Brazil is entering into a risky wave of Americanization and alignment with the U.S. What are the benefits and disadvantages of this new posture?
“My God, help me survive this mortal love.” This is the phrase accompanying the graffiti by the artist Dmitri Vrubel on one of the yet remaining parts of the Berlin Wall, which, up until 1989, divided the German city between Communist on one side and capitalist on the other. The picture shows ex-leaders Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union and Erich Honecker of East Germany kissing on the mouth. The scene was not an invention of Vrubel. It really happened in 1979, during an official visit of the Soviet to Germany – and it was not seen as a demonstration of gay affection but rather as a common gesture between good friends in Russia.
For the East Germans, however, oppressed by the Communist regime, the kiss symbolized the relationship of ideological symbiosis, and above all else, of the subservience of Honecker to Brezhnev. Vrubel’s imagery inspired many other reinterpretations, the most recent of them in Maracanau, in the Grande Forteleza, where, during the last 25 days of November, the grafitti artist Yuri Sousa, known as Bad Boy Preto, painted the image of a kiss between the American president, Donald Trump, and his future Brazilian colleague, Jair Bolsonaro. The art did not last more than 48 hours. Someone felt offended and put blue paint on top of it. The anonymous censor might have thought that the graffiti artist had questioned the sexual orientation of the president-elect, but the work certainly insinuated more than this. Just as with the case of Brezhnev and Honecker, it captured with perfection the true love that Bolsonaro and his closest counselors have been expressing for the Trumpist style and ideals.
Just like Trump, Bolsonaro had an election campaign in which he presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate that would not replicate the worn-out practices of traditional politics. He also trampled on taking any care with politically correct principles and embraced a conservative agenda on customs, making little of questions about gender and the defense of minority rights. Like Trump, the Brazilian defended the freedoms of selling arms to regular citizens and never tired of accusing the press of persecuting him. Bolsonaro also mimicked Trump’s digital strategy, betting on direct communication with his supporters by means of social networks. In recent weeks, by announcing future ministers on Twitter, he has given indications that he also plans to make this a government tool, the same way Trump does.
In foreign policy, Bolsonaro has already made it equally clear that he plans to imitate the American. He promised to transfer the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city also disputed as the capital by the Palestinians. Trump did this in May of this year. Bolsonaro announced his intention to pull Brazil from the climate commitments of the Paris accord, exactly as Trump did, disdained the multilateralism of organizations such as the United Nations and Mercosur and criticized the commercial aggressiveness of China and the advance of Chinese investors in Brazil. Unlike the United States, which is still the major world power, Brazil lacks the political and economic weight to so radically depart from certain diplomatic consensus.
In the case of China, Bolsonaro seems to want to take part in the tariff war that Trump started against the largest exporter in the world. His son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, elected federal deputy with the country’s most vocal voters, clarified that a turnaround toward the foreign policy of alignment with the United States would be a priority of the new government’s diplomacy to the detriment of China. He even established a goal in which the United States would return to being Brazil’s principle trading partner, a position that was occupied by China nine years ago, according to him, for the “ideological motives” of the Petista government. Eduardo is the one that exercises the most influence over his father on questions of foreign policy. It was he who placed the name of Ernesto Araújo for the post of minister of foreign affairs at the suggestion of the conservative philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, and it was he, also, who made the first journey to the United States two weeks ago as the president-elect’s representative at a meeting with Trump’s advisers.
The automatic alignment with American interests presents some important risks, hidden by immediate but ephemeral benefits. At first, the commercial war between the United States and China boosted the exportation of Brazilian products. When the American government imposed new tariffs on imports of Chinese products, Xi Jinping’s government retaliated, and the commerce between the two countries generated $100 billion in additional taxes. As a large exporter of commodities, Brazil surged as an alternative to China, especially for the purchase of grains. In October of this year, for example, in comparison with the same month in 2017, China doubled the importation of Brazilian soy in tons.
Worse for All
In the long term, however, the estimate is that the dispute between the two countries will jeopardize the global economy, principally owing to an increase in risk, which has negative repercussions, primarily in emergent countries, such as Brazil. The Itaú Unibanco, which predicts a 2.5 percent growth in the gross domestic product of Brazil in 2019, calculates that the index may decline one percentage point in 2019 if the commercial war between the U.S. and China intensifies. The growth of the Asian economy would fall from 6.1 percent to 4.5 percent.
Another indication that the bet on the cooling of trade between the Americans and Chinese could be ephemeral appeared at the summit of the Group of 20 – the group of the richest nations in the world – in Buenos Aires last month. On that occasion, Trump and President Xi seemed to agree on a pause to the trade war. Using Twitter, the American divulged that China would cut tariffs on imported American cars, and the United States would suspend a new increase in soy tariffs on Chinese products for 90 days. “Once the relations between the United States and China are normalized, the tendency is that Brazil loses space. For this reason, it is important to improve the conditions of competitiveness of products and not to just count on the swings of international commerce,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist in the FGV-SP.
This does not mean that rapprochement with the United States would be a bad thing. According to Stuart Gottlieb, a professor of international affairs and public policy at Columbia University and former foreign policy adviser to the U.S. Senate, Bolsonaro got it right by quickly signaling an increased closeness with the American president. “It is exactly this that Trump wants: He likes to hear praise, great things about himself, from all his friends and partners,” Gottlieb said.* The level of flattery, however, will have to be carefully measured so that cooperation between Brazil and the United States is not transformed into a relationship of subservience or exclusivity. “The international moment, with the rapid Chinese ascension, requires caution on the part of Brazil, which must adopt a balanced position in relation to the two global powers,” says Casarões. The proximity of Brazil to Venezuela could be a good card for Brazil to use in negotiating with Trump. “If there were a political collapse in Venezuela, the United States would not be able to resolve the problem alone. Certainly they would have to count on the cooperation of the Organization of American States or countries like Brazil,” Gottlieb said.* Future Brazilian chancellor Araújo recently said that the “sky is the limit” in relations between Brazil and the United States. It is hoped that, in contrast to the kiss between Brezhnev and Honicker, so much love is not mortal to the Brazilians’ interests.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.