Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – It takes two to tango, the saying goes, and over the past two years, United States President Donald Trump has found his ideal partner in Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The leader of Latin America’s largest economy, Bolsonaro followed Trump’s lead almost step by step even when it did not serve his country’s best interests, earning him the moniker “Tropical Trump”.
So when Trump leaves the White House in January and his successor, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, takes over US environmental and foreign policy, where will Bolsonaro stand?
“He’ll stand alone, since he lost his role model and his only strong ally in the world,” former Brazilian ambassador to the US Rubens Ricupero told Al Jazeera. “Bolsonaro has a bad relationship with the European Union, with France, with Germany and with China. And he started off his relationship with US President-elect Joe Biden on the wrong foot.”
Weeks after Biden defeated Trump in the US election, Bolsonaro still has not recognised his victory. He has, however, made it clear he holds a grudge against the US president-elect for comments Biden made during the first presidential debate.
Speaking about how he planned to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, Biden also offered to help raise $20bn to support Brazil in fighting wildfires in the Amazon.
Biden also suggested Brazil could face sanctions if it didn’t stop the rainforest’s destruction, a claim Bolsonaro met with a provocative reply in a November 11 speech.
“We recently saw a great candidate to head of state [Biden] say that if I don’t put out the fire in the Amazon, he will put up commercial barriers against Brazil,” Bolsonaro said.
“What can we do to face this? Diplomacy alone doesn’t work … When the saliva runs out, we have to have gunpowder,” he added.
But as Trump comes closer to finally conceding the election and the formal transition to the Biden administration begins, Bolsonaro may be left with little choice but to try diplomacy after all.
Following Trump’s lead from Jerusalem to ‘little flu’
That’s why Ricupero, who served as his country’s environment and finance minister in the 1990s, believes that with Trump’s defeat, “Brazil now has the chance to change its disastrous foreign policy.” But he is sceptical about whether the Bolsonaro administration will make this move.
For example, this week, Bolsonaro’s son, who serves in Brazil’s congress, engaged in a Twitter fight with China.
“The government of Jair Bolsonaro declared its support to the Clean Network project, launched by the government of Donald Trump, creating a global alliance to have a safe 5G, without China’s espionage,” Eduardo Bolsonaro wrote. “This happens as a repudiation of entities classified as aggressive or as enemies of freedom, like the Chinese Communist Party.”
The younger Bolsonaro, who serves as the president of the foreign affairs committee in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, later erased the tweets – but not before the Chinese embassy in Brasilia saw them.
The Chinese embassy responded with its own Twitter thread, accusing Brazil of repeating “slanderous” statements invented by the “American extreme right-wing” and reminding Bolsonaro’s government that it has been Brazil’s largest commercial partner for over a decade, importing $58bn this year alone. There could be “negative consequences,” the Chinese embassy warned.
It’s a potential economic fight that Brazil can ill afford. The country just lost its place in the top 10 global economies and is facing a record 14 percent unemployment rate as COVID-19 continues to surge.
For decades, Brazil’s foreign policy has been dictated by pragmatism: avoid interfering in the internal affairs of another country – no matter the government’s political tendency – and don’t miss a business opportunity. But Bolsonaro has followed Trump’s lead in foreign affairs even when the political and economic math does not add up.
For example, he announced he would move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after the US did, bolstering Israel’s highly disputed claim that the holy city is part of its territory.
But Middle Eastern countries – excluding Israel – bought $14bn worth of Brazilian exports in 2018, while Israel accounts for only $321m.
Bolsonaro ended up bowing to internal pressure, which was largely exerted by agricultural sector leaders who voted for him. Instead of moving the embassy, Bolsonaro settled for opening a commercial office in Jerusalem. But the Israeli flag – and the American one – are often seen flying at the Brazilian president’s political events.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, calling it a “little flu” and blaming China for the spread of COVID-19. And like Trump, he eschewed wearing a mask, contracted COVID-19 and recovered – then used his own experience as proof that the virus is not all that bad. But the numbers tell a different story: Brazil is the country with the second-highest number of coronavirus-related deaths after the US.
Base of support
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has a hard-core fan base – and keeping those voters is a must. Bolsonaro has no political party after he left the small one that helped get him elected. He’s angered Brazil’s Supreme Court and members of its congress more than once, and most of the mayoral candidates he supported in the first round of municipal elections earlier this month lost.
Eliane Cantanhede is a political commentator who has been writing about Brazilian politics for over three decades. Without a political party of his own, she said, Bolsonaro relies on the so-called “centrao” to get things. It’s a “big centre” group of about 200 legislators from different parties who come together to approve legislation, typically in return for positions of power.
“During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised he would end the old politics, involving wheeling and dealing with Congress,” Cantanhede explained. “Now he has backtracked because he sees he cannot get much done without the support of the legislature, and he doesn’t have a party of his own like Trump does.”
Trump “legitimised” Bolsonaro as a major political player as well, according to Geraldo Tadeu, a political scientist and coordinator of the Center for Studies and Research on Democracy.
“[Bolsonao] was an unknown congressman for 20 years who has been unable to dialogue with major sectors of Brazil’s society, who does not have a strong political structure to back him up and never prepared himself to be a president,” Tadeu told Al Jazeera. “He simply mimicked Trump.”
A blow to ‘national populism’
But without a friend like Trump in Washington, Bolsonaro may struggle to garner support for his politics at home and abroad.
That’s why Trump’s defeat can also be viewed as a blow to “national populism” in the US and in Brazil, according to Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to the US and United Kingdom who is now the president of the Institute of International Relations and Foreign Trade.
“It will be hard for Bolsonaro to maintain this kind of movement unless Trump is able to keep the control of the Republican Party after leaving the White House, and to some extent steer US politics,” Barbosa told Al Jazeera.
Many Brazilians who voted for Bolsonaro did so because they were tired of 13 years of Workers’ Party rule and corruption scandals. Having Trump in the White House helped justify sending Bolsonaro to Brasilia for voters like Antonio Valente.
“If the United States, which is a world power, is being governed by somebody like Trump, then Brazil can have Bolsonaro – the world is changing,” Valente, an architect, told Al Jazeera.
“That is what I thought at the time. I was tired of old-school politics and thought, maybe these two will at least rattle the structures that have been there forever and make things better. Now, I am not so sure,” he added.
For critics of Bolsonaro, Trump’s defeat spells opportunity. Rose Cipriano is a Black activist who joined an anti-racism protest in front of a Carrefour supermarket in Rio de Janeiro after Joao Alberto Silveira Freitas – a Black man – was dragged out of another Carrefour store and beaten and choked to death by two white security guards.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has been criticised for his lack of action when it comes to racial justice. Cipriano hopes a new US president could lead to change in Brazil, too.
“Trump’s defeat will weaken Bolsonaro and the conservative right, which has been ignoring minorities,” Cipriano told Al Jazeera. “In South America, neighbouring countries like Argentina and Bolivia have switched back to centre-left governments. In Chile, mass protests have convinced people to reform the constitution and reduce social inequality. In Brazil, the same will happen.”
But Brazil – like the US – is deeply divided when it comes to politics, and those who support Bolsonaro echo Trump supporters’ views that the system is to blame, not their president.
“[Bolsonaro] hasn’t done much because nobody lets him govern. The media is against him,” Jose Josinaldo, an apartment-building concierge in Rio de Janeiro, told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t know much about Trump, but if Bolsonaro likes him, so do I,” he added.