The Silent Partner
Biden wants distance from Bolsonaro – but also wants Brazil aligned against ChinaBrian Winter
Since taking office on January 20, Joe Biden has found time to speak by telephone or in person with the leaders of more than three dozen countries, ranging from the very large (China, India, Australia) to the very small (Estonia, United Arab Emirates, Belgium). The list has included close allies of Washington, such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as figures considered to be problematic or outright rivals, like Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and the biggest bogeyman of them all: Vladimir Putin. In Latin America, Biden has spoken with the leaders of Colombia and Guatemala as well as Mexico, whose president Andrés Manuel López Obrador received Biden’s second phone call overall (behind only Trudeau), despite being one of the last leaders in the world to recognize Biden’s disputed election.
The most notable absence: Jair Bolsonaro, the president of the world’s sixth-most populous country, who once famously saluted a US flag while campaigning in Florida and has, since taking office, pursued the most unabashedly pro-Washington foreign policy of any Brazilian leader since the return of democracy in 1985. In recent months, Bolsonaro’s emissaries have repeatedly enquired about a conversation with Biden, sources in both Brasilia and Washington told me. The official response is that the US president is busy – but nobody on either side really believes it. At the White House climate summit in April, Biden patiently listened to speeches from other global leaders but left the room minutes before Bolsonaro, speaking 19th, began his address. US diplomats later insisted the timing was a coincidence, but as one Brazilian official told me: “It seems like Biden will do almost anything to avoid us.”
That interpretation seems correct. Biden has clearly been trying to maintain a certain distance from a leader who has fanned the flames in the Amazon, denied the basic science of COVID-19, and questioned the integrity of elections in both Brazil and the United States while resolutely aligning himself – still – with the man who did not win in November 2020: Donald Trump. Yes, Biden has established dialogue with other global figures he doesn’t like. But Bolsonaro is considered a special case, primarily because of his penchant for all-out, flamethrowing war, on Twitter and in real life, with his critics at home and abroad. Everyone in Washington remembers the summer of 2019, when Macron’s criticism of fires in the Amazon unleashed a bitter and bizarre public exchange that ended with Bolsonaro insulting the French president’s wife. More relevant, it caused a deep diplomatic freeze between Brasilia and Paris that continues to this day. Keeping a wide berth between Bolsonaro and Biden, who has his own history of verbal tussles, may have helped prevent a similar confrontation – while allowing the broader bilateral relationship to continue. It is better not to talk at all than to scream, or tweet in ALL CAPS, many believe.
Indeed, despite the silence at the presidential level, or perhaps because of it, the Brazil-United States relationship has defied doomsday predictions so far under Biden, surprising diplomats on both sides with its constructive agenda and (mostly) civilized tone. As 2021 progressed, the main axis of the relationship has gradually shifted from climate change and the Amazon to geopolitical concerns – namely, China. The Biden administration may not like Bolsonaro, but it increasingly understands that Brazil is a critical ally in what it believes to be the defining issue of the 21st century, the escalating confrontation between Washington and Beijing. Especially in an era when other Latin American countries such as Peru, Guatemala and Mexico are becoming more hostile to the United States, or at least less pliant, a cooperative Brazil is regarded as too important a partner to ignore – even if it’s led by the so-called “Trump of the Tropics.”
The high-profile US visits to Brasilia in July and August, led by CIA director William Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, respectively, confirmed this more pragmatic shift. The agenda included Brazil’s upcoming 5G tender and warnings about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, cooperation on regional security issues like Venezuela, as well as more mundane items. The meetings were regarded by both sides as cordial. But just beneath the surface, a massive debate continues to bubble inside the US government, as well as in academic and policy circles, over whether any short-term gain from engaging with Bolsonaro, even with the two presidents at arm’s length, is worth the possible long-term damage doing so might cause to Washington’s reputation, especially as he appears to be preparing to try to overturn or cancel Brazil’s 2022 election, which polls suggest he may lose.
