Global City

Brazilian students and experts anticipate uncertainty in the Biden-Bolsonaro relationship

Joe Biden’s attitudes toward Brazil’s president will impact the United States’ regional neighbor — and close observers are nervous.

When Joe Biden won the 2020 United States presidential election, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro did not make the customary phone call typically offered between the newly-elected American president and international heads of state. It wasn’t until one day after Biden finally took office in January that Bolsonaro sent a letter to the White House congratulating the former American vice president.

Biden’s presidency could have a major impact on Brazil, the U.S.’ regional powerhouse neighbor to the south. Brazil’s president publicly pledged his support for former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, stating that he would have liked to be present at Trump’s would-have-been inauguration. The two leaders had grown close since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, with Trump going as far as to declare Bolsonaro the “Donald Trump of South America.” Similar to Trump, Bolsonaro also echoed unfounded claims that the American election was rigged. As a result of the two leaders’ cozying up to one another, diplomatic and economic relations between the U.S. and Brazil grew closer as well. Both leaders also shared a disregard for news media, lashing out at news outlets and calling organizations “fake news.”

Neusa Bojikian, a professor and associate researcher of Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States, said the election of Biden represented backlash against the shared ideals for which Trump and Bolsonaro stood. Bolsonaro felt a kinship with Trump’s government and how the former American president handled matters of domestic and foreign affairs.

“Biden’s victory represented a defeat for Bolsonaro’s government [policies and practices],” Bojikian said “These ideological affinities tended to spread over the [U.S. and Brazil’s] bilateral relationship, and I think that was the first factor that brought these two governments closer together.”

Their shared conservative and right-wing beliefs also played a role in explaining how both countries similarly dealt with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The global COVID-19 crisis started in December 2019 in Wuhan, China and spread rapidly across the world, leaving countries scrambling to contain the virus and protect their citizens in the face of economic turmoil and social upheaval. Many governments opted to close their borders and partially shut down the economy to encourage people to stay home and avoid spreading the virus.

While some countries, such as New Zealand and Thailand, managed to get the pandemic under control in a timely fashion, others like Brazil and the U.S. are still suffering from high case numbers that continue to rise. According to the World Health Organization, Brazil ranks third in the number of cases and second in the number of deaths among all countries. The U.S. leads the rankings in both. In fact, what both countries share is not just a poor containment of the virus relative to other countries, but both Bolsonaro and Trump tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, after months of publicly downplaying the pandemic.

Ultimately, Bojikian believes that Bolsonaro lost much of the credibility behind his domestic and foreign policy among the Brazilian public when Trump failed to win. Additionally, experts analyzing the U.S.-Brazil relationship under Trump point to its tendency to have been one-sided.

“In this constructed relationship, Trump’s government pulled out way more concessions from Bolsonaro than what was predicted [Brazil] would [give up],” Bojikian said. “If it was another government, I don’t think there would have been as many concessions as what was made.”

A recent example of this was when Bolsonaro signed a decree eliminating visa requirements for U.S. citizens to visit Brazil — which took effect in June 2019 — while Brazilian citizens still need to go through lengthy U.S. visa application processes to come to the U.S.

But with a new administration and cabinet in office and at the helm of a new American foreign policy, this relationship will likely change.

Under Biden, Washington will likely pressure Brasilia to adjust its foreign and domestic approach to policy; in particular, the administration will likely focus on Bolsonaro’s environmental practices. Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have publicly criticized Bolsonaro’s actions as they relate to the Amazon rainforest and climate change.

“Brazil’s President Bolsonaro must answer for this devastation,” Harris tweeted in 2019 in response to Bolsonaro’s deforestation in the region.

During the first presidential debate in September 2020, Biden spoke about how the rainforest was being destroyed and its devastating impact on climate change. Both comments can be linked to Bolsonaro’s policies toward opening up the region for commercial development, which has led to increased deforestation and threats to indigenous lands. In response, Bolsonaro claimed Biden was trying to interfere in Brazil’s internal affairs.

“[Brazil] is not completing its climate change reduction goals, not taking care of all of the people [like Quilombola and indigenous populations], who are suffering because the Brazilian government is not respecting these environmental goals and agreements,” Bojikian said.

