“Trump is an example to me,” Bolsonaro said on a campaign trip to the United States last year. “I know there is a distance between me and Trump, but I hope to become closer to him, for the good of Brazil and of the United States. I want to bring lessons from here to Brazil.”
Brazil’s relationship with the United States has historically ranged from cautious friendship to reluctant acceptance. Brazil has largely avoided the gaze of the United States, exerting its influence through regional alliances and multilateral institutions instead. Bolsonaro wants to change that. He makes the case that Brazil could be the United States’ main partner in the region to contain leftist ideologies and Chinese influence in South America.
Elected as a populist promising to shake up politics as usual, Bolsonaro has begun with foreign policy, where he has already alienated traditional allies such as Cuba and announced intentions to limit Chinese investment in infrastructure and other strategic sectors.
To lead that effort, he has tapped as his foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, a Trump-loving antiglobalist who wants to prioritize relations with the United States. In a journal paper published last year, Araújo lauded Trump for saving Western Christian civilization from “radical Islam” and “cultural Marxism.” He urged Brazil to join Trump and extend his pledge of “making America great again” to the wider hemisphere.
The Trump administration seems to be warming to the idea of having a friend down south that shares its ideology. National security adviser John Bolton has said he wants to forge a military alliance with Brazil and Colombia to contain Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela — or, as he calls them, the “Troika of Tyranny.” Bolton made a stop in Brazil to meet Bolsonaro and discuss trade and security ahead of a meeting of the world’s largest economies at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires in November. The one-hour meeting ended with Bolton extending an invitation from Trump to Bolsonaro for a visit to the United States. “We look forward to a dynamic partnership w/ Brazil,” Bolton tweeted afterward.
The partnership would mark a dramatic thaw in relations between the two countries. The loose friendship Brazil enjoyed with the United States soured in 2014 when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to the Obama White House after leaked classified documents revealed the National Security Agency was tapping her calls and had been spying on the country’s state oil company.
By that time, Brazil already had forged strong bonds with other countries — bonds that could fray under Bolsonaro’s U.S.-friendly approach.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Brazilian leaders began to remake Brazil as the continent’s primary economic force. A commodities boom that grew Brazil’s gross domestic product by an average of 4 percent a year in the 2000s secured the country’s regional influence and allowed state-owned banks to finance major projects throughout the continent. Brazil bet on multilateral institutions that bypassed the United States, building connections with India, South Africa, Russia and China.
Then, as the commodities boom turned to bust, Brazil’s international alliances unraveled.
“Bolsonaro is arriving to signal a shift from a model that failed,” said Matias Spektor, who runs the Center for International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a university in Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro wasted no time advertising his alignment with Trump. During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro urged Brazil to distance itself from China, Brazil’s primary trading partner, charging that “China owns the whole country.” He further angered Chinese leaders by bypassing Beijing and visiting Taiwan.
But cooling relations with China could have serious ramifications for Brazil’s wobbly economy and antagonize the country’s powerful agriculture lobby, which supplies China with beef and wood. Brazilian soybean farmers, who have benefited immensely from Trump’s trade war — supplanting the United States as China’s soy supplier — also have much to lose. Brazil also exports iron and steel to China.
“If China decides to retaliate and make him an example, the costs for Bolsonaro will be gigantic,” Spektor said. “It’s high-risk diplomacy — a blind bet.”
Brazil has also threatened to suspend relations with Cuba and has taken issue with a program that sent thousands of Cuban doctors to poor and remote areas in Brazil. In response, Cuba began pulling more than 20,000 doctors and nurses out of Brazil and criticized Bolsonaro for “threatening comments.”
The foreign policy gains for Brazil, meanwhile, are questionable. An alliance with Trump would likely lead to tougher rhetoric from Brasilia against collapsing Venezuela, where mismanagement of resources and an authoritarian regime have led to food shortages and an unprecedented refugee crisis.
As thousands of Venezuelans cross the border into Brazil and Colombia, finding a resolution to the conflict between Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and his internal critics is a priority. While Trump has not ruled out military intervention, Bolsonaro said he is looking for a peaceful solution. A U.S.-Brazil partnership could lead to economic sanctions or multilateral attempts to remove Maduro — dubbed a dictator by Bolsonaro and snubbed by the incoming president’s administration.
“Maduro has no place at a celebration of democracy,” Araújo tweeted in December, disinviting Maduro from Bolsonaro’s inauguration. “All of the world’s countries must stop supporting him and come together to liberate Venezuela.”
Maduro’s foreign minister lashed out at Bolsonaro and said Maduro had no intention to attend the inauguration of “a president who is the epitome of intolerance, fascism and the surrender to interests that go against Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Beyond Venezuela, critics say there are few obvious areas for strategic cooperation between Brazil and the United States.
“There are not a lot of shared interests,” said Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “There is space for a rapprochement between Bolsonaro and Trump, but it will probably be smaller than the president-elect expects.”
Nevertheless, aligning himself with Trump may help Bolsonaro shore up his right-wing credentials with his conservative base at home, where his supporters fly American and Israeli flags at his rallies.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Eduardo Bolsonaro said of his father’s government at a rally last month. “Like Trump in the United States.”