Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro met US National Security Advisor John Bolton on the porch of his house in Barra da Tijuca, in Rio de Janeiro Thursday, 29 November. On the same day, President Donald Trump tweeted he scrapped his upcoming meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin set to take place at the G20 weekend summit in Buenos Aires.
Trump cited the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine as the reason for the cancellation; an ongoing standoff in the Kerch Strait — a vital sea passage near Crimea where Russian ships fired on three Ukrainian vessels. Russian crews later boarded and seized those Ukrainian ships, which Ukraine and many Western leaders have condemned as a blatant act of Russian aggression.
Conversely, Rio hosted the first cordial gathering between officials from the United States and Brazil — the two biggest powers in the Americas — in years, on the first head-to-head contact Bolsonaro makes with his admired Donald Trump’s team and which appears to be the dawn of a new era.
The question was not whether the battered relations between Brazil and the United States would improve with Bolsonaro’s victory, who has been branding himself “the tropical Trump” even before his presidential campaign. The question was when, and at what speed.
The answer was seen at their breakfast table: John Bolton made a stopover in Rio en route to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires just to meet-and-greet Bolsonaro, and to take to the global stage the comraderie that the White House had already noted in press releases and tweets since the victory of the far-right South American leader last October.
During their meeting they talked about Venezuela and Cuba, and about the problems that both countries mean for their administrations. “Venezuela is an issue that comes from long ago, and we have to look for solutions,” Bolsonaro explained to the press as he left the reunion. “We know that there are 80,000 Cubans there, the country has that challenge. It will be difficult to get Venezuela out of this situation.”
They also commented on another idea that Bolsonaro is considering doing like Trump: to relocate the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “That possibility exists: Jerusalem has two zones and only one is not under litigation. The US embassy is in that area,” he reflected.
Before leaving, Bolton invited Bolsonaro to visit his counterpart in the White House — it is the first time a Brazilian leader receives such an invitation in years.
To this day, the doctrine of the Workers’ Party — which ruled between 2003 and 2016 — of seeking more lucrative business partners than the United States such as China, has been followed. Diplomatically, the two powers have not had any major interests in each other until now: Bolsonaro wants a radically different policy, and has been willing to follow Trump in decisions like the Jerusalem embassy or withdrawing Brazil from the Paris Agreement on the climate change — an idea he played with but finally discarded.
“Part of Bolsonaro’s government does not seem to understand that the United States does not have much to offer Brazil,” ponders Oliver Stuenkel, international relations lecturer at Fundação Getúlio Vargas. “Brazil is not very important in Washington, and the proximity to China is not the result of a decision but the reflection of a new reality. They believe that the United States can generate new economic opportunities to compensate for the losses with China, but that will not happen. Trump cannot open the market for Brazilians.”
One of Bolsonaro’s sons, congressman Eduardo, has spent several days in the United States finishing off this approach in a land much more fertile than the political and economic: the aesthetic. It is there, in the promises and the style of explaining them, where Trump and Bolsonaro are practically brothers. They are united by their contempt for the press and institutions, their disinterest in minorities and globalisation, and their obsession to return their countries to the “greatness” of past decades.
And that is exactly the subject Eduardo Bolsonaro is exploiting in his trip — in his own words, he is “rescuing the credibility Brazil has in this country [the US]”. It is a function that does not correspond to him as a congressman for São Paulo, but the use of relatives for institutional roles is another habit that Trump and Bolsonaro have in common.
However, the Brazilian government is not the only winner here: Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel the Putin meeting may not have much to do with Ukraine as it does with the bad optics of meeting with the Russian president, only two days after former attorney Michael Cohen’s confession implied possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.