Gaffes, Mistakes, and Humiliations Define Brazil’s New Foreign Policy

Brazilian President Michel Temer has globe-trotted in an attempt to appear presidential, but has instead bungled every opportunity.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Brazilian President Michel Temer addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016 in New York City. Heads of state gathered to address global issues at the 71st annual meeting at the UN headquarters in New York.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Brazilian President Michel Temer addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016 in New York. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Michel Temer, thank you for talking to us. How are you?

Hi, how are you, Mr. President? Very good.

Congratulations. How are you?

Thank you, Mr. President. I want to visit Argentina soon.

Good. How was it today?

Yes, I want to visit you. If you invite me, I will happily accept.

Ah, it seems to me that you are a bit mistaken. … Well, Michel Temer, I wanted to ask you a question: What time is your speech today?

I am going to speak at four in the afternoon.


The unforgettable recording of Michel Temer’s phone call with Argentine President Mauricio Macri was Temer’s first international performance as Brazilian president. Just hours after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, Temer tried out his rusty portunhol (an ad hoc mixture of Portuguese and Spanish) for naught. The nation soon learned that it was actually an Argentine morning radio shock-jock on the other end of the line, calling to prank the unelected president. The episode was a prelude for what would become of Brazil’s new international policy.

In just over six months, Michel Temer and his team have accumulated a seemingly infinite number of international blunders and gaffes. This should not be too surprising, since, domestically, he considered the outspoken ex-model and notorious misogynist Alexandre Frota a qualified enough citizen to offer counsel on the future of the country’s education policy; invited a controversial right-wing protest group, the Free Brazil Movement, to assist on the president’s communications strategy; and has claimed to keep Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes around because he looks like the ’70s TV detective Kojak. But, without a doubt, the majority of gaffes have been concentrated in Temer’s foreign policy.

When José Serra was named minister of foreign relations, Brazil took on an aggressive role on the continent and an imperialist tone. The new stance is clear: Be rough on countries with left-leaning governments, be kind to those on the right, and wag your tail for the major powers.

This ideological wooden horse pleased the large Brazilian news organizations, especially Folha, O Globo, and Estadão, but seemed strange to the editor of Foreign Policy magazine:

If Serra thinks that reforming foreign policy means to undo what Lula has done, he is not acting in the best interests of Brazil. … If Brazil rolls back to pre-Lula policies, which were essentially, “Let’s have economic policies with some parts of the world, let’s not cause problems, let’s adopt a skeptical-reflexive tone in relation to the United States, etc.,” this would not be good.


Fernão Lara Mesquita, owner of the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, at a pro-Aécio Neves rally in 2014, holding a sign that reads: “Fuck Venezuela.”

Photo: Antônio Augusto Amaral de Carvalho Filho/Instagram

In June, the Foreign Ministry, known as Itamaraty, threatened to change its vote on a UNESCO resolution reaffirming Palestinians’ historical claim to the Al Aqsa mosque and classifying Israel as an occupying nation. Brazil had originally voted in favor of the resolution. A vote switch would not change the result (33-6 in favor of the Palestine position) but would clearly demonstrate a new position more aligned with the United States, which voted against the resolution. The fact surprised a high-ranking UNESCO diplomat speaking anonymously to the Estado de São Paulo newspaper:

The statement indicates that they are leaning towards a change. I understand that Minister José Serra wants to oppose the Dilma Rousseff government, but this will have impacts on bilateral relations and may even represent a break in the Brazilian approach, which is historic in regards to Palestine. … It is strange that an influential country like Brazil would reverse its position in this way.

In a quick about-face, the Itamaraty changed its mind again and said it would actually maintain its vote.

Brazil was represented abroad by a president who no one voted for, a foreign minister who does not know what the NSA is, and an agriculture minister who is the worst deforester in the Amazon.

