandall, said, “to serve as a model for the world.”

Bolsonaro may shuffle regional and global partnerships

Bolsonaro’s campaign attacks against the leftist Workers’ Party in Brazil spilled over into his critiques of other left-leaning foreign governments. Given that, it seems likely that Brazil’s global partnerships may shift to reflect his worldview. And the obvious one here is Venezuela, which is dealing with a spiraling economic and political crisis under Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Brazil’s leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known popularly as Lula), who was in power from 2003 to 2010, embraced a “South-South” policy — emphasizing partnerships with developing countries — and tried to build up Brazil’s influence in the region and the world. Lula also built strong ties with other left-leaning governments in the region, most notably Venezuela.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, largely maintained the status quo, though she wasn’t as foreign policy-oriented as Lula, and domestic problems, including a deepening recession, crept in during her tenure. Under current center-right President Michel Temer, who took over after Rousseff was impeached in 2016, Brazil’s relationship with Venezuela has become strained, heightened by a growing refugee crisis at the Venezuela-Brazil border.

Bolsonaro will likely be even tougher on Venezuela, given his past criticisms of the regime. During his campaign, he used the country’s current state of economic and political turmoil under Maduro as a way to dissuade voters from continuing to elect leftist leaders.

Shortly after Bolsonaro’s election, a report circulated in Brazilian media, attributed to a Colombian diplomat, that Colombia would support Bolsonaro should he attempt to oust Venezuela’s Maduro.

Colombian officials later rejected the news report — as did Bolsonaro’s likely future defense minister, who denied any plans for military action in Venezuela. But the existence of the report speaks to an impending shift in Brazil-Venezuela relations and Maduro’s increasing isolation in the region.

Bolsonaro could still increase pressure on Venezuela — and here is where a close friendship with the United States is likely to come in. The Trump administration has condemned Venezuela’s government for fomenting an escalating humanitarian and economic crisis, and has sanctioned top Venezuelan officials. Bolsonaro could turn out to be an eager partner in this campaign.

“Brazil will move closer to the US on the Venezuela issue, perhaps defending the application of economic sanctions against the Maduro government,” Maurício Santoro, a professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University, told the Financial Times on Tuesday.

A shift toward the US would not be insignificant. Relations between the two countries have sometimes been frosty, particularly when leftists held power in Brazil. But things look likely to change: Trump and Bolsonaro spoke after the latter’s victory. Both enthusiastically tweeted about their conversation and reaffirmed the partnership between the two countries.

There’s one small issue with closer Brazil-US relations: China. Brazil is one of China’s biggest trading partners, and some sectors of Brazil’s economy are benefiting from the US’s ongoing trade war with Beijing. But Bolsonaro has criticized China’s investments in Brazil’s economy, citing them as undue foreign influence.

These realities may constraint Bolsonaro in how deeply he can reorient Brazil’s foreign policy. But it’s clear that in some areas — most obviously with Venezuela — he looks poised to break with tradition in a big way.

How domestic politics could feed into Bolsonaro’s foreign policy

Bolsonaro has bashed the United Nations. He’s promised to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following the US’s lead. And he threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, though he eventually walked back that threat.

These promises seem straight from a Trumpian playbook, but how Bolsonaro will interact with multilateral institutions once he takes office is still an open question. For example, Bolsonaro may go along with the climate agreement, but his close ties to the agriculture and mining industries have raised fears that he will roll back environmental protections, particularly for the Amazon, and undermine global climate change goals. At the same time, despite his harsh words for the UN, he’s already called on the organization to help mitigate the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

A former military officer and congress member, Bolsonaro has never been known as a foreign policy specialist and will likely have to rely on the expertise of his ministers. His prospective defense minister, Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, a retired general, has said Brazil’s fundamental foreign policy rule will be “noninterference.” Another official from Bolsonaro’s party, Luiz Philippe de Orléans e Bragança, who’s a favorite for foreign minister, has embraced an isolationist approach, decrying foreign influence in Brazil.

But Bolsonaro’s campaign has been defined by his vow to put Brazil first. That may ultimately mean domestic priorities take precedent. Yet the new president — and Brazil — knows the whole world is watching. “There’s a real frustration among Brazilians. They’re embarrassed by the violence, by the corruption, by the crime,” Crandall said.

If Bolsonaro can reverse those trends, then Brazilians see that as a chance to regain their stature in the world. They feel that “Brazil is better than this,” Crandall said. “And that’s for the world to see as much as for the Brazilians.”