- Mariana Sanches – @miana_sanches
- From BBC News Brasil in Washington
When US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and US President Joe Biden’s Special Adviser Juan González entered Jair Bolsonaro’s office at Palácio do Planalto on the 5th, they didn’t expect a best-friend conversation . But what they found was described to BBC News Brasil as “nonsense” and “tense” by US officials.
The meeting left not only a photo of a handshake of Sullivan, in a mask, and Bolsonaro, maskless and officially unvaccinated, but also a concern of Americans with the health of Brazilian democracy, given the unproven allegations of the Brazilian president of electoral fraud in electronic voting machines.
Originally, the agenda of Biden’s envoys to Brazil would not have Brazilian democracy as the main highlight.
Their agenda included offering the country the status of a global NATO partner (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a condition that will give Brazil access to the purchase of state-of-the-art war equipment, as well as military training sessions with the Americans at bases In the USA.
On the other hand, the American mission intended to pressure Brazil to set — and meet — ambitious deforestation reduction targets and to dissuade Brazil from using equipment from the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in its 5G network — one of the Americans’ arguments was, even, that the company could not deliver the materials contracted by the Bolsonaro government due to a raw material crisis.
The conversation, however, departed from the normal script with insinuations from Bolsonaro that the 2020 US election had been stolen — which would make Joe Biden an illegitimate president.
The Biden administration has always been aware that Bolsonaro publicly defended Trump’s false allegations about the elections. The Republican was making multiple accusations against the US electoral system, questioning both paper and electronic ballots even before polling day. Bolsonaro was the last G-20 leader to recognize Biden’s victory.
What Americans didn’t expect is for Bolsonaro to say such things in front of Sullivan and Gonzalez, both senior government officials serving the Democrats for years.
According to authorities with knowledge of the facts, both listened enough to make the meeting worried about democracy in Brazil. Sullivan went to social media to state that “the Biden administration defends a safe and democratic hemisphere”.
Juan Gonzalez, on the other hand, held a press conference about his trip to Brazil and Argentina in which he spoke, most of the time, about Brazilian democracy. “We were very direct in expressing our confidence in the ability of Brazilian institutions to conduct a free and fair election and we emphasized the importance of not undermining confidence in the election process, especially as there is no evidence of fraud in past elections,” said Gonzalez, about the content of the conversation with Bolsonaro.
The Trump Primer
Within the American government, both in the Executive and in Congress, the perception that Bolsonaro strictly follows the primer that Trump adopted when trying to perpetuate himself in power has gained strength: denouncing fraud without proof, even before the election takes place, and creating disbelief in part of the electorate on the electoral process, to the point of leading to scenes like the invasion of the Capitol by supporters on 6 January.
Biden’s diplomacy did not fail to notice, for example, the interest of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon in the 2022 elections in Brazil.
Gonzalez himself was explicit about the matter. “We were candid about our position, especially in light of the parallels to trying to invalidate the elections ahead of time, something that obviously parallels what happened in the United States.”
In Washington, the perception is that Bolsonaro’s image has been significantly shaken as a possible interlocutor after the visit.
“I think the Biden government, especially after this meeting in Brasilia, sees Bolsonaro as an erratic figure, or at least as someone who acts in a very eccentric and hard to predict way. He says things that seem to go against his own national interest. Why would he want to fight the new US government saying the (American) election was rigged? You can understand why Trump does this, since he wants to run for president again and make it a theme, but for a leader For a foreigner to say this kind of thing is, to say the least, strange,” says Melvyn Levitsky, former executive secretary of the State Department and ambassador to Brazil from 1994-1998.
Military away from the coup
Levitsky, who is now a professor of international politics at the University of Michigan, says that in this situation, the Americans will play (almost) still, without any action that might sound like interference in the Brazilian elections.
And this is also because American diplomacy does not see as likely the possibility that the Armed Forces will embark on an eventual coup adventure by Bolsonaro. Privately, US officials cited the recent actions of the former army commander, General Edson Pujol, and its current leader, General Paulo Sérgio de Oliveira, as signs of shielding the president in the political use of the armed forces. In a speech on Soldier’s Day, Oliveira stated that the Army wants to be respected “nationally and internationally” and is “committed to the noblest values of the country and to Brazilian society in its desire for tranquility, stability and development.”