Indeed, officials in both the United States and Brazil today find themselves fundamentally questioning what their countries’ relationship is and should be. In some ways, that reflects the extraordinary tumult that both countries have endured in recent years, including the two highest death tolls from the global pandemic, persistent economic stagnation and rising inequality, and a tide of authoritarianism that has placed both countries’ democracies at risk. But other ways, this existential crossroads should come as no surprise at all, considering that these are two countries who, 197 years after they first established diplomatic ties, have still never really figured out how to deal with each other.
At ceremonial lunches in Brasilia or Washington, there is an established canon of feel-good bromides about the bilateral relationship that seasoned diplomats (and a few journalists) can recite by heart. Brazil and the United States are the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies, with similar histories as multiracial melting pots; the US was among the first countries to recognize Brazil’s independence; Dom Pedro II was one of the first foreign rulers ever to set foot in the United States, on the occasion of its centennial in 1876, charming American audiences as he visited the World’s Fair in Philadelphia and tested Alexander Graham Bell’s newest invention, the telephone, exclaiming in childlike wonder: “My God! It speaks!” A 1922 article in the Southwestern Political Science Quarterly by J. Fred Rippy, a prominent Latin American expert at the University of Chicago, contended that “the relations of the United States and Brazil have been more harmonious, perhaps, than those of any other two American states.”
Since then, the picture has been more complex, with highs – such as Brazil joining the Allied cause and sending troops to fight in World War II – and lows, namely US backing for the military coup of 1964. While bilateral ties have almost always been cordial in tone, many believe they have been characterized above all by a relative absence of engagement – what the renowned Brazilianist Albert Fishlow once called “The Missing Relationship.” Over the last thirty years, since democracy returned to Brazil and the Cold War drew to a close, two seemingly opposed schools of thought have emerged on how to deal with this apparent vacuum. The first is that the two governments should pursue a great leap forward, a “breakthrough,” that will finally cement (or restore) their natural proximity. The other, as articulated by the late Brazilian intellectual Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira and others, is that Brazil and the United States are in fact rivals with inherently divergent interests – which is why so many attempts at collaboration seem to culminate in frustration, misunderstandings and gaffes.
There is certainly evidence to back up the latter view. Longtime observers still lament Ronald Reagan’s trip to Brasilia in 1982, when he raised his wine glass at a banquet to toast “the people of Bolivia” – seemingly confirming that, in the eyes of the US government, Brazil would always be just another poor country in its so-called backyard. More recently, Lula’s attempt to circumvent the United States and broker a nuclear deal with Iran during the final year of his presidency in 2010 is seen in Washington as the ultimate manifestation of Brazil’s exaggerated sense of self-importance on the world stage. Any mention of the 2013 revelations of US espionage by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which led Dilma Rousseff to cancel a much-anticipated state visit to the White House, still leads today’s generation of diplomats from both countries to shake their heads and mumble about the lost opportunities in areas like trade and military-to-military cooperation. “We were so close…”
The US government, for its part, seems perpetually uncertain how to deal with any large Latin American country that is neither an unconditional ally nor a sworn rival. Even with the United States’ global influence in obvious decline, some in Washington seem determined to treat Brazil and the rest of the Western Hemisphere as a kind of museum of its 20th century glory days, as evidenced by the Trump government’s absurd attempt to resuscitate and defend the Monroe Doctrine – the 19th century idea that external powers should stay out of the Americas. Even in Democratic administrations, officials sometimes struggle to move beyond old Cold War frameworks and see Brazil on its own merits. “We’re still trying to figure out whether Brazil is Britain or France,” a high-level Barack Obama appointee told me in the 2010s, referring to the frequently unconditional support of the British and the always independent stance of the French. With some notable exceptions, the ranks of Latin America-facing officials at the State Department and elsewhere have been dominated by Spanish-speaking experts on Cuba, Venezuela or Guatemala, who often admit (in private) that they “don’t really get” the country that accounts for some 40% of the region’s population and gross domestic product.
