There is perhaps no foreign leader more in tune with Donald Trump than Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Both men are unscripted, uninformed, and unburdened by the truth; they’ve whipped up devoted mass followings by breaking with conventions and using direct, simple language to preach a message of violence, hatred, victimhood, right-wing culture war, anti-science, and “anti-globalism.”
Bolsonaro has difficulty staying on script in person, despite a proclivity for putting his foot in his mouth, and he loves to use Twitter to belittle and attack enemies, decry “fake news” even when the reporting is demonstrably true, and praise right-wing torturers and dictators. Sound familiar?
It is unsurprising, therefore, that Bolsonaro, who took office in January, insisted that his first visit to a foreign capital be Washington, D.C., and Trump was eager to oblige. On Tuesday, the two men are scheduled to meet at the White House and have lunch (there was not enough time to arrange a full state visit).
The far-right leaders are expected to discuss the push to oust Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro, economic and trade cooperation, Brazil’s bid to enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and sign a deal to allow U.S. rocket launches from a Brazilian base.
For the U.S., Venezuela is the key issue, while the Brazilians are more focused on economic accords. The trip is meant to signal strengthened ties between two ideological allies, but the practical results will likely be limited.
Bolsonaro’s team hopes to leave the meeting with multiple major signed agreements, but due to the rushed nature of the preparations, that seems unlikely. Bolsonaro confirmed in a livestream that the two countries will sign an agreement almost 20 years in the making to permit the U.S. to launch satellites and rockets into space from Brazil’s Alcântara Launch Center without sharing U.S. intellectual property. Its location near the equator would allow for rocket launches to use 30 percent less fuel. The deal had stalled over national sovereignty concerns.
The U.S. is not expected to back Brazil’s bid to join the OECD, a Brazilian priority. Nor do they plan to sign a bilateral agreement to grant expedited customs processing for select operators, Brazil’s inclusion in the Global Entry border fast-lane program, or reach an agreement to open the U.S. market to Brazilian beef exports. The Brazilians are considering the reduction of tariffs on U.S. wheat and scrapping the requirement of tourist visas for U.S. citizens.
Bolsonaro Needs Some Good News
This is Bolsonaro’s second trip abroad as president; he was widely criticized for a weak showing on his first trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Later this month, he will travel to Chile and Israel, just days before their legislative elections.
Bolsonaro is far more popular than his most recent predecessors, but his domestic approval ratings have dipped to 39 percent as internal squabbling, strategic missteps, and a series of corruption scandals have quickly usurped his campaign narrative of a disciplined, moral leader untainted by the corruption that plagues the capital.
The trip may grant him a momentary reprieve from the countless crises — many of his own making — that continue to encircle him in Brasília. At the White House, Bolsonaro will get to mug for the cameras with Trump, whom he’s already referred to as “an example” and never misses a chance to publicly flatter. But in the end, his political future hinges on dragging the economy out of years of languor, though recent economic indicators have been ticking down alongside his popularity.
His administration’s strategy on that front is to push through wildly unpopular austerity measures to roll out the red carpet for foreign investment, particularly from the United States. The visit is designed to signal positive steps in that direction, even if it is unlikely to produce any substantial breakthroughs.
Trump Wants Help With Venezuela
Trump, for his part, has made it clear that he wants to support his new ideological ally, despite some misgivings within the administrative ranks. The U.S.-Brazilian bilateral trade relationship has been rocky for years, particularly under the 13 years of Workers’ Party administrations that sought to contain U.S. influence in the hemisphere. Grudges remain.
However, Trump’s main concern in the region at the moment is Venezuela. After launching a risky regime change campaign against Maduro in January, the administration and its allies have little to show for it except a string of failures. The threat of military intervention is still officially on the table, but increasingly appears to be a bluff as allies have backed away from that rhetoric, but the U.S. has tightened economic sanctions.
