What would a Biden presidency mean for Bolsonaro?

. Jul 14, 2020
What a Biden presidency would mean for Bolsonaro? Montage: André Chiavassa/TBR

The vast majority of Americans are largely dismissive of the rest of the world, and even those who are not see the globe through a lens of validating their own beliefs about the U.S. This is something that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has failed to understand and it could end up being a thorn in the side of his political project.

Allow me to explain.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s biggest foreign policy gamble was pursuing total alignment with Donald Trump, mimicking the notoriously erratic U.S. president in an attempt to build some sort of “special relationship” with his northern neighbors. The Brazilian leader believed this would clear Brazil’s path to achieve long-term goals, such as membership of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or even a trade deal with the world’s richest economy. 

</p> <p>“Brazil and the U.S. stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect for traditional family lifestyles, respect to God our creator, and stand against gender ideologies and politically incorrect attitudes and against fake news,” he said in his March 2019 <a href="">visit to the White House</a>.</p> <p>It is probably true that Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s path to the presidency would have been much harder had American voters elected Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mr. Trump&#8217;s win served to both normalize and galvanize far-right politics across the globe. Many voters shrugged off Mr. Bolsonaro’s extremism and anti-democratic tendencies by citing the example of the U.S. electing Mr. Trump.</p> <p>Four years later, Mr. Trump faces a <a href="">challenging scenario</a> as coronavirus cases continue to surge in his country. National polls have regularly placed challenger Joe Biden with double-digit advantages — and the democrat is also leading in key swing states. At this point, Mr. Biden clearly has the inside track to win the November election.</p> <p>And that could jeopardize Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s entire foreign policy strategy.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1078967"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>What does Brazil mean to the U.S.?</h2> <p>The truth is that neither Brazil nor the rest of the world —&nbsp;barring perhaps Israel —&nbsp;is particularly important to U.S. voters or Mr. Trump. For all their sycophancy, Mr. Bolsonaro and his Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo — who once penned an essay depicting Mr. Trump as the savior of Western civilization&nbsp;— could not stop the U.S. slapping a travel ban on Brazilians in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>The idea of a <a href="">new insurgent global right-wing</a> led by the likes of Mr. Trump&#8217;s former advisor Steve Bannon always seemed misguided. Those who heralded or warned of its rise failed to grasp the fundamental narcissism of the new U.S. &#8216;populist right&#8217;: the outside world only exists to validate their own internal domestic concerns. It was always anti-Trump neo-conservatives who dreamed of expanding U.S. dominion and spreading its values through the barrel of a gun. These neo-conservatives are now joining the Democratic Party and lining up en masse behind Mr. Biden’s candidacy.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil will not be an issue in this election and Mr. Biden probably cares even less about Latin America than Mr. Trump.&nbsp;</p> <p>With this somewhat long-winded caveat in mind, there are two main questions in terms of assessing the impact of a Joe Biden victory on Brazilian politics: (1) what will happen to the Bolsonaro government if it loses its main ally? And, (2) will there be an overall shift in U.S. policy in Latin America under a Biden administration?</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1766182"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Biden and the fortunes of Bolsonaro</h2> <p>By any measure, a Biden victory would amount to a substantial if not fatal setback to the Brazilian president’s ideological and political project. Having openly campaigned in favor of the Republican candidate and packed his diplomatic mission to the U.S. full of pro-Trump sycophants, Mr. Bolsonaro can hardly count on a friendly reception in Washington from a Democratic president.</p> <p>As recently as last month, 24 Democrats from the U.S. Congressional Committee on Ways and Means voiced their “<a href="">strong objections</a>” to any rapprochement with Brazil. They said it is “inappropriate for the [U.S.] to engage in partnership discussions of any scope with a Brazilian leader who disregards the rule of law and is actively dismantling hard-fought progress on civil, human, environmental, and labor rights.”</p> <p>As historian Andre Pagliarini noted in an <a href="">essay</a> for website New Republic:</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>“As long as he has an ally in Washington as reactionary and aggressively ignorant as [Donald] Trump, [Mr.] Bolsonaro will have the latitude to pretend his administration has influence at the highest echelons of global power. If, instead, the tide is turning on Trumpism and the 2020 election results reflect that, [Mr.] Bolsonaro may very well be held accountable abroad for his hyper violent rhetoric.”