US President Joe Biden has proposed holding the Summit for Democracy in December this year. The objective is to fight authoritarianism and corruption in the world, in addition to defending human rights and individual freedoms. Behind the scenes, it is speculated that President Jair Bolsonaro could become one of the targets – if not directly during the summit, at least in press coverage and demonstrations by members of the US Democratic Party.
Bolsonaro is often portrayed by media in other countries as a president with authoritarian leanings. Recently, this external perception has been reinforced by facts such as Bolsonaro’s participation in the September 7 demonstrations and by the parade of armored vehicles of the Armed Forces in front of Congress on the voting day of the PEC of Voto Impresso, in early August. The recent statements by Bolsonaro that there are frauds in the elections and that the country could not have a vote in 2022 if the PEC were not approved (the Chamber rejected it) also contributed to reinforce the president’s image outside Brazil.
Furthermore, Bolsonaro is ideologically aligned with former US president Donald Trump – who questioned Biden’s election (the Brazilian, by the way, was one of the last heads of state in the world to recognize the election of the current US president).
Bolsonaro’s position on elections, for example, worries the Biden government. A week before the parade of armored vehicles in Brasília, members of the US government had already made clear their disagreement with the president’s position on the fairness of elections in Brazil. This was done during a visit to Brasilia by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and US National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan González. Sullivan even met Bolsonaro.
“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 process, especially since there is no evidence of fraud in past elections,” said González in an interview in Washington, days after the visit to Brazil.
The fact that an American official made public the content of the meeting with members of the Brazilian government was interpreted, in analysis by segments of the opposition and the press in Brazil, as a sign that Bolsonaro could become a target at the summit.
What the Brazilian government expects from the Summit for Democracy
The Brazilian government is aware that wings of Biden’s Democratic Party are trying to wear down Bolsonaro. He also believes that international civil society entities, such as the press and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), do the same. And assesses that these segments may use the summit to criticize Bolsonaro.
But Planalto does not believe that the event itself will be a stage for the US government to give “messages” to Brazil. “Brazil will not receive ‘messages’ from anyone. They are not expected, nor are they part of the best diplomatic practice,” says a government interlocutor.
In addition, the understanding in Planalto is that, for the American government, the summit will be much more an opportunity for the Biden government to reaffirm its foreign policy – which sees Brazil as an ally, even if it has disagreements. The assessment given by diplomats to Bolsonaro is that the international event will have a greater Biden purpose of proposing an international opposition to other powers, such as China and Russia.
But Brazilian government advisers recognize that the Summit for Democracy could be used by Biden for a domestic political objective: to please the Democratic electorate by showing international “strength” and to differentiate it from Trump. In this sense, the forum may have a progressive and left-wing bias – which could have some impact for Brazil.
The government of the former US president had a close relationship with countries that claim to be conservative and right-wing, but which American Democrats consider to have authoritarian tendencies (such as Hungary and Poland). And Bolsonaro’s Brazil, on several international issues, was aligned with the previous US government and with the Hungarians and Poles – in addition to the Brazilian president himself claiming to be an admirer of Trump.
Brazilian diplomacy does not rule out the possibility of references to Trump’s international relations during the Summit for Democracy.
Bolsonaro will use the summit to his advantage if invited to participate
Despite this, the government says it is confident it will be able to use the summit to its advantage, if Bolsonaro is invited. At Planalto, the assessment is that it will be an opportunity for the president to defend his positions on democracy and freedom of expression, and to refute what he classifies as opponents’ narratives. “We are going to defend our positions. Not those of third parties, the United Nations and abstract entities”, says a government interlocutor.
The idea is that, by participating in the summit, Bolsonaro will be able to defend a democracy that respects individual freedoms, especially freedom of expression. The discourse to be adopted is that, contrary to what its critics say, the government has never restricted the freedom of its opponents.
“Brazil is not an authoritarian regime compared, especially, to neighboring countries. In no authoritarian country is there freedom of expression to criticize the current president. This government has never been against freedom of expression,” argues a government interlocutor.
The government also sees no contradiction in Bolsonaro participating in the demonstrations this September 7, even though some groups have called for military intervention and defended the impeachment of the 11 STF ministers).
“People are free to express themselves, including against people from other powers who occupy certain positions. Democracy is nothing but freedom of expression,” says a government adviser.
If Bolsonaro is invited to the Summit for Democracy, Planalto also hopes to have the opportunity to defend freedom of expression and democracy for countries like Cuba and Venezuela – which are dictatorships.
In addition, Bolsonaro may also defend the Anti-Corruption Plan 2020-2025, which prioritizes 142 actions in areas such as the fight against money laundering, transparency, internal control, management and governance, integrity and fiscal measures. Recently, the government began to be monitored by a group of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the “club” of developed countries, which identifies setbacks in the anti-corruption agenda.
Analyst believes that the summit will not focus on Brazil
International relations consultant Luan Madeira, from BMJ Consultores Associados, agrees with the government’s assessment that the Summit for Democracy will be a greater opportunity for Biden to reaffirm his foreign policy than to send “messages” to Bolsonaro.
“Whenever there is an international forum in the United States or Brazil, we tend to give much greater relevance to the Brazil-US relationship than they do [os americanos] give. Unfortunately, for the US administration, Brazil is not so much a priority. It’s a very important country, it’s right in the ‘backyard’ of the USA. But we have to be careful about this being an ‘answer’ from the Biden government. [a Bolsonaro]”, says Madeira.
He claims that the US faced a delicate moment at the end of the Trump administration, with the invasion of the Capitol. For Madeira, the summit tends to be much more of a Democrats’ response to the US Republicans.
“The US is at a time of great polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Another recent crisis faced by Biden is the issue of Afghanistan. The polarization there is so great that we see discussions of vaccination or not of Covid-19, mandatory use or not of masks,” says Madeira. “This summit is much more for Biden to try to strengthen the image that it is a moderate leader, who seeks coalition and consensus between the different parties, than a direct message to Brazil.”
The way in which the Biden administration itself dealt with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan had a negative effect on the Democratic administration. The dome, therefore, could be beneficial to Biden, says Madeira. “Biden was on vacation and the events in Afghanistan took place a few days before. That got really bad. The rushed departure of the troops took away some of his popularity, which affected the Democratic party a little bit.”
How the Summit for Democracy will work
The Summit for Democracy will take place virtually on 9 and 10 December. Countries that eventually participate will have to commit to promoting, throughout 2022, the forum’s agenda, including through partnerships with civil society. Thus, a second meeting will take place in person to discuss advances in the agendas on democracy, human rights and the fight against corruption.
In a statement, the US embassy in Brasília said that they expect Brazil and any other country that accepts to participate in the summit to demonstrate “significant commitments that promote democracy, fight corruption and encourage respect for human rights both in their country and internationally”. “The United States will make similar commitments”, complements the text of the American diplomacy.
In the statement, the embassy also explains that the US is still discussing the summit’s objectives with “bilateral partners and key civil society actors from consolidated and emerging democracies”, who represent “the most varied possible points of view”. “We will continue to work with summit participants and other governments around the world to address democratic setbacks, promote human rights and fight corruption at home and abroad – whether in the context of the summit or beyond,” the text says. of the American embassy.