Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Donald Trump in the Rose Garden

Ever since he won the presidential election, in October 2018, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was unambiguous about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with the U.S. He and his sons have been admirers of U.S. President Donald Trump, and don’t see Beijing with kind eyes. So in his first bilateral visit, Mr. Bolsonaro broke a long tradition—according to which Brazilian presidents debut on the international scene by heading to Buenos Aires—and chose Washington as his first destination.

The Brazilian president took some of his highest-profile cabinet members, such as Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, and Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina. Their job was trying to create a friendlier environment for trade. But as Trump’s U.S. has grown increasingly protectionist, the Bolsonaro-Trump meeting was timid in economic results. Instead, it served more as a beacon of a new era of political rapprochement between the Americas’ two largest democracies.

“The most important element of this trip is that Brazil is seeking legitimacy for its new foreign policy. In this way, visiting Donald Trump helps the narrative. It’s more about Mr. Bolsonaro’s politics than about the interests of the country or of Brazilian trade,” said political analyst Rafael Cortez, from consultancy firm Tendências.

Wait and see

While both presidents highlighted the need for cooperation, it will take time to see if the economic issues discussed in the meeting will translate into actual results. Mr. Trump has pledged to support Brazil’s bid to become a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

That contradicts what the Trump White House has done in the past, though. Moreover, Mr. Trump hasn’t been clear on what the U.S. would want in return. The White House joint press briefing about the meeting said that “President Bolsonaro agreed Brazil will begin to forego special and differential treatment in World Trade Organization negotiations, in line with the U.S. proposal.” The agreement wasn’t mentioned by Mr. Bolsonaro—and Brazil’s Economy Minister said earlier that “there is no such exchange” on the table

Joining the OECD is a long-term wish of Brazil, and it could influence the perception of other countries and investors, increasing their willingness to do business in Brazil. To be accepted, however, the country must apply several measures, such as controlling inflation and fiscal deficits. In a statement, the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry celebrated Mr. Trump’s pledge, calling it “pivotal” for Brazil’s international intentions.

Mr. Cortez points out that it is important to take the promise with a grain of salt. “The Trump administration does not work with historical allies or strategic partners. It analyses each case and changes its agenda a lot. I believe it is important to be cautious towards these signals.”

Bolsonaro-Trump: Brazil gives more than it takes

“It was the first time we saw the Bolsonaro-Trump bromance on display,” said political scientist Maurício Santoro—international relations professor and a columnist at The Brazilian Report. This relationship, however, turned out to be unbalanced.

On one side, Brazil agreed to implement a quota for the entry of 750,000 tons of American wheat, tariff-free. In return, the U.S. “agreed to expeditiously schedule a technical visit by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to audit Brazil’s raw beef inspection system, as soon as it is satisfied with Brazil’s food safety documentation.” No promises.

The same thing happened with Brazil’s move to lift visa requirements on American tourists (as well as tourists from Canada, Japan, and Australia). No strings attached. Mr. Trump promised to consider loosening up bureaucracy on Brazilian tourists. But, once again, reality has shown that the Trump White House did the opposite in the last two years. It has gotten tougher for Brazilians to visit America.

Venezuela

The crisis in Venezuela took center stage during the visit and is a point where the conservative agendas of both leaders converge, and may lead to some action, in Mr. Cortez’s opinion.

Mr. Trump said both leaders discussed Venezuela’s crisis; he thanked Brazil for its support on the issue and reiterated that “all options are on the table.” He also said that the U.S. has not yet applied the toughest sanctions on Venezuela—and that “[the U.S.] can go a lot tougher if it has to.”

Questioned if Brazil would support—and even participate in—an American intervention in Venezuela, Mr. Bolsonaro chose to be coy about it. To a reporter, he said anything he and Mr. Trump might have discussed in private is “strategic information” and couldn’t be revealed. The Brazilian leader said both administrations “share the goal of bringing democracy back to Venezuela.”

China

In Washington, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes criticized Brazil’s dependence on China, but used the Asian country to demand more trade from the Americans. In the White House, Mr. Bolsonaro echoed these remarks, saying “Brazil will continue trading with as many countries as possible.”

Brazilian producers fear that a truce between the U.S. and China will come with Beijing opening up its market to American agribusiness—which could then ‘steal’ a BRL 30 billion market share now occupied by soybean, meat, sugar, and ethanol producers.

China is the destination of 86 percent of Brazil’s exported soybeans. The Asian giant, however, has slowed down its purchases. “Importers did not buy lots of Brazilian beans recently, as they were waiting to buy U.S. soybeans, amid optimism of a final Sino-U.S. trade deal,” said Tian Hao, a senior analyst with First Futures. Last week, President Jair Bolsonaro vowed to improve relations with Beijing and confirmed his wish to visit leader Xi Jinping later this year.

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BY The Brazilian Report

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