“Brazil Above All Else”

Benner 2018 Bolsonaro Original

Source: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil / Wikimedia Commons

In 1993, Jair Bolsonaro, a then 38-year old Brazilian member of parliament, gave a speech before parliament arguing for the end of what was an eight-year-old democratic experiment: “I am in favor of a dictatorship. We will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy.” On Sunday, Brazilians elected the former paratrooper president of the world’s fourth largest democracy, with 55% of the vote. Since his incendiary speech 25 years ago, he has continued to radicalize while going through nine party memberships. Brazilian democracy faces its greatest test since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. And even though Bolsonaro’s main focus is on domestic issues, Brazil’s partners will have to adapt to a very different foreign policy.

Bolsonaro promises a heavy hand, simple answers, and clear enemies. While Brazil’s political elite sank into a swamp of corruption in the “Operation Car Wash” (“Lava Jato”) investigations, Bolsonaro styled himself a clean man. Thus far, no proofs have emerged that he is corrupt. At the beginning of the year, there were allegations that his parliamentary office had misappropriated public funds for non-existent employees. But funcionários fantasmas are small fish in the context of the scandals of Brazilian politics. The fact that he does not have any leadership experience outside of being a parliamentarian only increased his credibility in the eyes of many. Brazilians trust Bolsonaro to reverse the trend of previous political elites, who have failed to keep the public safe during the most recent devastating recession. In 2017 alone, Brazil recorded 63,889 deaths from violent crime. Bolsonaro promises to deploy the military to combat criminals and to give security forces free reign in killing. The model is Filipino President Duterte, who since taking office in 2016, has ordered security forces to carry out extrajudicial killings that have left an estimated 4,500 to 12,000 citizens dead. A similar wave is imminent in Brazil under Bolsonaro. Parts of the military are skeptical about being deployed domestically to fight criminals in operations known as GLO (Garantia da Lei e da Ordem). The military can only be mobilized once state police capacities have been depleted but the president has discretion to make that determination. Bolsonaro will take the military to task, also by planning to name four to five generals as ministers. As a particular stunt, Bolsonaro has floated naming Sérgio Moro, the federal judge in charge of the prosecution in the Lava Jato case, first as justice minister and later to the Supreme Court where there will be an opening in 2020. A number of Moro’s actions had the effect of clearing the way for Bolsonaro’s victory by putting the campaign’s frontrunner, former president Lula, in prison. Moro seems willing to accept Bolsonaro’s offer. As Christoph Harig, a research fellow at the Bundeswehr University Hamburg, puts it, “a man with a Brazil-sized ego tries his best to prove every conspiracy theorist's wildest dreams”.

The new president brings back the military dictatorship’s political ethos. The fact that Brazil has not had much of a public reckoning with the record of the military dictatorship makes it easier for Bolsonaro to hold up the military dictatorship a high point of Brazilian history. He glorifies the former military intelligence chief Ustra, one of the most feared torturers of the military dictatorship, who died in 2015. On Sunday night, Bolsonaro’s supporters celebrated his victory with “Ustra lives” banners. “Brasil, ame-o ou deixe-o” was the slogan during the dictatorship. “Love Brazil or Leave It.” “Prison or Exile” are the alternatives with which Bolsonaro threatens his political opponents. This includes his branding the entire Workers’ Party, which held the presidency from 2003-2016, and human rights and environmental organizations as communists. Bolsonaro and his supporters are also threatening minorities. During the election, there were an increased number of attacks against LGBT people.

“Brazil above all else” is Bolsonaro’s nationalist slogan. “Brasil acima de tudohas its origins in the Brazilian military in the late 1960s during the dictatorship. An ultranationalist grouping of paratroopers called Centelha Nativista (Nativist Spark) chose “Brasil acima de tudo” as its motto. Even the ultranationalists with fascist sympathies, in the recollection of its co-founder Kurt Pessek, worried at the time that the slogan makes “things complicated because there is Deutschland über alles”, the “Germany above all else” line from the German national anthem abused by the Nazi regime and since dropped from the anthem. “Hey, we’re not going to take everything from them,” Pessek recalls having quipped.

