Jair Bolsonaro not rushing to embrace Joe Biden

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In the wee hours of election night Nov. 3, the president’s son tweeted a screenshot of Michigan vote totals purporting to show a sudden jump in favor of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

“Strange,” he noted ironically.

But what may sound like Donald Trump Jr. in truth came from Eduardo Bolsonaro, the congressman and third son of a man who has long and enthusiastically embraced his “Trump of the Tropics” moniker: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Several foreign leaders who forged strong personal bonds with President Trump — including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — over the past four years face challenges adjusting to the prospect of a Biden administration. But nowhere may the whiplash be as severe as in Brasilia.

Having openly endorsed President Trump’s bid for reelection, the leader of South America’s largest and most populous nation now finds himself having to deal with a man he all but called a danger to his country as recently as two weeks ago — and one who has had some pointed criticisms of the populist Brazilian leader to boot.

“We heard a great candidate for head of state say that if I don’t put out the fire in the Amazon, he’ll put up trade barriers against Brazil. How can we react to all that?” Mr. Bolsonaro said on Nov. 10.

“Diplomacy alone won’t do,” he cautioned. “When you’re out of spit, you need gunpowder.”

The remark was but the latest sign the confrontational Mr. Bolsonaro sees no immediate intent to ingratiate himself with Mr. Biden, who had threatened the former army captain with “significant economic consequences” should he refuse to “stop tearing down the forest” in exchange for a $20 billion payment.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Bolsonaro is one of the last major holdouts who has yet to formally acknowledge Mr. Biden’s apparent electoral victory, so long as his friend Mr. Trump refuses to formally concede the race.

But also characteristically, Mr. Bolsonaro’s defiance is not so much about alienating Mr. Biden or placating Mr. Trump as it is about promoting none other than Mr. Bolsonaro, said Ambassador Paulo Roberto de Almeida, a former director of the IPRI think tank at Brazil’s foreign ministry.

“He must know that Trump lost and that Joe Biden will be the next president,” Mr. de Almeida said. “But since he embodied this ‘anti-multilateralist, anti-globalist, pro-American, anti-Chinese, anti-communist and so on’ position, he sticks to it.”

And while Mr. Bolsonaro’s refusal so far to congratulate — much less offer to work with — Mr. Biden may unnerve Brazil’s foreign policy establishment, his inner circle continues to egg him on, Mr. de Almeida added.

“Bolsonaro depends on his immediate advisers: [foreign policy adviser] Filipe Martins; son No. 3, Eduardo Bolsonaro; and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo,” he detailed. “Those three kept Bolsonaro from ending [his] silence about the [Biden] victory.”

And little suggests Mr. Bolsonaro is about to turn into a second Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s leftist president who — despite his political leanings — was able to forge an unexpectedly respectful and productive relationship with Mr. Trump, his ideological opposite.

Mr. Bolsonaro “doesn’t seem like he’s really ready to backtrack and find ways of working with Biden,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “In part, it’s [because] Brazil is certainly less dependent on the United States than Mexico.”

Running in 2022

In the medium term, then, the fate of Washington-Brasilia relations may well depend on what Mr. Bolsonaro concludes is his best campaign strategy to win a second term two years from now.

“Whatever he does with regard to relations with the United States — what he looks for in the United States — will be in reference to his [reelection],” Mr. Hakim cautioned.

The Brazilian president, who has remained buoyant in the polls despite the country’s devastating fight with the coronavirus, has shown a tactical ability to be flexible on the policy front.

Having initially championed his Economy Minister Paulo Guedes’s pro-market fiscal conservatism, Mr. Bolsonaro this year switched course to allow for generous government handouts amid the coronavirus pandemic — one big reason, analysts say, for an unprecedented bump in his approval numbers.

“After a blustery, Trump-like start that he is going to make these huge changes in the way Brazil functions and he’s not going to follow the rules,” Mr. Hakim quipped, “he has [now] recognized the value of getting something done.”

And though the Nov. 15 first round of municipal elections saw Bolsonaro-backed candidates lose key mayoral races, the overall success of center-right forces, ironically, turned out to be good news.

“In truth, he gained strength,” Brasilia-based political consultant Vera Galante noted. “He ends up strengthened in Congress, and also in the states, even though his candidates were defeated.”