The near-180 degree change in terms of the U.S.-Brazil relationship has been a point of interest for many Brazilian Americans in the diaspora. In November 2020, Brazil’s citizens watched in anticipation for the uncertain changes that the American election results would bring.

Flora Frank, a freshman majoring in animation who opted for remote learning, is currently at home in the city of São Paulo. However, that did not stop her from checking the results of the 2020 election multiple times a day. Ana Flávia Bresciani, a freshman majoring in film and television production, is currently in Indaiatuba in the state of São Paulo. Bresciani said that on election day she would constantly look up how the counting was going.

“Bolsonaro definitely lost one of his ‘appeals’ to the public,” Bresciani said. “He used Trump as a kind of barrier and a way to show how powerful and respected he is, having the president of the United States as an ally was an appeal to the Brazilian population that tends to see the U.S. in a high position overall.”

Both Frank and Bresciani believed the election was important for the future of the two countries.

“I think that, without the moral support he receive[d] from Trump, Bolsonaro [lost] part of his power and his opposers will feel more encouraged to place boundaries in the measures he’s been trying to [implement],” Frank said.

The relationship has certainly turned a corner. Notably, during the first week of his presidency, Biden laughed at the possibility of a phone call with Bolsonaro. Brazilian officials believe that a conversation between the two would only happen to discuss a specific topic or address an emergency.

“To me [Biden] is very pragmatic and has a well-prepared team to confront these issues and ideological differences,” Bojikian said. “Biden will try to manage them, but he currently has greater problems to solve. The questions of health, the economy, inequality… There are so many domestic issues [Biden] needs to resolve that he will not concentrate on questions regarding foreign relations right at this moment.”

Since his inauguration, Biden has already taken several steps regarding relations with Brazil. He reinstated the travel restrictions that Trump took down, including those to Brazil, and has been urged by U.S. climate leaders to address the rise in the deforestation of the Amazon. It was reported earlier this month that Biden hopes to be a partner to Brazil regarding climate issues. This was emphasized in Bolsonaro’s letter to the White House, where he claimed to be open to cooperation despite being the one to dismantle multiple environmental policies.

“Bolsonaro’s government will struggle to deal with Biden’s on environmental problems,” Bojikian said. “He will work [with Biden] because he doesn’t have another choice. Biden will tell the Brazilian government ‘either change your environmental politics, respect international agreements and the rights of local communities, or there will be retaliation.’”

There is a high chance that Biden will get the partnership he wants, but not in the way he would like.

“The Brazilian government will then say ‘I will do it’ while maintaining the status quo…. [this] is worse because no one will support [Bolsonaro] against retaliation. [Bolsonaro] will make relatively small concessions and then undo them later” Bojikian said.

Earlier this month the White House received a 31-page document endorsed by over 100 scholars from universities across the U.S., along with environmental and human rights groups. The report covered several hot topics including the environment and the rights of historically marginalized groups. It called for the suspension of all agreements between the U.S. and Bolsonaro’s government. Based on the long history between the two countries, however, the demands of this report are likely not to be met.

“Brazil is a major commercial partner and cutting ties would be disadvantageous for Biden.” Bojikian said. “That does not mean, however, that Biden will not use the dossier... as an excuse to not give any concessions to Bolsonaro regarding any current agreements between the two countries.”

Although Biden’s presidential term has just begun, Brazilians already have concerns over the uncertainty of what the next four years could look like. Biden and Bolsonaro’s governments are ideologically separated, but have common challenges to tackle, like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But, the two leaders will have to balance managing their relations, while also maintaining economic support from one another. In the past few years, for instance, because of Bolsonaro’s admiration for Trump, Bolsonaro made it easier for Brazilians to buy American wheat and ethanol, and allowed for the U.S. to launch satellites in Brazil. If Biden pushes him too far, these concessions, among others, could be retracted. On the other hand, if Bolsonaro does not heed to Biden’s pressure regarding the deforestation of the Amazon, Brazil might suffer from American sanctions.

In 2022, there will be another historical election that could change the course of the relationship between two nations, as Brazilians will decide whether or not Bolsonaro stays in power.