‘Tropical Trump’ Bolsonaro threatens to upend Brazil’s foreign policy

Jair Bolsonaro, the winner of Sunday’s Brazilian presidential election run-off, endorses an array of foreign policy positions akin to those of US President Donald Trump, on issues from the Israel-Palestine conflict to trade with China.

Mauro Pimentel, AFP | Bolsonaro pictured in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 7, 2018.

“Trump wants to make America great again and I want to do the same for Brazil,” Bolsonaro said on the campaign trail. Having earned himself the moniker ‘the tropical Trump’ for his lurid far-right statements, Jair Bolsonaro threatens to radically change the direction of his country’s foreign policy.

“There is an obvious closeness between Bolsonaro and Trump, not just in terms of political discourse but also in terms of personality and style,” said Alvaro Sierra, the director of FRANCE 24’s Spanish channel in Bogota, Colombia.

‘Palestine is not a country,’ Bolsonaro says

Bolsonaro supports several diplomatic moves that many analysts see as suggesting an ideological alignment with Trump’s US.

One of the clearest signals would be moving Brazil's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following Trump's cue, as Guatemala has also done.

Brazil has long supported a two-state solution for the conflict over Palestine and in 2010 recognised the Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with Israel.

However, Bolsonaro has said that “Palestine is not a country”, while promising to move Brazil's embassy to Jerusalem and close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

“Bolsonaro has been very keen to court evangelical voters, who for the same reasons as their counterparts in the US, want their country aligned with Israel thanks to biblical notions of what Brazil represents,” observed Anthony Pereira, director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“His positions on Israel might also be to do with the fact that he has a lot of backing from military figures in Brazil, many of whom admire Israel for its military prowess,” Pereira continued.

Questioning alliances

Bolsonaro's attitude towards South American neighbours has been chilly, especially socialist Venezuela, which he has pledged to confront firmly.

“From a Latin American point of view, I think the most immediate effect [of Bolsonaro’s victory] will be a change in Brazil’s foreign policy with regard to Venezuela,” said Sierra. “Former Brazilian presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff sided with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and later with his successor Nicolas Maduro; Bolsonaro has signalled that his policy will be exactly the opposite.”

“The border between Venezuela and Brazil has become an important escape route for Venezuelan refugees,” noted FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Armen Georgian. “If Bolsonaro does indeed adopt a militarised approach to this border, that could entrench Maduro’s anti-American stance even further.”

‘China is buying Brazil’

Bolsonaro has also publicly disdained South America’s Mercosur trade bloc, which Brazil founded with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Even the BRICS alliance, which has gained steam as Brazil set up development banks and encouraged trade with Russia, India, China and South Africa, could get a sceptical second look from Bolsonaro.

"Bolsonaro could try to get out of BRICS with a Trumpian attitude," Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, told Reuters. "That would send a signal to China that Brazil is becoming hostile."

Indeed, Brazil’s election-winner has repeatedly warned of Chinese investors taking control of strategic natural resources in the mining and energy sectors. China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner and a major source of foreign investment.

"China isn't buying in Brazil, China is buying Brazil," he said in August. "Are you willing to leave Brazil in the hands of the Chinese?"

“Bolsonaro has adopted some very tough anti-China rhetoric, very similar to that of Trump,” Georgian noted. “But at the same time, Trump’s trade war with China has actually benefitted Brazil, because China has turned to Brazilian agriculture – so there’s a lot of thinking and perhaps rebalancing for Bolsonaro to do there.”

Nevertheless, Pereira suggested that maintaining a relatively protectionist stance may well be a rational course of action for Brazil.

“Many of Bolsonaro’s trade policies are quite neoliberal,” he noted. “They’re about reducing quotas and opening Brazil up, but in an international context of retaliatory, protectionist measures, if Brazil takes these measures unilaterally, it will be vulnerable to closed markets in other places.”

A Trumpist pick as foreign minister?

Bolsonaro has already begun naming members of a future cabinet, but has not confirmed his pick for foreign minister.

Ernesto Fraga Araújo, head of the United States and Canada department at the foreign ministry, is Bolsonaro's first choice for the role, Paulo Kramer, a politics professor who advises the Bolsonaro campaign, told Reuters.

In unusual behaviour for a Brazilian diplomat, Fraga Araújo has used a personal blog dedicated to arguments "Against Globalism" to call for Brazilians to back Bolsonaro's campaign.

But it was an article called "Trump and the West" in a diplomatic journal that showed the Bolsonaro camp how much the 51-year-old diplomat shared their world view, Kramer said.

Fraga Araújo argued in the paper that Trump is saving Western Christian civilisation from radical Islam and "globalist cultural Marxism" by standing up for national identity, family values and the Christian faith as Europe has not.

Brazil has a chance to recover its "Western soul", embrace Trump's brand of nationalism and pursue its national interests instead of being tied to blocs of nations, he wrote.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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