How Brazil is losing regional prominence to Chile

. Sep 07, 2019
Sebastián Piñera (L) and Jair Bolsonaro Sebastián Piñera (L) and Jair Bolsonaro

Despite being one of the world’s largest economies, Brazil never had much of a role at the global diplomatic top table. Though not for lack of trying. For decades, Brazil has lobbied for a permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council, as has tried to act as a mediator in Middle-Eastern affairs—to uneven rates of success. In 2014, for instance, Brazil criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force in Gaza” and was called a “diplomatic dwarf” in return. 

In South America, however, Brazil’s sheer size and importance always guaranteed the country an important stake in regional affairs. And, at least in theory, Brazil had everything to maximize its protagonism in 2019. Argentina is facing yet another financial crisis and a polarized election; in Colombia, the Farc has taken up arms again; Peru’s political system is in disarray; the Paraguayan president faces mounting opposition, and Venezuela has collapsed into the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western world.

</p> <p>And yet, Brazil&#8217;s diplomacy has only been seen in the worst possible light. From Amazon fires and comments about the French First Lady&#8217;s looks, to the praise of men who committed crimes against humanity, Brazil has become a toxic presence on the international stage.</p> <p>As Brazil fails to fulfill its role as South American leader, Chile —the region&#8217;s third-largest economy, after Brazil and Argentina—has been happy to try and fill that position. President Sebastián Piñera was the only Latin American leader present at the recent G7 Summit, in the French resort town of Biarritz. The choice, a prerogative of the host nation, was a recognition of Chile&#8217;s actions on climate change.</p> <p>When the Jair Bolsonaro government decided to withdraw Brazil as the host nation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25), scheduled for December 2 to 13, Mr. Piñera was more than happy to make Santiago the venue.</p> <p>Offering a counterpoint to the Brazil&#8217;s far-right president, it would be wrong to assume that Mr. Piñera himself sits on the left. Let&#8217;s not forget that he pushed for the creation of Prosur, a conservative multilateral body to bury the <a href="">South American Pink Tide</a> (when conservative governments in the region were beaten in the polls by center-left parties).</p> <p>The billionaire leader with a Harvard education is a member of the traditional right. Where he and Mr. Bolsonaro differ is in the importance each allocates to an agenda of customs and social conservatism.</p> <p>“Mr. Piñera belongs to a part of the right which reconciles economic freedom with respect to liberal democracy and human rights, in line with the Christian Democratic parties in Europe,” says David Magalhães, a foreign affairs professor at the São Paulo-based Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado.</p> <h2>When speeches get in the way of business</h2> <p>Despite Brazil&#8217;s gigantic GDP—six times larger than Chile&#8217;s—Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s bravado-based diplomacy seems to be putting business opportunities with other countries at risk. His <a href="">rants on Amazon fires</a> have led countries such as France and Ireland to defend the non-ratification of the recently-signed trade deal between Mercosur and the European Union, while Finland called for a boycott of Brazilian beef.</p> <p>The president, however, didn&#8217;t learn from his mistakes. On September 4, Mr. Bolsonaro attacked UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, after she criticized Brazil&#8217;s rise in police killings this year. “[Ms. Bachelet] forgets that the only reason [her] country isn’t like Cuba is thanks to those who had the courage to put a stop to the left in 1973,” Mr. Bolsonaro wrote in response. “Among those communists was her &#8230; father.”</p> <p>Ms. Bachelet&#8217;s father was an Air Force general who remained loyal to socialist President Salvador Allende, who was deposed by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. He would die in prison.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="pinochet chile" class="wp-image-23613" srcset=" 768w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 768px) 100vw, 768px" /><figcaption>Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile between 1974 and 1990</figcaption></figure> <p>The insult came just before Chile&#8217;s Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera visited Brasília for bilateral negotiations, and the comments sparked outrage in the country—from both the left and right. Mr. Piñera, who is a regional ally of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s, was forced to make a stand. “There are differing views on the governments we had in the 1970s and 1980s but these views should be expressed with respect for the people involved,” he declared.</p> <p>More than abject from a moral standpoint, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s endorsement of a president who killed and/or tortured more than 40,000 in over 16 years of a gruesome dictatorship is a bad move for business, as Brazil and Chile negotiate a new trade deal that would give Brazilian companies access to a USD 11-billion market.</p> <p>Since last year, when President Michel Temer was still in office, Brazil and Chile have made serious efforts to improve trading relations. The countries are also negotiating on common sanitary regulations, loosened tariffs on electronics devices, among other free-market measures. But their enforcement still depends on the approval from both parliaments—and that&#8217;s why Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s rants could be detrimental for Brazil.</p> <p>Chilean Senate President Jaime Quintana called the Brazilian president a “dictator dressed up as a democrat.”&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-twitter wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-twitter"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-width="550" data-dnt="true"><p lang="es" dir="ltr">Presidente <a href="">@jairbolsonaro</a>, los chilenos no aceptamos sus dichos. La dictadura que usted avala y reivindica torturó a miles de personas, entre ellos el padre de la Presidenta Bachelet que terminó perdiendo la vida. A ratos usted parece un dictador vestido con traje de demócrata.</p>&mdash; Jaime Quintana (@senadorquintana) <a href="">September 4, 2019</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script> </div></figure> <p>Mr. Quintana added that the unfortunate episode shouldn&#8217;t get in the way of Brazil-Chile relations. But if the Brazilian president continues pressing on this painful chapter of Chilean history, the two countries&#8217; relations could go sour. 

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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