“There will be an expectation on the American side that Bolsonaro can show that he is truly committed to ramping up the pressure” on Maduro, says Matias Spektor, associate professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “No one in Washington expects Brazil to intervene” militarily, says Spektor, “what they’re asking for is ramping up the diplomatic pressure,” including the implementation of economic sanctions of their own against Venezuela. In an interview to the Financial Times last week, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said “the political pressure is there,” but “economic pressure” from Brazil would have limited impact since Venezuelan officials who might be targeted “don’t have their assets [in Brazil].” Mourão is a former general and represents the line of thinking of the Brazilian military, which has been a moderating force on the issue, a counterbalance to Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo’s more aggressive posture.
Rifts Within the Bolsonaro Coalition
The Venezuela crisis is one of many recent episodes that have laid bare the divisions within the Bolsonaro administration, which roughly shakes out into four main groups: military, evangelicals, old guard conservative politicians, and new far-right outsiders loyal to their pseudo-intellectual, conspiracy theory-peddling guru Olavo de Carvalho.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, embodies shades of each group. When it came to cabinet posts and top advisory positions, he has favored the military faction, loading his administration with generals. But his rhetoric and the actions of his sons — a Rio city council member, a federal deputy, and a federal senator — who have significant influence over their father, tend toward the Carvalho camp. Carvalho has publicly questioned whether the Earth revolves around the sun. On Saturday, he made comments that were sharply critical of the military’s role in the administration: “If everything continues as it is, it is already bad. You do not have to change anything to be bad. Just keep it up. In six months, it’s over.”
While the military, old guard conservatives, and evangelicals tend to hew toward a more protectionist and incrementalist view of foreign policy, the new far right has a strong ideological vision that wants to radically break with tradition in ways that often put them shoulder to shoulder with Trump.
This contingent is well-represented in Bolsonaro’s delegation. They arranged for the first item on the president’s agenda to be a dinner party at the ambassador’s residence last Sunday and invited former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Carvalho as honored guests. Attendees also included Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a Wall Street Journal’s editorial board member; right-wing social commentator Roger Kimball, who endorsed both Trump and Bolsonaro and has written critically about political correctness; and Matt Schlapp, chair of the lobbying organization that hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Bannon was once the vice president of Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct company that controversially used psychological profiling to target swing voters on social media with “fake news” in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Trump and in favor of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. The company’s activities remain under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Bolsonaro’s campaign relentlessly deployed its own “fake news” on social media and WhatsApp. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper also revealed that wealthy supporters spent millions of dollars to disseminate “fake news” on Bolsonaro’s behalf during the election in violation of campaign finance laws.
Bannon’s international far-right alliance called The Movement named Congressperson Eduardo Bolsonaro as its South American representative last month. Eduardo was also recently a guest at an event at Mar-a-Lago hosted by Toni Kramer, founder of the group “Trumpettes USA” and snapped photos with Trump’s son Eric and prominent Trump backers.
Araújo, for his part, is also a fervent disciple of the conspiracy theorist Carvalho and an admirer of Trump. The “about the author” section of his blog reads:
I want to help Brazil and the world free themselves from globalist ideology. Globalism is economic globalization that has come to be piloted by cultural Marxism. Essentially it is an anti-human and anti-Christian system. Faith in Christ means today to fight against globalism, whose ultimate goal is to break the connection between God and man, make man a slave and God irrelevant.
In a recent speech, he criticized policy positions that he believes permitted China to surpass the U.S. as Brazil’s largest trade partner, blaming the new dynamic for the country’s economic stagnation. He said Brazil “will not sell its soul” to export soy and iron. Araújo also claimed responsibility for instigating the current quagmire in Venezuela in a recent blog post, “It was not Brazil that followed the U.S.A., but rather the opposite.”
The military brass in Bolsonaro’s inner circle have, with considerable success, moderated the administration’s foreign policy. They were able to nix a plan publicly endorsed by Araújo and Bolsonaro to permit a U.S. military base on Brazilian soil, moderate the stance on Venezuela, and get Bolsonaro to walk back his plan to pull out of the Paris climate accords. They are also attempting to prevent Bolsonaro from moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Yet Araújo is very much a true believer in the cause and, by all accounts, enjoys enormous prestige in the eyes of the president — and his sons as well. None of them appear to be going away anytime soon. This trip to Washington therefore can be seen as something of a counter volley by the most extremist, far-right element of Bolsonaro’s coalition after a string of defeats to the moderates in the ongoing war to determine the course of the administration.