[Eli Lake] How the US should treat Brazil’s Bolsonaro

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Jan 2, 2019 - 17:01
  • Updated : Jan 2, 2019 - 17:01

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shows up in Brasilia on New Year’s Day for the inauguration of Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, he should prepare for some bad press.

The incoming leader of the Western Hemisphere’s second-largest economy campaigned like the strong men of Latin America’s past. One newspaper marked his victory in October with the headline: “Fascism Has Arrived in Brazil.” A headline in a foreign-policy magazine compared his political style to that of Joseph Goebbels.

These warnings are not without merit. During his campaign, Bolsonaro encouraged police to kill criminals, an echo of the policies enacted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. As a politician, Bolsonaro has waxed nostalgic for the bad old days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. He sounds like a vulgarian when discussing gays and lesbians.

So it may seem a bit strange that the State Department sees so much possibility in Brazil’s new president. As one senior official put it on a call with reporters last week: “Brazil’s latest free and fair election shines as an example of the country’s vibrant democratic institutions and presents a historic opportunity for closer ties between our two countries.”

To understand where Pompeo and the diplomats are coming from, consider what came before Bolsonaro. Brazil’s last elected president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016. Her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was convicted in April on corruption charges related to a long-running system of bribes that enriched executives and political patrons of the state-owned oil company. It’s not surprising that Bolsonaro has appointed the judge that presided over that investigation to be his justice minister.

All the while, the murder rate in Brazil has risen, with more than 61,000 murders in 2017. The demagoguery from Bolsonaro is a response to a breakdown of law in order in Brazil’s two metropolises, where street gangs have supplanted police in some neighborhoods.

The previous government was also a mess on foreign policy. Even as it was reluctant to deepen ties with the US, it sought to strengthen relations with Venezuela and Cuba. Bolsonaro campaigned against what he sometimes called a predatory investment strategy from China encouraged by the old regime.

This is where Pompeo sees promise. Brazil’s new leader may be a vulgar populist, but he also wants to be a partner in countering the rising influence of China and in dealing with the blight of misrule in Venezuela.

In this respect, Bolsonaro is similar to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Both men are willing to aggressively support US regional and strategic goals in a way their predecessors were not. At the same time, both leaders have authoritarian personalities that will undermine these goals if left unchecked.

The key for Pompeo will be to avoid the mistakes the Trump administration has made with Saudi Arabia. In particular, it tolerated the crown prince’s roguish tendencies, which ultimately led to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Some tough love from the Trump administration early on may have led the Saudis to think twice before the debacle in Istanbul.

This is the kind of approach Pompeo needs to take now -- but he will have to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, he should enthusiastically pursue the prospect of strategic cooperation with Brazil. If Bolsonaro wants to isolate Venezuelan strong man Nicolas Maduro or make it harder for China to gobble up pieces of the Brazilian economy, then the US should encourage him.

On the other hand, Pompeo also needs to make it clear that if Bolsonaro pursues a Duterte-style war on criminals, or attacks the country’s democratic institutions, he will find his government friendless and isolated.

Pompeo has his work cut out for him. Bolsonaro has already shown himself for who he is in his political career. He famously dedicated his vote to impeach Rousseff in 2016, for example, to a notorious torturer from the military junta. It’s not hard to argue that it’s better to keep the new Brazilian government at arm’s length.

But this approach to Bolsonaro, while satisfying, would squander the leverage that comes from being a powerful friend. In Saudi Arabia, the US failed to use that leverage to restrain the worst impulses of an ally, and now it may be too late. In Brasilia, Pompeo has a chance to avoid repeating that mistake. When he meets the winner of Brazil’s last election, he should stress to him the importance of holding the next one.

Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.