The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump finds a ‘like-minded’ demagogue in Bolsonaro

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As President Trump banged the drum of ultranationalism on the campaign trail this week, you could be forgiven for missing a declaration from the White House’s top foreign-policy official.

White House national security adviser John Bolton delivered a speech in southern Florida on Friday announcing new sanctions on leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. He grouped the two countries together with Nicaragua into a “troika of tyranny,” reprising the “axis of evil” he once decried as an official in the George W. Bush administration.

Bolton, an inveterate Cold Warrior, pointed to a “triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua” that was “the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.”

On one level, this could be boilerplate rhetoric from any hard-line Republican administration. The specter of Latin American leftism has long haunted Washington in the forms of communist leaders such as Fidel Castro, Marxist guerrillas such as the Sandinistas or left-wing populists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

On the other hand, the Trump administration has been willing to act on its ideological caprices, ordering travel bans and unraveling major diplomatic agreements. In addition to the new sanctions, Trump has also undone the brief Obama-era thaw with Cuba. But it’s not clear what the White House will achieve with its new, confrontational posture.

“It is true what they say that these are three regimes that are horrible and deserve to be treated as pariahs, but nothing has worked so far,” Moisés Naím, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said to my colleague Josh Rogin. “Cuba has been a challenging issue for every administration since the Bay of Pigs invasion, and no American president has been able to solve that puzzle. So, let’s see if they have come up with a new remedy, a new strategy, a new regional approach. Right now, we don’t know.”

Bolton made another comment that was perhaps even more revealing of the administration’s outlook. He hailed the election of “like-minded leaders” in the region such as Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro. The victory of such a far-right candidate, Bolton said, demonstrated “a growing regional commitment to free-market principles, and open, transparent, and accountable governance.”

It was a strange way to describe a man who, as readers of Today’s WorldView know, is notorious for his racist, homophobic and misogynist rhetoric and has cheered the brutal legacy of Brazil’s military dictatorship. His chief economist, Paolo Guedes, champions the liberalizing reforms of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — a man better known for the blood on his hands than his fiscal policy.

“Perhaps the personality whom Bolsonaro most resembles is Roberto D’Aubuisson, the late Salvadoran politician and former National Guard major who, in collusion with the security forces and conservative landowners, ran the death squads that captured and killed thousands of suspected leftists in a campaign of terror aimed at ‘purifying the fatherland,’” wrote the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson. “Not since the early nineteen-eighties, when much of Latin America was in the grip of anti-Communist dictators who formed a cabal to kill and disappear the hemisphere’s leftists, has a politician emerged with such a vituperous discourse.”

None of this appears to be of much concern to Trump. The U.S. president was one of the first major leaders to congratulate Bolsonaro on his electoral victory on Twitter, effusively cheering a fellow nationalist onto the hemispheric stage. (French President Emmanuel Macron, by contrast, offered a more guarded welcome to Bolsonaro, stressing “democratic principles” and the importance of Brazil holding the line on climate policy.)

Critics place both men within a broader trend of demagogic right-wing leaders who have swept to power over the past two years. “There’s no question that authoritarian leaders around the world have drawn inspiration from the fact that the leader of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy seems to delight in shattering democratic norms,” leftist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote in a column two months ago.

In Bolsonaro, Trump may see an ideological fellow politician who shares his contempt for international agreements and organizations. Bucking years of Brazilian diplomacy, Bolsonaro has announced that his government will move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and may shutter the Palestinian mission in Brasilia. Following so closely in Trump’s footsteps deepens the sense of a new right-wing axis emerging in world politics, one within which the Brazilian leader may play a prominent role.

This may be good news for Trump, particularly if he seeks to turn up the heat on Venezuela — Bolsonaro has advocated a far tougher line against Brazil’s dysfunctional northern neighbor than his more liberal opponents. But there’s a risk of his rule drifting into the tyranny derided by Bolton.

“The new Brazilian president’s policy positions will likely please Washington in the short term. But what their longer-term effect will be, for both Brazil and the United States, is worth asking,” analysts Roberto Simon and Brian Winter noted in Foreign Affairs.

“Bolsonaro’s past statements and current policy proposals suggest that his presidency will pose a direct threat to democratic norms and institutions, the rule of law, social justice, and the improvement of security in Brazil,” the authors continued. “The past 30 years have been an era of progress for most of Latin America, thanks in large part to those values. Saluting the American flag cannot compensate for the real risk that Bolsonaro will abandon them.”

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