Joe Biden’s victory in the US election is distressing news for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing populist president who admires Donald Trump. Five days after the American media called the race in Biden’s favor, Bolsonaro was yet to congratulate the Democrat. Since Brazil became a democracy under the Sixth Republic in 1985, almost every Brazilian president has formally congratulated the American president-elect within 24 hours of the election. The exception was the 2000 US presidential race because of the Florida recount.
The 2020 election is another exception. Oddly, Bolsonaro has kept a low profile on the topic. On November 4, he expressed support for Trump: “I think everyone has a preference, and I will not argue with anyone. You know my position, it’s clear, and that’s not interference. I have a good policy with Trump, I hope he will be re-elected. I hope.” Officials said that Brasilia was awaiting the US Supreme Court’s decision on the final vote tally before congratulating anyone — which Bolsonaro finally did yesterday, following Biden’s Electoral College win.
The Biden-Bolsonaro equation matters because the United States and Brazil have had strong links for nearly two centuries. The US was the first country to recognize Brazil’s independence in 1822. During the period of the First Republic, from 1889 to 1930, the country’s official name was the Republic of the United States of Brazil. It imported a federal system of governance from the US and tried to associate with its northern counterpart.
Brazil Rejects Bolsonaro’s Anti-Politics
The US-Brazil relationship goes back a long way and is deeper than ideological affinities between the two countries’ presidents. Until China overtook it in 2010, the US was Brazil’s biggest economic partner. A report by the United States Congressional Research Service on US-Brazil trade relations gives insight into American thinking. China’s investments in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2005 to 2019 amounted to $130 billion, with Brazil accounting for $60 billion and Peru for $27 billion. It is no surprise that the report states that there are “strategic and economic reasons for strengthening trade ties” with Brazil.
In 2016, bilateral trade between Brazil and the US hit a low of $23.2 billion in exports and $23.8 billion in imports. In the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency, exports reached $29.7 billion, a new high since 2008, and imports rose to $30.1 billion, the highest figure since 2014. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, falling oil prices and restrictions on trade have led to a negative performance. Amcham Brasil, published by the American Chamber of Commerce, tells us that exports and imports have fallen by 25% this year as compared to 2019. The total trade figure from January to September was $33.4 billion, the lowest in 11 years.
A Conservative Alliance
When Biden enters the White House next January, Brazil may suffer a stronger fallout. Bolsonaro aligned very closely with Trump’s highly conservative, anti-globalization agenda. Brazil and the US will have to sort out their personal and strategic differences.
According to Cristina Pecequilo, author and professor of international relations at the Federal University of São Paulo, the personal bond between Bolsonaro and Trump will be difficult to let go of. Bolsonaro and his minister of international affairs, Ernesto Araujo, have aligned themselves with and have often emulated Trump. They repudiated multilateralism, undermined state actors and attacked intergovernmental organizations. Bolsonaro was critical of the World Health Organization and the United Nations in his speech at the UN General Assembly this year. He was appealing more to his anti-globalization voters back home than his audience at the UN.
“There is this idea that Brazil and the US belong to the West and that they should be a unit. However, when we look north, it is clear that they historically understand it as themselves and Western Europe, what we call the ‘new transatlantic.’ Brazil is out of that equation,” Pecequilo told me in an interview.
Araujo sees the world differently. He is a strong Trump supporter. In 2017, in an article titled “Trump and the West,” Araujo praised the US president, describing him as a crusader against communism, Islam and globalism. Araujo then reposted the text in his blog Metapolítica. In the minister’s view, “The United States was getting into the boat of western decay, surrendering to nihilism, by deidentifying itself, by deculturation, by replacing living history with abstract, absolute, unquestionable values. They were going into that, until Trump.” Last month, he deleted the post.
Such words are unlikely to have gone down well with the Biden team. Therefore, Pecequilo believes that Araujo will have no option but to resign when all legal challenges to the US election result are exhausted.
The Question of the Environment
Apart from ideological differences, environmental and human rights issues will also present major challenges to US-Brazil relations. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have both openly and repeatedly criticized Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and beliefs. On September 29, Biden even took the issue to the first presidential debate, saying that he “would be right now organizing the hemisphere and the world to provide $20 billion for the Amazon, for Brazil to no longer to burn the Amazon. And if it doesn’t stop, it would face significant economic consequences.”
