Biden and the “Trump of the Tropics”: A New Era for U.S.- Brazil Relations

Since his inauguration in January 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been a close emulator of former U.S. President Donald Trump through both his divisive rhetoric and staunchly conservative politics. In return, the Trump administration consistently praised Bolsonaro, despite his harmful environmental policies in the Amazon and overall anti-democratic attitudes. Under the new administration of President Joe Biden, this is all likely to change. 

Bolsonaro may prove to be a difficult nut to crack for Biden and his cabinet. With the 2022 Brazilian presidential election looming, Bolsonaro wants to appear strong to voters, actively fighting against what he feels is foreign interference in domestic policies. A concern of interference emerged in 2019, when, after two decades of on-and-off negotiations, Brazil and other members of South America’s Mercosur trade bloc reached a free trade agreement with the European Union. While the Amazon was engulfed in flames, French President Emmanuel Macron demanded more robust conservation policies from Brazil as a condition for ratifying the deal. To the despair of South American and European exporters, Bolsonaro doubled down on his climate denial rhetoric, and the deal has yet to be ratified.

Biden’s inauguration comes as the United States faces a multitude of foreign policy challenges, such as repairing their relationship with NATO and competing with China. Nonetheless, dealing with Bolsonaro, diplomatically or otherwise, will be crucial as Biden seeks to return the United States to the forefront of the fight against climate change, one of his signature campaign promises. Early on the campaign trail, Biden took aim at the Brazilian leader. In the September 2020 presidential debate, Biden said: “The rainforests of Brazil are being torn down, are being ripped down. More carbon is absorbed in that rainforest than every bit of carbon that’s emitted in the United States. Instead of doing something about that, I would be gathering up and making sure we had the countries of the world coming up with 20 billion dollars… stop tearing down the forest, and if you don’t, then you’re going to have significant economic consequences.” This jab at the Brazilian president drew outrage from Bolsonaro, who labeled Biden’s comments as “regrettable,” as well as “disastrous and gratuitous.”

Biden will have two distinct routes in maneuvering an already rocky relationship with Brazil: take the path of direct repudiation of Bolsonaro or work to establish pragmatic collaborative ties with his government. 

Significant steps have already been taken towards repudiation. Most foreign policy aides in the administration regard Bolsonaro as a dangerous figure — a “Trump of the Tropics” with no regard for democratic norms, human rights or environmental protection. Their desire is to put forward policies that push back against Bolsonaro’s populist agenda, not just because it goes against what they believe in, but also because it will be more popular among many liberal American voters. It will also satisfy the wishes of activists within the Democratic Party, some of whom have called Bolsonaro a “pseudo dictator” and agreements between the Brazilian leader and Trump Administration trade representatives a “slap in the face of Congress.” Thus, the Biden Administration sees naming and shaming Brazil as a “climate outlaw” or denouncing it for democratic backsliding as good politics. 

In the first weeks of his presidency, Biden and top aides received a long dossier that requested a freeze of all agreements and negotiations with Brazil while Bolsonaro remains in office. The dossier, which was prompted by the U.S. Network for Democracy in Brazil, has the support of many American and Brazilian organizations, including Friends of the Earth and Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB) in Brazil, an organization that advocates for indigenous rights.

It condemns the improved relations between the countries during the Trump Administration, under the rationale that the alliance has tarnished America’s role as the fighter for the expansion of democracy. The document recommends that the Biden administration restrict lumber, soy and meat imports from Brazil, unless confirmation is given that these products are not linked to deforestation or human rights abuses, and that the U.S. government reverts the Technology Safeguards Agreement signed under the Trump administration in 2019. 

Despite Bolsonaro’s wishes expressed in a recent letter to the American president, the dossier emphasizes that the Biden-Harris government should not seek a free-trade agreement with Brazil in any form. This conscious effort to distance the United States from Bolsonaro was echoed by Juan Gonzales, a Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere. “Anybody, in Brazil or elsewhere, who thinks they can advance an ambitious relationship with the United States while ignoring important issues like climate change, democracy, and human rights clearly hasn’t been listening to Joe Biden on the campaign trail,” Gonzales said

The dossier adamantly warns Biden against engaging in any negotiations with Bolsonaro, as financing joint conservation projects with the Brazilian government could mean throwing money at the problem rather than addressing the root of the issue, which would delay concrete action. The remedy, according to the document, is to attach any financial investment to the demands made by the representatives of Brazilian civil society, indigenous tribes, and other marginalized groups within the country. 

But essentially cutting all ties with a traditional ally and strong trading partner could allow Bolsonaro to further isolate himself from the international community, possibly opening the door for him to continue pushing his undemocratic agenda and reckless environmental policies unchecked. Thus, in order to most effectively fight for democratic values and a progressive environmental policy in Brazil, should Biden work with the Brazilian government or repudiate it?   

To get to the heart of this question, it’s important to analyze U.S. involvement in the region generally. American involvement with Latin America is much more complex than the relationship between these two leaders when viewed through a global lens. Given U.S. concerns regarding Chinese influence in the region, the Biden-Bolsonaro relationship could prove to be pragmatic, instead of one based on repudiation and finger pointing.

After trading criticism for the last months, working with Brazil’s far-right president may not even be possible for Biden. The strategic approach could be to work with the many actors within the country who have a genuine interest in improving the two nations’ relationship. Within Brazilian society, the Biden administration will find out that it not only has willing allies among activists, legislators, academics and civil society groups who have been opposing Bolsonaro’s policies for the last two years, but also among those who seek a middle ground. The Biden administration could listen and learn from these actors, as the dossier instructs, as well as empower local opposition groups to connect with international pro-democracy and environmental movements. If the fight for responsible environmental policies and a stronger democracy in Brazil is to succeed, it will be led by local players.

