Bolsonaro in Brazil: Latin America’s Latest Strongman

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President-Elect. Photo Credit: Getty Images

By: Felipe Herrera, Columnist

Jair Bolsonaro, elected on October 28th in the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections, will assume office on January 1st 2019, joining “a number of far-right politicians who have risen to power around the world,”[i] from Italy and Hungary to Argentina and Chile. Bolsonaro, however, represents “a really radical shift” as one of the most “extremist [leaders] in the history of democratic elections in Latin America who has been elected.”[ii] The embrace of right-wing populism, or the “Trumpification of the Latin American right,” has been underway over the past few years in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, and Colombia.[iii] Brazil is only the latest in a trend that signifies a return to caudillo politics in Latin America,[iv] and given the United States’ historical affinity for friendly strongmen, President Trump’s prospects in the region are favorable on a number of key policy objectives. However, the Administration should not repeat Cold War mistakes in Latin America by trading progress on democratic institutions and human security for myopic strategic goals.

As Latin America’s largest military force and with Bolsonaro considered the most pro-American candidate in Brazil since the 1980s, who has praised President Trump’s foreign policy[v] and committed to improving U.S.-Brazil relations,[vi] Brazil’s strategic security engagement and cooperation with the United States will likely deepen. Closer ties with such a prominent force in Latin American interstate politics will provide opportunities for President Trump to achieve key policy goals in the region. Confronting Venezuela will likely be a central foreign policy objective for President Trump in Latin America, and the swing to the right in both Brazil and Colombia (though more modest in Colombia than in Brazil) gives the United States regional partners on two fronts to challenge President Maduro.[vii] On the global stage, Bolsonaro has also pledged to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem[viii] and close the Palestinian mission in Brasília,[ix] and openly criticized China’s investments in Brazil.[x] As US National Security Adviser John Bolton prepares to meet with President-Elect Bolsonaro on November 29th,[xi] there will be much for these “like-minded partners”[xii] to discuss.

Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America and predicted to become the fourth largest economy in the world within the next few decades,[xiii] will be a massive market for the United States under Bolsonaro, who has promised to make economic expansion a cornerstone of his policy platform. Such drivers for growth will, however, likely risk further degradation of the Amazon rainforest through the abolishment of indigenous lands, the rollback of environmental laws, and continued exploitation of natural resources.[xiv] The economic advantages for the United States of increased access to an estimated $21.8 trillion in natural resources and 12.8% of the world’s timber supply[xv] will come at a great environmental and humanitarian cost, as indigenous communities push back against Bolsonaro’s proposed policies on the grounds that they “[represent] an institutionalization of genocide in Brazil.”[xvi] While the repeal of environmental regulations and the potential for access to restricted areas of the Amazon protected by Brazil’s constitution is championed by Bolsonaro’s supporters and the nation’s industries as necessary economic measures to free up previously fettered resources,[xvii] the Trump administration ought to consider the impact to Brazil’s environment and indigenous communities before jumping to accept the economic benefit the Bolsonaro presidency can offer. Otherwise, President Trump will be complicit in human rights abuses the United States similarly turned a blind eye to throughout the Cold War in Latin America. Although not directly aiding and abetting the government engaged in abuse, allowing Bolsonaro to support the “violent bands of men who take advantage of the Amazon’s lawlessness to turn a profit”[xviii] and strip away the regulations that preserve Brazil’s protected areas is commensurate with endorsing the ecocide of the Amazon and the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples for relatively modest economic gain.

While Bolsonaro provides Trump with several opportunities to pursue his strategic objectives in Latin America and further abroad regarding Israel and China, the United States must consider the threats to human security in Brazil and decide at what cost we are willing to accept challenging China’s presence in Latin America, confronting Maduro in Venezuela, and increasing access to Brazil’s markets and natural resources. The primary security concerns in Latin America are not traditional conceptions of state security, but rather require a broadening and deepening of the definition of security to include such threats to society as crime, corruption, and environmental degradation. Unfortunately, the realist view of international relations favored by the Trump administration overlooks these issues. If President Trump accepts Bolsonaro with open arms, the United States will have condoned these threats to human security, whether the Administration considers them true security issues or not.














[i] Ernesto Londoño and Shasta Darlington, “Jair Bolsonaro Wins Brazil’s Presidency, in a Shift to the Far Right,” The New York Times, October 28, 2018,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Omar G. Encarnación, “The Trumpification of the Latin American Right,” Foreign Policy, April 16, 2018,

[iv] Wayne Madsen, “The Return of the Latin American Caudillos,” Strategic Culture Foundation, October 29, 2018,

[v] Ana Cristina Campos, “Veja as Propostas De Bolsonaro E Haddad Para a Política Externa,” Agência Brasil, October 26, 2018,

[vi] Arick Wierson, “Will Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Become Trump’s New Best Friend?” Observer, October 07, 2018,

[vii] Sylvia Colombo, “Colômbia Sugere Aliança Com Bolsonaro Para Derrubar Maduro,” Folha De Sao Paulo, October 29, 2018,

[viii] Raphael Ahren, “Israel Hails Election of Brazil’s Controversial Bolsonaro, Who Plans Visit Soon,” The Times of Israel, October 29, 2018,

[ix] Marcus M. Gilban, “Brazil Presidential Front-runner Vows to Close Palestinian Embassy,” The Times of Israel, August 8, 2018,

[x] Oliver Stuenkel, “Brazil-China Ties to Face Test under Bolsonaro,” Americas Quarterly, October 29, 2018,

[xi] Tal Axelrod, “Bolton to Meet ‘Trump of the Tropics’ in Rio,” The Hill, November 21, 2018,

[xii] Jesus Rodriguez, “Bolton Praises Brazil’s Bolsonaro as a ‘like-minded’ Partner,” Politico, November 01, 2018,

[xiii] “World Economic Outlook,” International Monetary Fund, April 2018,

[xiv] Ernesto Londoño, “As Brazil’s Far Right Leader Threatens the Amazon, One Tribe Pushes Back,” The New York Times, November 10, 2018,

[xv] Geoffrey Migiro, “Countries With the Most Natural Resources,” World Atlas, September 13, 2018,

[xvi] Ernesto Londoño, “As Brazil’s Far Right Leader Threatens the Amazon, One Tribe Pushes Back.”

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

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