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Jair Bolsonaro Brazil win signals power shift in South America

November 23, 2018

BUENOS AIRES From north to south and from the political left to the political right, Latin American leaders are bracing in the weeks before Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration to gauge what a Brazil led by the conservative firebrand might mean for their region.

The 63-year-old political maverick and former army captain, who easily defeated leftist Fernando Haddad in an Oct. 28 runoff, won’t be sworn in until Jan. 1. And while some policy details remain scarce and key posts are just starting to be filled in Brasilia, Mr. Bolsonaro’s staunch ideology and fiery rhetoric hint at major changes in policy for the region’s largest and most populous country.

Virtually all sides inside Brazil and beyond expect to see a burst of energy and new initiatives coming out of Brasilia, after years of economic decline, soaring crime rates, distracted leadership and political paralysis in the fallout from a corruption scandal that tarnished virtually all of Brazil’s establishment parties and opened a lane to power for Mr. Bolsonaro.

In style and substance, the unfiltered, china-breaking Mr. Bolsonaro often dubbed “the Trump of the Tropics” seems to have taken a page out of his American counterpart’s playbook, favoring one-on-one ties, blunt messaging and a certain level of expediency, analysts noted. The center of political gravity, which swung sharply to the left in the first decade of the new century, may be decisively swinging the other day as the second decade nears its end.

“There is much back and forth, a lack of definition,” said Paulo Roberto de Almeida, who heads a think tank at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry. “There’s no government spokesman; Bolsonaro has been dealing with the press in an extemporaneous, improvised manner, and he’s been tweeting like President Trump.”

And it was via Twitter that the president-elect revealed last week the nomination of Ernesto Araujo, the relatively unknown head of the Foreign Ministry’s hemispheric affairs department, to become his top diplomat.

“Brazilian foreign policy needs to be part of the moment of renewal Brazil lives today,” Mr. Bolsonaro wrote, praising Mr. Araujo as a “brilliant intellectual.”

The incoming president and foreign minister share a similar nationalist outlook, skeptical of globalism as what Mr. Araujo has called an anti-Christian ideology. Mr. Araujo has praised President Trump’s foreign relations approach, citing in particular what he says is Mr. Trump’s unapologetic support of sovereign rights and traditional values.

But his low-profile pick is likely to raise eyebrows given the contrast with other Cabinet appointments, particularly that of Sergio Moro the judge who handed down the 12-year corruption sentence to iconic leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and transformed this year’s bitter presidential race as Brazil’s new justice minister.

“I imagine that with regard to Moro, who has a great moral stature in Brazil, [Mr. Bolsonaro] will consider his views,” Mr. de Almeida said. “With regard to the foreign minister, I’m not so sure.”

The Venezuelan problem

The brunt of foreign policy will thus likely be forged at Brasilia’s presidential Planalto rather than the ministerial Itamaraty palace, and Mr. Bolsonaro has found some early allies among his conservative counterparts on the continent, notably Colombian center-right President Ivan Duque.

In the face of domestic criticism and defying doubts about Mr. Bolsonaro’s commitment to the rule of law, Mr. Duque has defended the “democratic” character of Brazilians’ choice and refused to “make value judgments about statements he made in the past.”

The two men also share a deep concern over the deteriorating situation in neighboring Venezuela, where the social and economic meltdown has led more than 1 million citizens to flee to Colombia and some 85,000 to Brazil, United Nations figures show.

With the U.S. turning up the heat against the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a Colombian-Brazilian combination could provide President Trump with a potent ally in the fight.

And while Mr. Duque has strongly denied claims he and Mr. Bolsonaro were considering military options, warning that Mr. Maduro was merely trying to milk a “bellicose phantom,” a united front will put even more pressure on the Venezuelan strongman.

But embattled leftist governments in the region, the Bolsonaro boom has left them scrambling to adjust and fight back.

In recent days, Mr. Maduro derided Mr. Duque as “the devil,” while Cuba one of Caracas’ few remaining allies in the hemisphere canceled a longstanding program that sent Cuban doctors to underserved regions of Brazil, according to wire service reports.

“With Brazil’s support, it’s not just ‘Colombia siding with the gringos,‘” said Christine Balling, a Colombia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Not that standing up with Maduro is ‘siding the gringos,’ but Maduro and his buddies Cuba and Nicaragua would [like to] continue that narrative.”

And while it’s hardly clear what short of using force can still be done to drive Mr. Maduro from power, a common voice among Venezuela’s neighbors may at least help coordinate policies on dealing with the 3 million-strong exodus, Ms. Balling noted.