On the Brazilian side, much of the traditional foreign policy establishment (that is, outside of Bolsonaro’s immediate circle) is still pushing the same agenda as ten or fifteen years ago – including a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council – even though a decade of crisis, scandals and dysfunction has devastated the country’s global reputation and demoted it from the world’s sixth biggest economy to, today, its 12th. By placing so much emphasis on “reciprocity” in the relationship with the United States, Brazilian diplomats have often seemed more focused on respect than results, unable to move past old sleights that are either no longer relevant or had little to do with bilateral ties in the first place. (Some still complain, for example, about the Bush administration’s decision on the eve of the Iraq War to oust a Brazilian diplomat, Jose Mauricio Bustani, from a weapons control body in The Hague). Over the years, Brazilian officials have alternated between lamentations that the United States is too distracted by wars in the Middle East and domestic crises to pay proper attention to Latin America, and statements like that of then-Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who seemed to express a certain tucano-petista consensus when he said in 2008 that the best way for Washington to help Brazil was by “watching from the outside, keeping its distance.”
To be sure, there have been examples of cooperation – security efforts in Haiti, or US participation in Rousseff’s “Science Without Borders” program. But overall, the bilateral agenda on the eve of Bolsonaro’s election was largely the same as ten years prior, full of relatively small-bore ambitions like visa-free travel or an end to so-called “double taxation”. Members of the “breakthrough”–seeking crowd felt like they were drowning. “It’s a disgrace that the two biggest democracies in the Western Hemisphere don’t have a trade deal,” one Brazilian diplomat with longtime experience in the United States told me. “Does it really take two centuries to do something like that?”
This all explains why Bolsonaro was seen as such an opportunity in Washington – even by some who were repulsed by his anti-democratic, violent behavior. On the one hand, Bolsonaro always seemed more enamored with Trump than with the United States itself, raising questions about how sustainable any partnership would be over time. The pro-gun, anti-globalist musings of the US-based philosopher Olavo de Carvalho and his various disciples, including Bolsonaro’s first foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, seemed lifted directly from Fox News and the US culture wars, as opposed to any kind of local reality. But others contended that Bolsonaro’s enthusiasm might actually reflect a deeper shift in Brazilian society. After the 300% increase in travel by Brazilians to the United States in the 2000s, surveys suggested they had become among the most pro-American people in the world, with 73% of Brazilians expressing a positive opinion of the US in a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center. Investment and trade flows between the two countries had also expanded significantly. When Araújo proclaimed prior to the inauguration that “the sky is the limit” for US-Brazil relations, some in Washington wondered if Brazil’s elected leaders had finally caught up with domestic public opinion.
There is some debate over how much was actually accomplished during the two years of Trump and Bolsonaro’s so-called “bromance.” The US finally attained its decades-old dream of access to the Alcantara satellite launch base, while the two governments reached a range of technical but arguably important agreements on trade, anti-corruption and other issues. The US supported Brazil for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a kind of club for mostly rich nations, though it embarrassed Bolsonaro by briefly favoring Argentina instead. But there was a widespread perception that the United States was getting far more out of the arrangement than Brazil. Some diplomats felt they were being asked to conjure up a policy agenda to justify the presidents’ personal affection, rather than serve their country’s national interests. Because of Trump’s well-established aversion to trade, and Bolsonaro’s radioactive reputation among Democrats in the US Congress, the supposed Holy Grail of bilateral ties – a full-fledged trade deal – was never on the table, despite occasional insistences to the contrary.
Whatever was gained, it all appeared to be in danger when Biden emerged as the winner of the US election. Bolsonaro seemed to have never considered the possibility, saying just two weeks before the vote, during a visit to Brasilia by Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien, that “I hope, if it’s God’s will, to be able to attend (Trump’s) inauguration … I don’t need to hide this, it’s from the heart.” With the exception of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, no major global leader waited longer to recognize the election result: a full 38 days. Even after the bloody insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, Bolsonaro continued to denounce “shameless fraud” in the election, while Araújo said Americans questioning the result were “good citizens … who shouldn’t be called fascists.” The most incendiary behavior of all came from Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Deputies. After meeting inside the White House with Ivanka Trump shortly before Biden’s inauguration, he publicly lamented that the rioters of January 6 had not been sufficiently organized or possessed enough “war power […] to have killed all the police inside or the congressmen they all hate,” a truly extraordinary slap in the face to American democracy.
