The Trump-Bolsonaro Meeting: The Problem with Brazil’s Geopolitical Reorientation

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump walk to a press conference in the Rose Garden on March 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images

By: Felipe Herrera, Columnist

On March 19, President Jair Bolsonaro met with President Trump for the first time during his presidency. At a joint news conference following their meeting, President Trump announced he would designate Brazil a major non-NATO ally and, despite the fact Brazil does not qualify to join the Alliance, said he was open to granting the country full NATO membership.[i] In February, Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araujo had already visited Washington as part of Bolsonaro’s broader campaign to reorient Brazilian foreign policy in alignment with the United States.[ii] His aim is to make it seem as if the Trump administration were rooted in a fundamentally realist logic. The United States, he figures, needs a partnership with the middle power state in the region to contain the Latin American left and growing Chinese influence, essentially reverting to the American containment strategy of the Cold War. However, this case overlooks the roots of insecurity in Brazil. These roots, based in the nation’s corruption, inequality, violence, and environmental degradation, are immaterial in a realist framework.

Brazil has long preferred to “[avoid] the gaze of the United States, exerting its influence through regional alliances and multilateral institutions instead.”[iii] As such, Brazil was instrumental as a founding member of the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, and has worked to strengthen the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Mercosur.[iv] Bolsonaro has retreated from this tradition and shifted focus at securing a bilateral partnership with the United States as the country’s main regional partner in Latin America. The Trump administration has been embracing this shift. Ahead of the November 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires, National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Bolsonaro to discuss a “dynamic partnership”[v] to contain Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, Bolton’s so-called “Troika of Tyranny.”[vi]

In this sense, President Bolsonaro represents a marked change in U.S.-Brazil relations which is focused more broadly on geopolitical strategy than on human security in Latin America. This certainly benefits the Trump administration as it seeks solutions to the Venezuelan crisis and hopes to contain China’s economic ambitions in the Western hemisphere. This shift in policy priorities does not address the true primary threats to security in the region. Certain positions are even diametrically opposed to addressing the sources of domestic insecurity. One of Bolsonaro’s more popular slogans, “a good thug is a dead thug,” is an inherent threat to Brazilian civil liberties as he proposes sending “heavily armed security forces into largely black and mixed-race slums, providing more protection for police officers who kill on the job, and stripping indigenous communities of their land rights to speed development.”[vii] Brazil already has one of the deadliest police forces in the world, and experts such as Ilona Szabó of the Igarape Institute warns that these policies will only worsen Brazil’s homicide crisis.[viii]

As President Bolsonaro withdraws services for and protections of indigenous lands and people, such as the cancellation of the Mais Medicos program of Cuban doctors providing medical services in areas underserved by the Brazilian government, indigenous groups have organized across the country to protest these changes in access to health care.[ix] Such programs and agreements have traditionally cemented Brazil’s position as a facilitator of exchange and secured the nation’s regional diplomatic role. As Bolsonaro’s government removes environmental protections in order to support agribusiness and mining industries, he reverses decades of Brazilian leadership on environmental multilateralism, a cornerstone of the nation’s efforts at diplomatic coalition building.

There is a “vast consensus on the status quo nature of Brazil’s external projection,” and the need for “patient diplomacy and consensus building… to manage international governance.”[x] With no serious regional threats to state security, the country remains focused upon maintaining credibility in regional institutions while addressing the domestic roots of human insecurity. President Bolsonaro’s intention to divorce the nation’s security objectives from the realities of the insecurity of the Brazilian people is inarguably advantageous to the Trump adminstration’s broader geopolitical goals, though representing a regressive return to Cold War containment strategies. But it would be reckless and short-sighted to believe the major threats to Brazil are traditional state-level conflicts requiring such a realist framework. Bolsonaro must consider first and foremost the roots of human insecurity, as well as the contradictions in his proposals to address crime and inequality.


[i] Jill Colvin and Peter Prengaman, “Trump buddies up with Bolsonaro, the ‘Trump of the Tropics’,” Miami Herald, March 19, 2019.

[ii] Evaristo Sa, “When Trump supporter Bolsonaro visits D.C., it will reset Brazil’s relationship with U.S.,” Miami Herald, March 11, 2019.

[iii] Marina Lopes, “Making Brazil great again: How Jair Bolsonaro mirrors and courts Trump,” The Americas, The Washington Post, December 31, 2018.

[iv] “U.S. Relations With Brazil – Brazil’s Membership in International Organizations,” U.S. Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet, U.S. State Department, February 23, 2018.

[v] John Bolton, Twitter Post, November 29, 2018, 6:01 AM.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Anthony Faiola and Marina Lopes, “How Jair Bolsonaro entranced Brazil’s minorities — while also insulting them,” The Americas, The Washington Post, October 24, 2018.–while-also-insulting-them/2018/10/23/a44485a4-d3b6-11e8-a4db-184311d27129_story.html?utm_term=.f38908609aa5

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Anna Jean Kaiser, “Indigenous groups in Brazil protest health care changes,” The Americas, The Washington Post, March 27, 2019.

[x] Gian Luca Gardini, “Brazil: What Rise of What Power?” Bulletin of Latin American Research, 35, no. 1, (2016).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.