Trump or Biden: What Will it Mean for Brazil and Bolsonaro?
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Few international leaders have identified as closely with U.S. President Donald Trump as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Apart from projecting a warm personal friendship with Donald Trump, Bolsonaro and his team have expanded official Brazilian engagement with the United States through measures aimed at increasing bilateral cooperation and trade and by aligning with U.S. positions on Venezuela and China.
Bolsonaro and those close to him have made clear their hope that Trump will be reelected this November. However, media reports indicate his administration has begun to consider the implications of a potential Biden administration, and the real possibility of friction on the environment and climate change, as well as on policies regarding gender, LGBTQ rights, and other social issues. Bolsonaro and other Brazilian leaders have voiced confidence that shared interests— particularly on trade and economic matters—will ensure continued positive ties between the United States and Brazil regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election.
Watch the event recording above to learn more about what a Trump or Biden victory could mean for Brazil and for the bilateral relationship.
Ricardo Mendes: Chinese presence in Latin America will remain a key concern for the United States, regardless of who wins the election and there will be changes in the way this is dealt bilaterally, but I don’t see any other possibility but for the two countries to continue working together and continue cooperating and perhaps even strengthening the cooperation under this new geopolitical scenario.
Patricia Campos Mello: Brazil is [at] the very important point that it has to decide if it’s going to allow or not Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, in its 5G infrastructure. And we have conflicting voices inside the government: you have Agriculture Ministry and the vice president that are more diplomatic … they have not said we’re not going to ban Huawei; and [then] the Foreign Ministry and the president himself have been saying [that] sovereignty and national security are really important issues to consider when we’re talking about the 5G auctions. This is one of the themes that are very relevant to the bilateral relationship, and I think this is one topic [where we are] going to have some convergence.
Brian Winter: One thing that seems likely under either Biden or Trump is this idea of common cause against China. I think that the biggest change in the Democratic Party establishment, compared to four years ago, is the degree to which they now think that China is a rival, if not a threat. That’s a big evolution there, and it’s one that I understand that a future President Biden would be likely to continue—and that’s also one reason why most people expect that, at least at the beginning, a Biden government would seek a cordial relationship with Jair Bolsonaro. The other reason for that being that Biden knows that on January 20, 2021, provided that we don’t have a constitutional crisis here in the United States after the election that results in some kind of delay, they know that they will face a very complicated world, a world that is still in the midst of a recession, or at least an economic stagnant period, that’s likely to continue for some time.
Brian Winter: China is not only Brazil’s biggest trading partner, but if I’m not mistaken, the commercial balance is actually three times bigger than the United States. It’s a huge commercial partner. So you have a government in the Brazilian government that, my sort of read on it is they really don’t want Huawei involved in 5G, this is kind of a threshold for a lot of the conservatives who are now sort of running the show at Itamaraty, at the Foreign Ministry, starting with Minister Araujo himself. But on the other hand, you have an establishment that’s absolutely terrified that this 5G question will unfold in a way that will alienate China. Trying to figure out which way they will go, depends a lot on who gets elected here [in the United States] and […] to what extent are we headed back to a cold war-style world where you are obligated, at least at some level, to take sides.
Patricia Campos Mello: They have already postponed [the 5G auction]—I mean the auction was supposed to take place this year, but I don’t think they are going to be able to postpone it much longer. I mean we are going to be really behind in terms of technology. We could be doing something like what India is doing: India has not said in so many words [that] the Indian government is going to ban Huawei, but in effect that’s what they are doing.
Ricardo Mendes: Brazil has always sought to diversify its partners, if you look at Brazil’s trade partners, China is the main importer of Brazilian products right now, but not by far—if you add up the European countries, you see the European countries are up there; if you add up the developing countries, you see that the developing countries are up there as well; if you add up the United States, you will see that the United States is up there as well. This has always been something that Brazil sought to have, to not be too dependent on any country.
Ricardo Mendes: The private sector in Brazil are mostly, they are very pragmatic, they don’t really favor China over the United States. They see China as an important source of financing, they see China as an important destiny for exports […]. I really think what prevails is something that Brazil should be more independent, not to be reliant on any specific countries, and the Chinese are there willing to do business, so let’s be very pragmatic, and do business with them.
Patricia Campos Mello: Maybe in a Biden government you wouldn’t have such a very aggressive stance in saying, you know, we have to get rid of Nicolas Maduro. It would be a little bit more subtle. They would keep the sanctions—but not as aggressive, the rhetoric. But still, it is something [that] would unite both countries.
Patricia Campos Mello: Itamaraty’s position is that previous administrations, and they are right in a way, always said it’s important to maintain the communication channels open because this is the only way we can influence the government to grow less authoritarian, and the fact is that it never changed and it never really helped to have those communication channels open. Although the way it is now, it’s the complete opposite—I mean we don’t even have diplomatic representation there […]. Brazil has never had…such a small influence on what happens in Venezuela. We are not even participating in multilateral talks. The only thing we are doing is welcoming refugees and this is something that I’m really proud of this government and previous governments [for doing].
