WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was among the first to congratulate former military commander Jair Bolsonaro after his victory in Brazil’s presidential election Oct. 28.
The election placed Bolsonaro, who takes office Jan. 1, in position to become the most far-right leader to rule the second-largest country in the hemisphere since its return to democracy a generation ago.
During his campaign, Bolsonaro made no secret of his admiration for Trump. He often seemed to be reading from the same script. He said he would pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord — long championed by the Amazon nation — as Trump did with the United States. He promised to move Brazil’s Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Trump did with the U.S. Embassy.
In the campaign and in his more than 20 years as a member of parliament, Bolsonaro insulted and disparaged opponents, women, people of color and gays and lesbians. He once told a female legislator she was “too ugly” to rape. He advocates arming more citizens against crime and allowing police to shoot first, ask questions later.
Like Trump, some of his closest advisers are his equally provocative sons.
And like Trump, Bolsonaro was chosen by a highly polarized electorate amid rampant disinformation and misinformation campaigns, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which monitored the campaign and vote.
Still, to some it seemed unusual that Trump would so enthusiastically welcome Bolsonaro’s election given the controversy surrounding him.
“Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil,” Trump tweeted Oct. 29. “We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congrats!”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the two men pledged to work “side by side.”
National security adviser John Bolton praised Bolsonaro as a “like-minded partner” whose election was among positive signs for the region. A senior administration official who briefed reporters said Trump felt like he “shared values and priorities” with Bolsonaro.
One explanation for the fawning is that Bolsonaro unseated a leftist party that had won nearly all of Brazil’s recent elections; a right-wing government with free market tendencies is certain to be more welcomed in Washington.
The administration also is probably hoping the Bolsonaro government will provide a stronger counter-balance to neighboring Venezuela, where a socialist government has helped plunge the population into economic and political chaos and triggered a massive exodus.
Trump has taken aim at Venezuela, levying sanctions and calling on the government to step down. One administration official even floated the idea of a military intervention, a cause dismissed by most but taken up by hawkish Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who wields outsize influence over Trump’s foreign policy in Latin America. Many South American countries have also protested Venezuela’s trampling of democracy, but Brazil was a major holdout.
Apparently hoping to gain access to Trump’s inner circle, Bolsonaro and his team sought support from Stephen K. Bannon, the former senior adviser to Trump who is often considered the mastermind behind the real estate magnate’s unlikely victory in 2016.
Brazilian analysts said Bannon’s brand of fiery, racially tinged right-wing nationalism, which he has been hawking in Europe and elsewhere, fit in with Bolsonaro’s own viewpoints and style.
Bannon told a conference in Toronto in May that it was no coincidence in his view that as the German leader Angela Merkel, a champion of the Western liberalism Bannon seems to despise, was being forced out of power, Bolsonaro was reaching the pinnacle of his own country’s leadership.
“Bolsonaro’s team was enamored of the idea of getting into the inner sphere of Trump,” said Shannon O’Neil, an expert on Latin America and a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They definitely have an affinity for Trump and how he does things and have an interest in emulating his style” — as well as the substance.
Whether a real change is coming in relations between Washington and Brasilia, apart from the cosmetics, remains unclear. Both Trump’s United States, and Brazil traditionally, are inward-looking countries.
But Bolsonaro appears more intent than his predecessors on building ties with the United States. The two are the largest economies in the hemisphere, but Brazil is only the United States’ 12th trading partner in goods. U.S. goods and services trade with Brazil totaled an estimated $100.3 billion in 2017.
“The U.S. would benefit from continued engagement with Brazil in areas of trade and commerce, as well as in areas of regional security to address pressing issues in the hemisphere, including the crisis in Venezuela,” said Roberta Braga, associate director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Like many in formerly predominantly Catholic Brazil, Bolsonaro is also a fervent member of the evangelical Christian church, which is socially conservative and pro-Israel, attitudes that also align him with Trump.
Nevertheless, he has had to back down from some of his campaign promises. In the face of public outcry, he said he would remain inside the Paris climate accord, after all. And, with beef exports to the Arab world a huge source of national income, he has also reversed himself on relocating the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem, a move that would have angered those trading partners.
In the end, said Paulo Sotero, head of the Brazil Institute at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank, Bolsonaro “understands that the very divisive rhetoric will not help him govern.”
It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro would abandon some of the more offensive positions he has held for decades.
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