In Brazil’s hard-right leader, Trump finds kindred spirit

Published October 30, 2018, 10:13 AM

by AJ Siytangco


By Agence France-Presse

Brazil’s election of the hard-right Jair Bolsonaro gives Donald Trump a kindred spirit, with the Americas’ two most populous nations to be ruled by brash presidents in tune on issues from climate change to Israel.

The former army captain, who won 55 percent of the vote in Sunday’s second round, has a long history of provocative remarks that might even make Trump blush, from telling a leftist politician she wasn’t “worth raping” to saying he would rather his son die than be gay.

Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro (R) ran a campaign that mirrored US President Donald Trump's populaist playbook (AFP/File / MANDEL NGAN, Nelson ALMEIDA / MANILA BULLETIN)
Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro (R) ran a campaign that mirrored US President Donald Trump’s populaist playbook (AFP/File / MANDEL NGAN, Nelson ALMEIDA / MANILA BULLETIN)

Bolsonaro’s punchy, bare-bones campaign mirrored Trump’s playbook as the Brazilian vowed to crush crime, railed against media coverage, embraced Christian identity and shifted tone sharply from previous leaders’ celebration of ethnic diversity.

Trump congratulated Bolsonaro by telephone, tweeting that the two had an “excellent” call and agreed “that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on trade, military and everything else!”

Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and champion of right-wing populism, in an interview with Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo hailed Bolsonaro as setting a new path for Latin America.

Bolsonaro’s rise has likewise alarmed US liberals. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 18 Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Ro Khanna voiced concern about Bolsonaro’s praise of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and urged the Trump administration to tie cooperation to respect for human rights.

With Bolsonaro promising to stack his cabinet with military officers, “it is not inconceivable that Brazil could return to the dark authoritarian days of its recent past,” the lawmakers wrote.

Rare company for Trump

Bolsonaro could be a vital partner for Trump on two of his loneliest international battles — climate change and Israel.

A staunch supporter of agribusiness, Bolsonaro has promised to favor investors over ecologists in the Amazon rainforest. He threatened to join Trump in withdrawing from the Paris climate accord but recently backtracked.

Bolsonaro has also spoken of moving Brazil’s embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, becoming the only major country other than the United States to do so after Trump recognized the disputed holy city as Israel’s capital.

Closer to home, Bolsonaro will likely join Trump and Colombia’s new conservative president, Ivan Duque, in ramping up pressure on Venezuela’s left-wing government which is battling hyperinflation and an exodus of citizens who struggle to pay for basic goods.

And Bolsonaro shares Trump’s assertive pushback against a rising China. Bolsonaro in February visited Taiwan — which Beijing considers a renegade province — and has accused China of “buying Brazil.”

But Bolsonaro and Trump face fundamentally different backdrops, with the Brazilian leader elected in the wake of economic crisis.

“It’s one thing to govern using social networks when it doesn’t matter what you say; the economy is doing well,” said Joel Velasco, a principal at the Albright Stonebridge strategy group and former advisor to the US ambassador in Brazil.

“Bolsonaro is going to have to be much more careful about what he says because he has an economy which is much more fragile,” he said.

Brazil is the world’s top exporter of beef and second-largest exporter of soybeans and, with China and Islamic countries as vital markets, he may need to think twice about the impact of his actions, Velasco said.

Rallying behind US

If actions remain to be seen, “certainly on the rhetoric Brazil will be much more willing to sign on to statements and otherwise with the US,” Velasco said.

Brazil for decades has emphasized multilateralism over alliances. It is part of a push to expand the permanent membership of the UN Security Council, where the United States is one of five countries wielding veto power.

With Bolsonaro like Trump holding the global body in low esteem, it is unlikely he will prioritize the Security Council, Velasco said.

But Roberta Braga, an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Center, doubted how much the military man would focus on foreign policy.

“Bolsonaro is far more likely to begin with a turn inward and a focus on the implementation of domestic policies to curb urban violence and curb Brazil’s debt,” she said.

James Roberts, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the United States and Brazil could work on a free trade agreement, with Bolsonaro eager to welcome investors.

“There are a lot of parallels and I think a lot of opportunities for a much improved US-Brazil relationship,” Roberts said.