All this posed a dilemma for Biden. A veteran of foreign policy from his 36 years in the Senate and 8 years as vice president, he arrived in office knowing Latin America better than arguably any other president in US history, having traveled to the region thirteen times during the Obama administration. Obama had personally charged Biden with trying to put the US-Brazil relationship back together following the Snowden affair. But now, he appeared to be in a less conciliatory mood. Biden had already thrown down the gauntlet during the campaign, saying at a debate that he would offer Brazil $20 billion to protect the Amazon – but that if it failed, the country would face unspecified “significant economic consequences.” That episode generated more confusion than anything else – US diplomats say they’ve never been able to figure out where Biden got the $20 billion figure, which was never heard publicly again. But the tone appeared to be set. Bolsonaro lost no time lashing out on Facebook, writing in Portuguese and in English, just in case anybody missed the message, that he would not accept “bribes” or “coward threats” from Uncle Sam.
The relationship could have easily continued down that road. With Trump himself gone from public office (and social media), Bolsonaro was now the most visible face of trumpismo abroad, a ready-made villain for the Twitter Era. A relevant slice of the American public, which historically cared as much about politics in Brazil as they did about those of Papua New Guinea, which is to say not at all, was ready to mobilize – as exemplified by the public uproar that forced the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce to cancel a planned gala celebration for Bolsonaro in New York in 2019, after everyone from the mayor to important labor unions weighed in. Many Democrats in the US Congress, especially those from the party’s progressive wing, were strongly opposed to almost any kind of engagement with Brazil. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro had influential friends in Brazilian conservative circles telling him a confrontation with Biden would help mobilize his base, while distracting attention from his disastrous management of the pandemic and unpopular emerging alliance with the Centrão in Congress. Some even insisted that Russia, which they saw as part of the “Judeo-Christian world,” would be able to take the United States’ place as Brazil’s preferred international ally. Critically, the facts on the ground also pointed toward a clash – with Amazon deforestation at 10-year highs and rising, and Biden determined to make climate change a focal point of diplomacy to a degree unprecedented in US history.
There is no single moment that explains why cooler heads ultimately prevailed. With a full plate of other priorities including recovery from the pandemic, Biden and his top aides appear to have decided early to personally engage with Bolsonaro as little as possible, an approach that one US official compared to starving a fire of oxygen. Diplomats in both countries, as well as Gen. Augusto Heleno, reputedly the only person in the Brazilian power structure capable of telling the Bolsonaro family what to do, worked furiously behind the scenes to convince everyone to take a deep breath and “stay the hell off of Twitter,” in the words of one envoy. In fact, the word “Biden” has not appeared in any of Bolsonaro’s tweets since January 20, the day of the inauguration, when he – or perhaps someone writing on his behalf – magnanimously congratulated the new US president and emphasized the “long relationship between Brazil and the United States.” Behind the scenes, Bolsonaro has continued to send Biden polite diplomatic letters, most of which have not been released to the public, including what one diplomat deemed a “beautiful” message on July 4th, the US’ Independence Day.
But none of the theatrics would have mattered without real progress on the policy front, specifically on the Amazon. Some in Brasilia credit Todd Chapman, the cowboy hat-wearing US ambassador appointed by Trump, and then retained by Biden for the first six months of his administration, with smoothing over relations with the Bolsonaro family while simultaneously pressuring them to agree to tougher action in the Amazon. Chapman quietly convened a small group of ambassadors from European countries and met with key ministers who seemed to appreciate the importance of reducing deforestation, including Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias, who in turn took their case to the president. Some in the so-called “military wing” pressed for stronger action, while the March resignation of Araújo as foreign minister also opened up space for change. These efforts culminated with Bolsonaro’s speech at the White House climate summit, in which he vowed to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and achieve emission neutrality by 2050, while proclaiming Brazil “open to international cooperation” – and even wearing a green necktie. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry immediately questioned whether Brazil would follow through on these commitments, while others pointed out that Bolsonaro’s allies in Congress continued to push environmentally disastrous such as the so-called Lei da Grilagem. But the change in tone, plus preliminary official data suggesting that deforestation rate, while still at high levels, may have stopped rising in the last twelve months, appears to have been enough to allow Washington, which had been demanding progress on a year-over-year basis, to broaden its focus to other matters.