Which version of Mr. Bolsonaro — the 2019 ideologue or the 2020 pragmatist — will show up for the 2022 campaign, then, is, more than ever, anybody’s guess.

“He has a real dilemma facing him,” Mr. Hakim said. “Does he use his populist strongman approach? … Or is the best to try to get the economy going again? He would like to do both, but there are trade-offs there for him.”

The dilemma is real, political scientist Lucas de Abreu Maia agreed. But economic realities will ultimately force Mr. Bolsonaro’s hand, the former O Estado de S. Paulo reporter added.

“He is in a very tough position, actually, because he has to please his domestic audience — but the Brazilian economy cannot afford to have anything but [a] good relationship with the U.S.,” Mr. de Abreu Maia said. “Brazil needs the U.S. a lot more than the U.S. needs Brazil.”

And plenty of influential forces will be pushing Mr. Bolsonaro to at least try to mend fences with his new American counterpart, Mr. Hakim said.

“The agricultural lobby, the business community and the military — and even many of the evangelicals,” he said, “are going to press him to find a way to patch up relations with Biden.”

To do that, though, all roads lead back to the Amazon, whose deforestation pits Mr. Bolsonaro’s trademark talking points — sovereignty, national pride, development — against Mr. Biden’s assertion of an “existential threat” from climate change and his determination to make climate change a centerpiece of U.S. economic and foreign policy.

“Trade relations, trade negotiations, trade agreements,” Mr. Hakim enumerated, “are going to be very hard for Brazil to secure without a real reversal on Bolsonaro’s Amazon policy.”

In fact, Mr. Biden’s mention of the Amazon in the first presidential debate was the first time he had seen a purportedly domestic issue come up so prominently in a foreign campaign, economist Marcio Pochmann said.

“The Amazon issue, in truth, is an international debate,” said Mr. Pochmann, the former president of the Perseu Abramo Foundation linked to the opposition Workers’ Party.

About-face?

And given Mr. Bolsonaro’s newfound flexibility on a variety of issues, another about-face is certainly within the realm of the possible, he suggested.

“I wouldn’t rule out Bolsonaro changing positions” on the international scene, Mr. Pochmann said.

Getting along with Mr. Biden could certainly help Brasilia stay at the top of the South American pecking order, Ms. Galante suggested.

“President Bolsonaro will want to re-establish [Brazilian] hegemony in the region, and for that he needs the United States,” she said.

But any “flexibility” could easily cut both ways, Mr. Pochmann cautioned, pointing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s conspicuous display of camaraderie toward Mr. Bolsonaro at last week’s virtual BRICS summit of major emerging economies.

And if anything, the former congressman — who during his 20-year career in politics has switched party allegiances no fewer than eight times — has a history of digging in, not dropping out.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s animosity toward Argentine President Alberto Fernandez — by all accounts mutual — seems to have survived countless attempts at reconciliation. And his jabs against China have already cost Brazil dearly, Mr. de Almeida said. At the BRICS summit — a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — Beijing quietly withdrew its longstanding endorsement of an expanded role for Brasilia at the United Nations.

A telltale sign of what course Mr. Bolsonaro wants to take toward the Biden administration, analysts agreed, will likely be the fate of Mr. Araujo, his foreign minister.

A changing of the guard at the ministry’s famed Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia could come around Mr. Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration and would signal Mr. Bolsonaro’s desire for a new beginning, Mr. de Almeida said.

“I would pay close attention to the Itamaraty,” Ms. Galante agreed, “because he could use this opportunity.”

But foreign policy and self-interest aside, embracing Mr. Biden will not come easy to Mr. Bolsonaro, who modeled much of his political success — his stunning 2018 electoral victory, his jabs at “fake-news” media, his Twitter tirades — on the Donald Trump model.

“He embodied this ‘Trumpist’ position not because he was Trump’s friend — he isn’t — [but because] he is Trump’s admirer,” Mr. de Almeida said.

“To the extent that either follows a playbook, Bolsonaro has been following Trump‘s,” Mr. de Abreu Maia said. “It’s going to be harder for [Mr. Bolsonaro] to win reelection without having really an inspiration — really a playbook to follow.”

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