The statement generated an angry response from Bolsonaro, who characterized the comment as “regrettable, disastrous and gratuitous.” Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, mocked the speech and questioned whether the amount would be an annual or a single transfer.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to place Biden’s remarks in context, delivered by a candidate reaching out to the more progressive voter. Such rhetoric often comes up in a debate. Biden will behave differently when in the Oval Office. His policy will be more centrist. Gabriel Adam, professor at Brazil’s Superior School of Advertising and Marketing, says: “There will be pressure concerning the Amazon, but there will be no sanctions. Pressure shall come through diplomatic means, but at no time will it harm relations concretely. Brazil has more risks of damaging trade relations with the European Union.”
Bolsonaro’s handling of the environment is a key element for Brazil’s relations with the European Union. In 2019, the EU and Mercosur, the South American trading bloc formed by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, announced an agreement to boost trade between the two continents. They agreed to eliminate import tariffs on more than 90% of the products. However, the ratification faces opposition by European civil groups and members of the European Parliament. Both criticize Brazil’s environmental policies. Last October, parliamentarians passed a non-binding resolution calling for changes in Mercosur countries’ environmental agenda to ratify the agreement. This is likely to hurt not only Brazil but also Mercosur’s other members.
Historically, the US has not been a great advocate for the environment. Recently, this issue has been growing in importance. At the center of the recent discussion is the Green New Deal, the project conceived by Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markley. Nevertheless, not even Biden and Harris seem to agree on a position on the subject. While Harris claims to support the plan, Biden says the Green New Deal is a “crucial framework” for his own platform but shies away from fully embracing the plan.
Biden’s climate plan is aggressive when compared to other American presidents. His first duty is to work domestically and demonstrate that the US is no longer a climate change denier. Internationally, the president-elect intends to “name and shame global climate outlaws” through “a new Global Climate Change Report to hold countries to account for meeting, or failing to meet, their Paris commitments and for other steps that promote or undermine global climate solutions.” Brazil is a candidate to be part of this ignominious group.
Brazil faces international outrage over deforestation in the Amazon. It must also decide whether to strengthen the country’s environmental targets under the Paris Climate Agreement by the end of the year. This decision could improve or worsen Brazil’s image on the international arena. On November 4 this year, the US formally withdraw from its commitments under the Paris accords, but the Biden administration promises to rejoin on its first day in office. American action may push Brazil in the same direction, even if unwillingly.
More Pragmatism, Less Ideology
Like their American counterparts, many Brazilians value the US-Brazil relationship. In an interview with CNN Brazil, the Brazilian ambassador to Washington, Nestor Forster, said that a Biden victory would change in the relationship’s emphasis, not its essence. He stressed that he would seek to increase the Brazilian presence in discussions in the US Congress.
Some people in Bolsonaro’s government have shown signs that they understand that changes are about to take place in January 2021. Paulo Guedes, the minister for the economy, said that Biden’s eventual victory would not affect the country’s growth dynamics. An admirer of the Chicago School of minimal state intervention and free competition, Guedes declared that Brazil’s government would “dance with everyone.”
While Bolsonaro’s silence on the US election and failure to recognize Biden as the president-elect has been widely criticized as hostile, the president, unlike his congressman son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, has not openly speculated about voter fraud. While the time it took the Brazilian president to recognize Biden’s win was damaging, it is unlikely to undermine a historic and extremely important relationship where strong mutual interests remain. Yet there are wrinkles to iron over. The Biden administration will not accept open hostility from Bolsonaro.
Despite current ideological differences, common sense will prevail on the American side. Good relations with Brazil will help the US contain China in Latin America. Pecequilo believes that “Biden will keep his pragmatism. We will see localized tensions, but, structurally, Biden will not want to lose the advantages that Trump obtained in the Brazilian market.”
It is Bolsonaro who faces a great dilemma. If Brazil’s ties with the US are further corroded by a blind belief in Trumpism and a lack of pragmatism, the South American giant will emerge as the major loser. As a superpower, it is easier for the US to find other partners and make Brazil a global pariah. Jair Bolsonaro’s choice will have significant consequences for Brazil.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.