In truth, parts of the bilateral relationship had never ceased, from joint military exercises in Louisiana to an agreement on future exploration of the moon. But the top US priority in the relationship with Brazil, as well as many other countries, was now clearly China. The idea that Beijing is not just a rival but a threat to US national security, and Western democracies in general, has quickly become a bipartisan consensus in Washington rather than just a passing idiosyncrasy of the Trump years, as many observers assumed. This shift, driven by events such as the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong and its genocide of the Uyghur people, as well as the acceleration of China’s economic rise compared to the United States in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, is leading to a radical rethink of US foreign policy – and yes, obvious comparisons to the Cold War. China’s rise in Latin America over the past 20 years has been amply documented, with trade between Beijing and the region exploding from $18 billion in 2002 to $315 billion in 2020, while diplomatic and security ties also strengthened. Brazil’s exports to China in 2020 were three times larger than those to the United States, though the latter country remains a far bigger source of investment. Biden administration officials know they cannot ask Brazil, or any other country in the region, to make a totally binary choice between Washington and Beijing. But the fear in Washington is that, if Brazil chooses Huawei to build out its 5G network, it could be a gigantic step that would consolidate Chinese influence — economically, politically and militarily — in Latin America’s largest country for decades to come.
The public record of Bolsonaro’s meeting with Sullivan, the national security advisor, suggests a careful attempt to balance the Biden administration’s two competing instincts – trying to coax further collaboration on both China and the Amazon while, at the same time, explicitly taking distance from Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic behavior. “We were very direct in expressing great confidence in the ability of the Brazilian institutions to carry out a free and fair election,” Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s top aide on Latin America, told reporters after the meeting. “We can engage on matters of security cooperation, economic cooperation, and then – and still be very clear” about the need to maintain democracy, Gonzalez said. (González denied a report in the Brazilian media that Bolsonaro had said Biden’s election was the result of fraud.)
Sullivan also raised some eyebrows in Brasilia by meeting separately with governors from the Amazon region to discuss deforestation. While the meeting with Bolsonaro did yield progress in some areas, the Americans reportedly received no firm commitments on the 5G issue, or the China relationship in general. Bolsonaro has made no secret over the years of his disdain for the Chinese (whom he groups with other communists), but even he, under pressure from military, agribusiness and other interests, has stopped short of taking steps that could alienate such an important buyer of Brazilian commodities. On that issue and some others, the Americans seem to have departed Brasilia empty-handed, and with a clear sense they might be running out of time.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe the Sullivan visit will be remembered as a high-water mark in the bilateral relationship, perhaps for some time to come. Just hours afterward, Bolsonaro made some of his most explicit threats to date against Brazil’s democratic institutions, warning in a radio interview that “I believe the moment is coming” for a rupture with the Constitution. Ensuing days would see Bolsonaro stage a military procession aimed at intimidating Congress, as well as make direct insults and threats aimed against members of the Supreme Court. While the Biden administration has so far refrained from directly criticizing Bolsonaro’s behavior, there may come a point where the parallels with the January 6 uprising in Washington become too obvious for US officials to stay silent. No one knows what the Biden administration would do in the event of an actual military intervention in Brasília to try to keep Bolsonaro in power, or any other overt attempt to steal the 2022 elections; whether sanctions or some other punitive measures could be on the table. While the risk is taken seriously in Washington, the hope is still that Brazil’s own institutions would ultimately be strong enough to repel the threat. Meanwhile, the upcoming UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in October is also likely to refocus the world’s attention on Bolsonaro and the Amazon, with unpredictable consequences.