</em></p></blockquote> <p>Brazil has been sidelined from major international discussions due to its president’s ceaseless attacks on leftists, globalists, gays, and blacks, accompanied by his open encouragement of environmental and human rights abuses and Covid-19 denialism. Without a friend in the White House, Brazil could well be relegated to complete pariah status.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1582609"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>International organizations and companies may well implement further punitive measures that sanction Brazil for human rights abuses and the environmental destruction ongoing in the Amazon. Brazil will have <a href="">lost its soft power</a>, its former friends, and become increasingly seen as an international tale of caution, led by a maverick president.</p> <p>Beyond the international effects, a victory for Mr. Biden could severely weaken Mr. Bolsonaro’s election prospects in 2022. Given that the president is an international outcast and will likely receive a hostile reception in Washington, much of the business elite that backed him in 2018 will be increasingly reluctant to support someone that may harm their bottom line going forward.&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, while this is only speculation, a Biden victory may galvanize hesitant factions of the Brazilian elite to back impeachment proceedings against Mr. Bolsonaro, and Vice President Hamilton Mourão would be a far more internationally palatable and reliable representative of their interests.</p> <p>And, of course, it would also amount to a serious setback for his political movement, being a huge international rejection of their brand of politics and the various international networks seeking to create an international “anti-globalist” movement.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3178104" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Biden and Latin America</h2> <p>While Mr. Biden will make more noise about environmental and human rights, there will be no real paradigm shift in terms of U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America — or Brazil. The rhetoric might be less bellicose, but the policies will remain more or less the same.</p> <p>&#8220;Brazil-U.S. [ties] were never exceptional nor terrible. They were always just O.K. — and they will likely remain the same,&#8221; says international relations expert Carlos Gustavo Poggio, a professor at São Paulo&#8217;s Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation. &#8220;Historically, Brazil has always sought to keep the U.S. at arm&#8217;s length — and it was mostly successful in doing so. A distant yet cordial relationship between Brasília and Washington is the norm&nbsp;— the Bolsonaro-Trump tandem is something of an exception,&#8221; he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>One only needs to look at the fact that Mr. Biden&#8217;s campaign is attacking Mr. Trump for being “soft” on Venezuela. As a matter of fact, Mr. Biden <a href="">blasted the incumbent president</a> for even considering meeting with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Mr. Biden is a life-long hawk who has always backed militarized drug war policies in Latin America, from Mexico to Colombia. He has consistently attacked the Venezuelan government in his speeches and on social media, and his team is full of figures who would happily intervene in the Caribbean country.&nbsp;</p> <p>One of Mr. Biden&#8217;s campaign strengths so far has actually been its relative absence of a clear policy agenda or political vision, beyond restoring a semblance of normality to a country battered by Trumpmania, recession, and a pandemic. This allows potential voters to project whatever ‘normality’ means on the mostly empty signifier of Mr. Biden’s candidacy.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, there are a few areas where Joe Biden has been consistently vocal about, one of them being Latin America.&nbsp;</p> <p>Juan González, Mr. Biden&#8217;s special advisor on Latin America — and Barack Obama’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State — indicated a potential Biden White House would give Mr. Maduro one option: elections observed by some form of independent body and forcing him to leave office. The likely direction of a Biden administration could dovetail with Mr. Bolsonaro on Venezuela.</p> <p>The primary goals in Latin America of a Biden administration will be saber-rattling about &#8220;leftist&#8221; authoritarian governments rather than the increasingly authoritarian right-wing governments in Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia, assuming that the left doesn’t return to power there. Mr. Biden will most likely continue the myopic anti-corruption and drug war programs of his predecessors regardless of the widespread abuses contained in both.</p> <p>In essence, a Joe Biden presidency will almost certainly weaken Mr. Bolsonaro’s government and re-election chances, but it would not mark a new course in U.S. relations with Latin America.&nbsp;</p> <p>As he is a return to normalcy, Mr. Biden would condone the same patronizing and exploitative relationship with Latin America the U.S. has pursued for decades. However, it might at least weaken the most extreme and rabidly anti-democratic forces in the region, even if Democratic presidents have proved more than willing to work with them in the past —&nbsp;from Colombia to Brazil.

Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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