Interests and ideology

Money matters are also likely to define the incoming administration’s dealings with Chile, Peru and Bolivia Andean nations led, respectively, by a conservative billionaire, a centrist political insider and a hard-left former coca producer.

Mr. Bolsonaro has been vocal about his admiration for Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and, though their nations share no border, has promised to make his first official foreign trip to Santiago, rather than the customary Buenos Aires.

Meanwhile, the president-elect’s dislike for Bolivia’s President Evo Morales a leftist icon and perhaps Mr. Maduro’s most ardent defender could impact the Bi-Oceanic mega rail project meant to link the Atlantic port of Santos, Brazil, with the Pacific port of Callao, Peru, passing through Bolivian territory.

Mr. Pinera has shrewdly suggested an alternative route through Paraguay and Argentina and leading to a port in northern Chile, a turnaround that would undo years of work and millions of dollars invested, said Oscar Vidarte of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

“For Chile to come and say, ‘I’m proposing a different outlet,’ just like that, and for that to be echoed by the Brazilian president, [shows] how problems between third parties can affect Peru,” Mr. Vidarte noted.

But while Mr. Bolsonaro is known to be unbending in his anti-leftist views, some may just underestimate Mr. Morales, who has long shown an uncanny level of pragmatism, said Bolivia expert Mario Torrico, of the Latin American Institute of Social Sciences.

“One thing is what he says and another what he does,” Mr. Torrico said. “Through his actions, he makes alliances, he makes deals with sectors that are far from like-minded.”

And when it comes to a key issue on the bilateral agenda, the renegotiation of Bolivian gas sales to Brazil, Mr. Morales’ bid to seek a fourth presidential term next year may play in everyone’s favor.

“In the short term, the relation [with Mr. Bolsonaro] will be tense,” Mr. Torrico said. “But for the electoral campaign, to win, Morales needs to show that exports to Brazil are viable in the long run.”

And for the Brazilian leader, too, the talks represent a chance to break with the ideology-infused foreign policy of his populist predecessors, Mr. de Almeida noted.

“The gas negotiation with Bolivia could be done on a purely technical basis, which wasn’t the case in the Lula administration,” he said. “But if they switch a leftist preference for a rightist preference, it’s not a change [toward] a foreign policy without prejudice and purely focused on Brazilian national interests.”

Argentina and Brazil

Bilateral ties with Argentina, meanwhile, would no longer be a national “priority,” Bolsonaro adviser Paulo Guedes taunted days after the election, a provocation the finance minister-designate quickly downplayed after it ruffled feathers in Buenos Aires.

And whether they like it or not, there is much more that unites than divides Mr. Bolsonaro and Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s center-right president who, embattled amid a prolonged economic crisis, is facing a tough re-election battle of his own next year.

Mr. Guedes’ penchant for market-friendly and fiscally conservative policies largely align with Mr. Macri’s, said Gustavo Cardozo of the Argentine Center of International Studies.

And while Mr. Bolsonaro has been more vocal in his criticism of the Mercosur trade bloc, policymakers in Buenos Aires sympathize with the Brazilian’s view that bilateral deals may simply be more effective an opinion strongly shared by President Trump.

More than anything, though, the appointment of Mr. Moro, a household name among middle-class Argentines tired of rampant corruption, as justice minister may help Mr. Bolsonaro win over public opinion long clouded by his close ties to Brazil’s military, Mr. Cardozo argued.

Mr. Moro “has been a very well-regarded judge in many sectors in Argentina,” he said. “It’s been shown that corruption in Argentina has been much greater than what happened in Brazil ... and, just like in Brazil, the hope is for an answer from the judiciary.”

And lest a law-and-order challenger imperil his own aspirations for a second term, Mr. Macri has adopted some Bolsonaro-style measures once considered taboo, including an increased military presence in border zones and stricter immigration enforcement, Mr. Cardozo said.

“A large part of society is speaking out in favor of the administration taking tougher action,” he said. “Maybe not as extreme as in Brazil, [but] little by little the tendency is changing.”

And that’s the kind of multilateralism that even the “Brazil first” Mr. Bolsonaro could not help but back, Mr. de Almeida suggested.

“Chile, of course, has a right-wing president, and so there’s a certain affinity; the same happens with Colombia,” he said. “But Argentina also has a pro-market president. Macri is part of a non-populist, non-leftist arc, and that pretty much meets what Brazil wants to do.”

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