During his short tenure, Serra has been the protagonist of Monty Python-esque incidents that make the Macri crank call seem amateur by comparison. In the first interview after his swearing in, when asked about the NSA, Serra responded with a question: “The NSA, what is that?” It is hard to fathom how Serra knows Chevron so well — a WikiLeaks cable revealed that he promised Chevron he would change the laws regarding foreign access to Brazil’s massive pre-salt oil fields, after all — but hasn’t heard of the American espionage behemoth that was proven to have spied on Petrobras and the nation’s former president. It appears that Foreign Minister Serra might be better suited as foreign business executive Serra.

In the same interview, he promised to “boost the Itamaraty,” with its underfunded embassies and employee complaints about low salaries. They went on strike in August. In his very specific and unique diplomatic style, Serra ordered striking workers’ salaries cut. The courts, however, blocked this, considering it an excessive response, and reaffirmed the legitimacy of the strike and ordered the salaries paid in full.

Recently, Serra had great difficulty answering an interviewer who asked which countries comprise the BRICS alliance (it’s Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Before including Argentina in the group, the foreign minister said that the BRICS was “the group of the largest countries.” It’s like a union leader getting tripped up when asked, “What is a pension?” In the end, the interviewer and an off-camera aide had to help him out. You can get the drift from this video even if you don’t speak Portuguese:

And you cannot say that Serra’s peculiar approach to diplomacy would come as news to Temer. During Serra’s failed 2002 run for president, his campaign jingle went out of its way to offend the second most powerful country in the region: “I want Serra because Brazil wants more. To advance, to improve, to correct. I will not throw away all that I have worked for. With all due respect, I won’t be another Argentina.” And in his failed 2010 presidential campaign, the candidate said, “The Bolivian government is complicit with cocaine traffickers.” Two shining examples of the foreign minister par excellence were yet to come.

Last week, when he went to India and Japan, Temer put together a commission with Serra that included Blairo Maggi, the billionaire minister of agriculture also known as “the Soy King” for his family’s huge stakes in the industry. In other words, Brazil was represented abroad by a president who no one voted for, a foreign minister who does not know what the NSA is, and an agriculture minister who is the worst deforester in the Amazon.

Temer shared the details of a lunch with Putin that never happened. Coup-mongering is truly a state of mind.

Despite returning to Brazil 11 hours ahead of schedule after learning of the arrest of his dear friend Eduardo Cunha on corruption charges, Temer had time to humiliate himself again. Maintaining the diplomatic tradition of his government, the president offered the world one more tall tale when he told reporters that he had met with Vladimir Putin, when, in reality, he is the only president of the BRICS that did not have a one-on-one with the Russian leader. Temer shared the details of a lunch with Putin that never happened. Coup-mongering is truly a state of mind. According to the Estado de São Paulo’s special reporter, the Russians preferred “not to get close to the president after the ‘quick change,’ as they referred to the impeachment of the former President Dilma Rousseff.”

Another important representative of Brazil’s new foreign policy is Marcos Pereira, minister of industry, foreign commerce, and services. A licensed bishop in the sprawling, politically influential Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and right-hand man to its billionaire founder, Edir Macedo, he also put on a little show in Asia. According to José Carlos de Assis, the professor of international economics and recipient of Brazil’s top journalism prize, the bishop “in front of dozens of journalists, publicly ridiculed India’s industrial protection policy” at an event hosted by India. Of course, we will not see the same treatment of the United States’ historically protectionist policies, since Brazil now knows how to put itself in its rightful place. So much so that the nation abandoned its longstanding bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The reason, according to Serra: “That is a fight for the big guys.”

But the hardest thing to believe is what you read in Brazil’s major newspapers: that the greatest merit of the country’s new foreign policy is that it is free from the ideological trappings of former governments — as if it were now driven purely and impartially by skill, knowledge, and science. This belief that the left has a monopoly on ideology is fascinating. It reminds me a lot of a São Paulo resident who swears he does not have an accent because everyone he knows speaks that way.

Top photo: Brazilian President Michel Temer addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2016, in New York.

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