As it has become clear, Bolsonaro does not take kindly to international criticism over his environmental policies. Thus, Biden must find other means through which to advance his policy ideas for conservation in the Amazon, like his plan to raise $20 billion from the international community to curb the deforestation and devastating forest fires in the region. One possible course of action is working with the Brazilian ambassador to the United States, Nestor Forster. In an October interview with BBC News Brasil, Forster said that any international initiative that brings resources for the sustainable development of the Amazon and helps to finance those who preserve the forest is welcome, as long as Brazil maintains leadership on discussions. 

Yet, would increased U.S. pressure cause Bolsonaro to cave in? Brazilian congressman Alessandro Molon sure thinks so. “I have no doubt that the change in administration in the U.S. will have an impact on Brazil’s environmental policy,” says Molon, who leads the opposition Brazilian Socialist Party in the lower house. “Until now, Donald Trump served as a support for the Brazilian president to act irresponsibly. Now with the U.S. adding to Europe’s pressure, Brazil is more isolated and the government will find it harder to stay on this foolish path.” 

In case pressure alone is unsuccessful at swaying the Brazilian leader, Biden could use America’s economic leverage to force Bolsonaro’s hand. Biden’s climate plan promises to “impose carbon adjustment fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods from countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations.” While it’s unknown if the administration will actually apply those kinds of deterrents to Brazil, there are a scope of trade levers the U.S. could pull, says Lisa Viscidi, director of the Energy, Climate Change and Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focused on relations between Washington and Latin America

Although it seems like a ready-to-use solution, American trade pressure may also fail to have a significant impact on the industries that drive deforestation as trade between the two countries has steadily decreased over the last few years. Between January and September of 2020, accumulated trade between the U.S and Brazil totaled $33.4 billion, a 25% drop from the same period in 2019. Regardless, the United States remains Brazil’s second-largest trading partner, accounting for 9.7% of Brazilian exports and 12.3% of revenue. Only China retains a larger slice, buying more than one-third of Brazil’s exports. The United States is not a major buyer of Brazilian beef and soy, the primary goods associated with deforestation, which are exported primarily to China. As a result, André Nassar, president of oilseeds industry group Aboive, which represents the soy industry, says he does not expect the U.S. to try imposing pressure on Brazil through trade as directly as Europe has. “What I do think will change [with the Biden administration]is that there will be a push within Brazil to get control of illegal deforestation,” he says ‒ differentiating between deforestation for agricultural purposes, which is sometimes allowed under Brazilian law, and irregular land grabbing. “If Biden’s rhetoric says, ‘Brazil, you need to get control of illegal deforestation’, we as the private sector would back that.” 

As Brazilian business goes, so goes Bolsonaro. In 2018, then President-elect Bolsonaro expressed his desire to follow Trump and pull Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Brazilian agribusiness loudly voiced their concerns in Brazilian media about what that could do to Brazil’s image in global commerce, and the country stayed in. “When it becomes clear that there’s a threat to investment, or Brazilian products, the government is going to listen to businesses,” Nassar says.

Beyond direct economic pressure, Biden does have further options on the table in order to achieve his goals with Brazil, if necessary. In January 2020, the Trump Administration announced it was recommitting to supporting Brazil’s bid for OECD membership. In a reversal of his predecessor’s policy, Biden could withdraw U.S. support for the bid if Bolsonaro does not take concrete action in the Amazon. If the Biden administration uses its weight in the OECD to make Brazilian accession contingent on Amazon protections, that would sharply increase pressure from the country’s business community on Bolsonaro, according to Marcio Astrini, executive director of the Sao Paulo-based Climate Observatory.

Although Biden and Bolsonaro have a multitude of clashing policies, they also share some common interests, especially dealing with the situation in Venezuela. The Venezuelan humanitarian crisis and mass migration into bordering Latin American countries, including Brazil, has become a destabilizing force in the region and Brazil has aligned itself with the current U.S. pressure campaign to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. During the Trump administration, the U.S. opposed Maduro through a “maximum pressure” campaign largely rested on progressively tighter sanctions against the regime, with the goal of forcing him out in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido, the former head of the National Assembly whom the U.S. and more than 50 other countries recognized as the country’s valid interim president.

This hardline policy toward Venezuela was a rare show of support for democracy by the Trump administration. Yet, it was deeply undermined by Trump’s own autocratic tendencies. Under Biden, the U.S. can renew its full commitment to supporting democracy and bring in Brazil as a potential regional partner to deal with the crisis and improve relations simultaneously. 

The future of U.S.-Brazil relations, while rocky, will likely be productive over the next two years as the U.S. reverts to more traditional diplomatic channels. Under Trump, “Twitter diplomacy” reigned, largely overshadowing the usual process. The traditional approach to diplomacy, where issues are negotiated beforehand by mid-level diplomats, will make a comeback and may ultimately be positive for both Biden and Bolsonaro.

The importance of careful but fruitful diplomacy with Latin America’s largest country is especially important currently for the United States. The U.S. is clearly aware that the neglect of Latin America has provided an opening for Chinese influence in the region. The Biden administration will have to be mindful of not pushing Brazil away and straight into China’s outstretched arms. 

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Daniel Kos

Daniel Kos is a freshman studying International Relations with a minor in Latin American Studies from San Francisco, California. He is interested in politics and economics in Latin America, especially income inequality and the region’s trade relations with the United States and China. Daniel is a member of the USC Model UN team and is a Global Policy Institute (GPI) fellow. He is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, and enjoys hiking in nature.

dkos@usc.edu