Bolsonaro is a nationalist who pledged allegiance to another great nationalist, US President Donald Trump. “If I’m elected, you can be sure Trump will have a great ally in the Southern Hemisphere,” he announced during the campaign. Tying oneself to the foreign policy of another unpredictable nationalist is a risky bet, as Fundação Getúlio Vargas professor and GPPi non-resident fellow Oliver Stuenkel has pointed out.

But so far Bolsonaro’s base seems ecstatic about their mito‘s (legend's) great Trumpian alignment. This means a drastic shift in foreign policy is in the cards. Under Lula and Rousseff, the Worker Party presidents, Brazil invested heavily in the BRICS group with China, India, South Africa, and Russia, and presented itself as a supporter of the United Nations and international agreements. Bolsonaro rants against the “communists” at the UN and those behind the Paris Climate Accord, which to his mind undermines Brazil’s sovereignty. He has stepped back from promising to pull out of the Paris agreement but will go full speed ahead with promoting the deforestation of the Amazon. The new president says he wants to free the foreign ministry from an “ideology-driven foreign policy.”

Foreign policy adventures could serve as a smoke screen for Bolsonaro if the economic situation fails to improve under his reign. Bolsonaro paints the previous Workers’ Party governments as unconditional supporters of the “communists” in Venezuela. Here he wants to institute a radical change. Speaking in the Brazilian state with the most Venezuelan refugees, Bolsonaro promised to do “everything necessary” to “defeat” the Maduro government in Venezuela. He could support open or covert military action orchestrated by the Trump administration in Latin America’s largest crisis state.

Relations with China, currently Brazil’s most important trade and investment partner, will be especially interesting. Brazil will host the BRICS summit in 2019. At that point, Bolsonaro will have to show his true colors as to where he stands in relation to China and BRICS. During the election campaign, Bolsonaro was the first Brazilian presidential candidate to visit Taiwan since 1970. He has ranted against China “not buying in Brazil, but buying Brazil.” The new president is against China owning land or strategic industries in Brazil. One of them is mining. Brazil accounts for about 90% of the world’s production of niobium, a rare metal important for key industries. During the election campaign, Bolsonaro objected to a Chinese company owning a niobium mine in Brazil. In light of this, Chinese leadership is increasingly alarmed by his hostile tone. In recent months, Chinese diplomats met with Bolsonaro’s economic advisor Guedes, who will become a “super-minister” for finance and economic development, and offered him a trip to China to deepen his understanding of the country. They also met with Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s campaign manager and future chief of staff. A China Daily editorial urges the new president to take a “rational look at the state of China-Brazil relations. Because then he would be aware that China is his country's largest export market, and number one source of trade surplus. More importantly, the two economies are truly mutually complementary, and hardly competitors”. The agricultural and mining lobby, which strongly supports Bolsonaro, will fight against too strong an anti-China policy. Hu Xijin, the Chinese Communist Party’s leading global propagandist, is therefore unconcerned. He believes that Bolsonaro “will adopt [a] China-friendly policy. China is [the] top buyer of Brazilian soybean and ore. Trump-style capricious China policy will not be in line with the interests of his administration.” At the same time, as Oliver Stuenkel argues, Bolsonaro’s election proves the weakness of the democratic model from the Chinese leadership’s point of view. Someone like Bolsonaro, Stuenkel’s Chinese contacts stressed, “would not make it to village manager in China.”

A Brazil under Bolsonaro is unlikely to be a close multilateral partner to Germany and Europe. This means one fewer regular supporter in the “alliance of multilateralists” that German foreign minister Heiko Maas has proposed. Germany should offer Bolsonaro cooperation based on the shared values in both our constitutions (as Merkel did with Trump when the US president won office). At the same time, we would do well to stand closely with all those working to defend freedom in Brazil under increasingly difficult conditions.

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A German language version was published by Tagesspiegel Causa. Thomas Hanley helped with the translation.