Patricia Campos Mello: On the other hand, I think there is a lot of homework for Brazilian government to do regarding, of course, the environment. Right now, inside the Brazilian government there is a perception that the problem with the environment is not that we are having record numbers of fires and deforestation. No, it’s a communications problem, it’s a PR problem […] and they have to show people that actually our environmental policy is really good. […] So, this is going to have to change because the constituency of Vice President Biden and the Democrats, they are going to be asking for—or demanding—some action. And we heard this in the [first U.S. presidential] debate, I mean it was one of the only countries that was mentioned—[it] was Brazil, Russia, and China. And Brazil specifically about the Amazon, and the destruction of Amazon. It’s not going to be effective, if they are still in this denial attitude, to say ‘it’s just a communications problem.’
Brian Winter: The Amazon issue in particular crosses over from the realm of the foreign policy experts and into our domestic politics, and I know of no other way to say this than to say if AOC starts tweeting about Bolsonaro, the relationship will be in trouble and it’s not difficult to imagine that happening—but a lot of that will be in the Brazilian government’s hands if it comes to that. […] If the Brazil subject jumps from the foreign policy people to the domestic policy people and if it becomes a passion topic for the Democratic Party rank and file, and for Americans at large, all bets are off.
Brian Winter: Bolsonaro administration’s first reaction when this huge crisis because of the Amazon first exploded in their laps back in August of last year was to be very defensive, was to say that there was no real problem, was to lash out at globalists and the protectionists in Europe who they said were using the Amazon as a cudgel for their own interests […]. Since then, their posture has changed, some of the rhetoric has changed, there’s tens of thousands of Brazilian troops in the Amazon now with the goal of tamping down some of these fires. This year, though, has been another bad year.
Brian Winter: I think that it will always be true that the most effective pressure on the Bolsonaro government will come from the inside—the agribusiness lobby—as opposed to the outside, because you know, frankly, all politics are domestic, and if you dig into the polling, one of the areas where Bolsonaro has the strongest approval rating is in his handling of the Amazon and the environment.
Patricia Campos Mello: We are seeing a growing movement among agribusiness leadership that realizes that this is going end up being really bad for business. The Bolsonaro government usually, and this is part of the military approach, they say this is foreign agents trying to interfere with Brazilian sovereignty and there is all this conspiracy about the Amazon—and this comes from years and years, from the military dictatorship. But the agribusiness sector, and especially the Minister of Agriculture Teresa Christina, they have a much more pragmatic understanding of the situation. And they know that yes, there are some foreign interests, you have the agricultural sector in other countries in the European Union, [such as] France, that are protectionists, and they see a vulnerability if Brazil continues to have this approach to environmental policy and these horrible figures on deforestation and fires. [… But] I do think that we have seen, for instance, big agriculture or even meat processing plants like Marfrig and JBS getting together with the World Wildlife Fund, for instance, and [they] say, you know, we want to distance ourselves from this because this is bad for business.
Ricardo Mendes: The financial sector has also been engaging on this topic, the main Brazilian banks, and international banks that operate in Brazil have also been putting pressure on this specific thing—but just to say a few words here, I think Bolsonaro has proven to be a very pragmatic politician. We have been noticing the way he is building his support bases in Congress and how he has shifted completely from one direction to another on specific issues. I mean, as long as it is a PR issue, they will be willing to do anything, they will be willing to even replace the minister of environment or maybe merge the Ministry of Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture. I really see these things happening as we move forward. However, I think there will be two problems that will be much harder to deal with […]: the mindset these people have of the Amazon specifically—they believe the Amazon is a region to be developed—and the way they perceive this development somehow related to models that were built in the 1970s. It's not just a PR problem, it’s not something that will go away [by] replacing the ministers, it’s not something that will go away just by controlling the fires, it’s a different mindset on what needs to be done with the Amazon.
Brian Winter: There is a lot of hope in both capitals that if there is a second Trump term that you will see ths alignment continue, and there is a genuine belief that there could be a meaningful trade deal in a second Trump administration. The U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer at one point seemed to indicate, at least to me, that [a trade deal] was off the table, but I have heard from multiple people that [it] was actually kind of a technical answer to a technical question, and that maybe something big and meaningful could be possible over the next couple years.
Ricardo Mendes: The COVID situation made things worse at a time when we already had a challenging landscape across Latin America. And I’m not saying challenging just economically or [from] the security perspective, but I think the space, the possibilities for cooperation with other countries are just harder than they were previously.
Ricardo Mendes: At the beginning Brazil was kind of an outlier in the region because it had no policies in place, or no national policies in place of quarantining, or anything like that, and all other countries did—Peru, Chile, Argentina had very strict rules—and the countries were talking, and there were high-level meetings among the ministries of health of these countries, and Brazil was just…when they did attend these meetings it wasn’t the first tier of the Ministry who was representing them in the meetings. Several months on, I think everyone seems to be doing a pretty bad job and the fact that they’re not cooperating remains there.
Potential Biden-Bolsonaro Relationship
Patricia Campos Mello: I think if there is a Biden administration, he’s going to be held accountable by his constituency and they would not tolerate an American president just being all, like, really good friends with a Brazilian president that has been adopting measures that are seen as anti-LGBT community or anti-Indigenous communities or misogynistic. So, it’s not only cultural. I think this is something that the base and mainly the left wing of the Democratic Party is going to be really [firm] on.
Brian Winter: Under a second Trump administration, I don’t see much pressure on that front; under a Biden administration, I think the only issue that’s likely to really rise up and contaminate the relationship is the Amazon.
Patrícia Campos Mello
The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors. Read more