The other specter looming over the relationship has a name: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. With polls showing Brazil’s former president poised for a comeback in 2022, US policymakers are already weighing the potential ramifications. Lula’s 2003-10 presidency was marked by a relative balance between the usual poles of the US-Brazil relationship. He enjoyed pragmatic relationships with the occupants of the White House (more so with Bush than Obama, an enduring mystery to many), but a clearly independent foreign policy that emphasized south-south ties, including with US antagonists like Cuba, Venezuela and China. Some observers believe that a third Lula term could be significantly more anti-American than the first two, given his apparent belief that US support was fundamental to the Lava Jato investigation that sent him to jail and disqualified him from the 2018 election. Some in Workers’ Party circles have compared US support for Bolsonaro to Washington’s backing of the 1964 coup, while also theorizing, with no evidence, that the visit of Burns, the CIA director, was somehow designed to undermine Lula’s latest candidacy. Meanwhile, US officials noted with dismay an interview Lula gave to a Chinese newspaper in July in which he called for a “strategic partnership” with Beijing and expressed admiration for the Communist Party on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, although he also stressed the need for a “good relationship” with the United States.
This has thrown further gasoline on the debate raging inside the US government about just how much to work with Bolsonaro over the next year. Some believe the clock is ticking until Itamaraty reverts back to its usual, more resistant modus operandi, and that Biden is failing to maximize the potential gains, citing his decision not to talk to the Brazilian president as a symbol. “It’s really juvenile,” one official complained, noting that Biden has had no such qualms about engaging with another Latin American leader, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has also undermined democratic institutions, although not with the same severity. Others worry that the Biden administration may have already gone too far in its attempts at dialogue with Bolsonaro, perhaps mindful of what happened the last time a South American leader aligned himself so unconditionally with the United States: Carlos Menem, during the era of so-called “carnal relations” in the 1990s. The backlash was so severe that, in surveys such as the one from Pew, Argentines still rank among the most anti-American nations in the world.
If the world really is becoming more bipolar again – a contest between two superpowers with Latin America as a major battleground for influence – Washington’s relationships throughout the region seem destined to remain tense, no matter who is in charge. China already has more leverage in many countries than the Soviet Union ever did in the 20th century, while the United States is not the same United States, either. Governments including Brazil will resist efforts to induce them to take sides – and if they absolutely must, they will wait as long as possible before committing. Some have noted that here, too, history is repeating itself: For all the talk of Brazil’s World War II heroism at diplomatic lunches, the truth is that Getúlio Vargas kept his country out of the war until 1942, and only joined after a negotiation process in which the United States agreed to help create a steel industry in Brazil, among other benefits. A similar effort today to help create a 5G “national champion” in Brazil, that could in turn become a powerhouse elsewhere in Latin America, has been floated by some US officials as one way out of the current Huawei dilemma. But whether Bolsonaro, or Lula, or any other future leader would go for it is an open question.
Some watch all this, grasp their heads in disbelief and wonder: Is this really happening again? Is the Brazil-US relationship destined to forever repeat old patterns? Some diplomats in both governments are working hard, trying to create a more nuanced relationship. But this, too, has been tried: A hundred years ago, the legendary Brazilian diplomat and journalist Manuel de Oliveira Lima warned in his writings that US and Brazilian interests would diverge, that Washington would become too powerful and insist on displays of fealty from other nations in the hemisphere. Oliveira Lima took the unusual step of donating his personal library of more than 40,000 books, maps and works of art not to a Brazilian institution but to the Catholic University in Washington, hoping that it would produce better understanding between the two nations and, eventually, a more balanced relationship. Today, it is certainly possible to imagine a future in which Brazil and the United States have settled into a mature equilibrium, at ease with the other’s power, size and national interests. But we’re not there quite yet.
É diretor de redação da revista Americas Quarterly. Publicou O Improvável Presidente do Brasil (Civilização Brasileira), em coautoria com Fernando Henrique Cardoso