Right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES
Right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: REUTERS/RICARDO MORAES

Brasília — The US said on Wednesday that it is on the brink of a “transformative” relationship with Brazil thanks to new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has embraced US President Donald Trump’s values and vision as he takes charge of Latin America’s biggest nation.

Bolsonaro, meeting US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Brasilia, said that the tendency for Brazil “to elect presidents that, for some reason, were enemies” of the US was over and now “it is just the opposite: we are friends”. Pompeo responded that Trump “is very pleased with the relationship that our two countries are on the precipice of beginning to develop”.

Pompeo also told new Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araújo that the affinity between Trump and Bolsonaro “creates a truly transformative opportunity for our two nations”, especially in terms of economic and security co-operation.

The glowing mutual appraisals came a day after Bolsonaro was sworn in as Brazil’s new leader for the next four years. The  former army captain — an avid user of social media and avowed enemy of “political correctness”, who has a record of making misogynist and racist comments — used his first presidential speech to pledge a fierce combat against crime, corruption and left-wing “ideology”.

His ascension marks Brazil’s most dramatic lunge to the right since democracy was restored in 1985 following nearly 20 years of a military dictatorship that Bolsonaro served and has evoked nostalgically for the “order” it brought.

‘Captain to captain’

Bolsonaro has particularly railed against the leftist Workers Party, that ruled Brazil between 2003 and 2016 but which is reviled for a string of corruption scandals.

In his meeting with Pompeo on Wednesday, Bolsonaro said, “I would very much like to increasingly make up for [sic]” the distance Brazil has kept from the US in the past.

Referring to Pompeo’s army rank of captain from when he served in the US army from 1986 to 1991, Bolsonaro added: “I’m saying this as captain — two captains — from captain to captain, so we stand together.” Pompeo emphasised the “set of shared values" that should enhance ties.

Pompeo represented the US at Bolsonaro’s inauguration. The dignitaries also included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who spoke of his own “brotherhood” with Bolsonaro — and nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, among others.

While Brazil previously carved out an independent foreign policy under which it sought to be on friendly terms with all  governments, the shift in alliances and geopolitical and economic strategy under Bolsonaro could carry significant implications.

Venezuela’s socialist government headed by President Nicolás Maduro, in particular, could feel squeezed between the sanctions-wielding US and an assertive Brazil. Brazil is already one of the main host nations for Venezuelans fleeing the economic collapse at home. It is also a major Latin American oil exporter, as is Venezuela.

Bolsonaro has promised to do all he can to challenge the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, drawing him closer to Washington’s stance.

Economic opportunities 

China’s position as Brazil’s biggest trade partner and foreign investor could also be affected. While campaigning for the presidency, Bolsonaro complained that “China is buying Brazil” and suggested he move to restrict the Asian powerhouse’s access to privatisations he is planning.

Pompeo, in his meeting with Araújo, did not mention China by name, but clearly pointed to that country as he contrasted the fresh opportunities the US could now bring to Brazil.

Trump, he said, is seeking “real opportunity, that is fair, that is reciprocal, that is conducted transparently — not the same model that is used by some other countries in the world ... from others who want to come to a country and make an investment not for commercial reasons but for political reasons.”

Araújo hailed the new relationship being struck with America, saying “a much more intense association between Brazil and the US” was going to be built.

Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the UN, tweeted: “It’s great to have another US-friendly leader in South America, who will join the fights against dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba, and who clearly understands the danger of China’s expanding influence in the region.”