“I knew the Brazilian military very well. And although I haven’t talked to them for a while, my sense is that the military was very subordinate to the civilian government and I don’t think that has changed. I don’t think the military wants to go in for good. in politics. It would be devastating for them to do that. And if that happened, it would be devastating for relations between Brazil and the United States as well,” says Levitsky.
It is this perception that explains, in part, why the Americans had no problem offering Brazil a position as a global partner in NATO that directly strengthens the Brazilian army. If he judged that there was a coup tendency in the forces, this would not have been a path for Biden, the diplomats assure. Furthermore, not all of NATO’s global partners are countries of perfect democracy — Turkey, for example, is considered one of them.
Finally, for the Brazilian military, the possibility of accessing state-of-the-art weapons sales contracts and participating in training with the Americans is something they would probably not be willing to give up in exchange for attempting a coup alongside Bolsonaro. So argues Ryan Berg, a political scientist specializing in authoritarian regimes in Latin America at the Center for Strategies and International Studies (CSIS).
“The US government’s view is that, although Bolsonaro’s movements are very worrying, with parade of tanks through the streets of Brasília and acts to discredit the elections, Congress still rejected the printed vote and that, for the government of the States United, indicates that Brazil’s institutions are stronger than some people like to say. The US government is very confident that the Brazilian military would not side with Bolsonaro if he tried to commit some kind of self-coup, as we saw with Trump, in the invasion of the Capitol on January 6,” says Ryan Berg.
The future of US-Brazil relations
It is a consensus among American diplomats and international experts that the US cannot and does not want to turn its back on Brazil. First, because the country, with its tropical forests, is seen as a key to advance in the fight against global warming, a priority agenda for the Biden administration.
Second, because China is trying to gain space in Latin America by leaps and bounds, and the Americans are not willing to give, to their main rival, space for influence in the continent’s second largest democracy — even more so with the 5G dispute in full swing.
And third, because, regardless of Bolsonaro’s actions on Brazilian democracy or the environment, his government promoted an ideological alignment with the United States on the continent, adopting a harsh tone against Venezuela and Cuba, something highly valued at the State Department .
However, given the perception that “Bolsonaro is not a fully credible leader”, as Levitsky asserts, the next moves in the relationship will depend on his government. And American diplomacy says it will not shy away from the possibility of engaging with other political actors, at different levels of power and without the intermediation of the federal Executive, to advance its agenda.
This is exactly what Biden’s Climate Envoy John Kerry did a month ago. Faced with unfulfilled promises and the discomfort represented by the presence of then Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, whom the Americans see as involved in a possible illegal trafficking scheme in Amazonian wood to the US, Kerry dribbled Brasília and met for an hour and a half with the governors of the Governors’ Forum, which includes almost every state.
The following week, Jake Sullivan was not only at the Planalto Palace, but also held a meeting with governors of the Legal Amazon Consortium.
“There is a perception in the US that the federal government is unfortunately not going to make much progress on the issue of deforestation. So talking to the governors is not an exclusion of the federal government, but a way of playing both ways,” he told BBC News Brazil the governor of Maranhão, Flávio Dino (PSB), who attended the meeting with Kerry.
After three months without meetings with Kerry’s team, last week, technicians from the Ministry of the Environment and representatives from Itamaraty resumed conversations with the Americans. This is less than three months before the Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, seen by the Americans as the last great opportunity for the Bolsonaro government to show some progress on the environmental agenda.
Consulted by BBC News Brasil, the State Department said, through a spokesperson, that “we expect to see further progress as Brazil moves towards combating illegal deforestation and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the commitments made by President Bolsonaro at the Climate Leaders Summit held in April”.
Itamaraty defends that the goals for reducing deforestation (which should be zeroed by 2030) and emissions (zero by 2050) are the most ambitious among developing countries. Privately, however, diplomats involved in negotiations with the Americans recognize “internal government difficulties” to deliver significant reductions in deforestation still in 2021. INPE data show that the accumulated deforestation between January and July this year is the highest since 2016.
For Ambassador Levitsky, until next year’s election, the US and Brazil should have a relationship “on the back burner”. On the one hand, the Americans do not show great expectations of new commitments from Bolsonaro, whom they see mostly focused on the domestic electoral agenda.
On the other hand, they prefer to see who will take over the country for the next four years to try to implement any action outside of routine relations. And they have already warned Bolsonaro that they will recognize as president whoever the Electoral Court appoints as the winner of the election in October 2022.
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