Biden needs to directly engage Brazil’s President Bolsonaro

Like it or not, the Biden administration needs to forge a new partnership with the Bolsonaro government in Brazil if it wants to achieve consequential results in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil is too big, too influential, and too important in the Americas to ignore, as Biden currently is doing. Brazil also is key to and supportive of many of the Biden administration’s global priorities.

It is true: President Jair Bolsonaro has said some very upsetting, even unorthodox, things over the course of his career and has implemented some policies inconsistent with the Biden administration’s policies. But this is also true of statements and actions of many world leaders with whom the Biden administration is working closely: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), and even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Prime Minister Modi was denied a visa in 2005 by the Bush administration because Modi failed to stop a series of deadly riots three years earlier by Hindus against minority Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister. Any possible concerns about leaders such as Modi, AMLO or Johnson have been put aside for the greater good of the relationship.

If President Biden can receive Prime Minister Modi in the Oval Office, surely he could at least have his first phone call with President Bolsonaro, signal a thawing of the chilly reception given to date, and later receive him in the Oval Office as well.

There are four areas of U.S. national interest which will be paramount to advancing the U.S. partnership with Brazil: climate change, COVID, trade, and pushing back against China.

Brazil delivered major environmental commitments at the Glasgow Conference earlier this month. India, China, and Russia brought far less than Brazil, which introduced new ambitious environmental objectives “including cutting emissions 50 percent and ending illegal forestation by 2028, as well as becoming carbon neutral by 2050.” Working together towards implementation of these commitments is an area for useful engagement.

Brazil is not only an environmental superpower but is also an agricultural superpower. Brazil is an important partner for the U.S. to produce breakthroughs in biofuels, which already are used in 25 percent of Brazilian cars. We can re-energize our existing cooperation for biofuel for aircraft.

Brazil is also a mining superpower, and to achieve the carbon transition, we will need Brazil’s mining industry to thrive — and not be controlled by China. Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Canada are critical partners in delivering the vast increase in mining to meet the demands of new electric vehicles. Brazil has the second largest iron reserve in the world, as well as large, untapped reserves of rare earth minerals. The World Bank Group estimates that production of minerals such as graphite, lithium, and cobalt could increase by nearly 500 percent by 2050. 

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly going to be front and center at the Summit of the Americas. There will remain shortages of vaccines over the next 12-plus months in some countries in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil has some of the highest levels of vaccination of any country on the continent. Brazil has managed to vaccinate 71 percent of the country’s population. Brazil will soon become a large exporter of vaccines, which the Western Hemisphere and the rest of the world will need for boosters. It will be necessary to deepen the partnership with Brazil if we want to confront COVID-19 in the hemisphere. China took advantage of a vacuum when the U.S. and the West could not offer vaccines to places like Brazil. China traded vaccines with Brazil in return for partial access for Huawei in Brazil’s telecom market.

President Bolsonaro wants a free trade agreement with the United States. The United States has sought an agreement with Brazil for decades. Now the U.S. is the one dragging its feet. Currently the United States is Brazil’s second-largest trading partner — behind China — accounting for $104.3 billion in goods and services. This is a key request of the U.S. private sector, would contribute to U.S. economic growth, and serve to stem the tide of growing Chinese economic influence.

Brazil is our best partner in South America to counter China, an area of bipartisan agreement in Washington. Getting Brazil on our side would require just a little bit more respect and attention from the Biden administration.

Given all of the above and the stakes, one would assume the Biden administration would have engaged the Bolsonaro administration on day one. Instead, the current policy on Brazil in Washington seems to be hoping that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, formerly imprisoned for corruption, will be re-elected next year. Yet Lula is pro-China, regularly criticizes U.S. foreign policy, and recently congratulated President Daniel Ortega on his re-election in Nicaragua. Given such views, if Lula were to return to the presidency in Brazil, it would harm U.S. interests in the region.

While Bolsonaro’s poll numbers are currently down slightly, Bolsonaro could still win re-election next year, when the Brazilian electorate’s only other option might be the corrupt Lula. Does the Biden administration really want to waste Biden’s four-year term hoping that somehow Bolsonaro “goes away?” That is not in the U.S. national interest. Biden’s retreat from engaging directly with Bolsonaro will only create a vacuum which China, Russia, and other competitors are only too eager to fill.

Biden should acknowledge the major strategic interests at stake with Bolsonaro. He should immediately give Bolsonaro a call to discuss issues on which they agree, and then invite Bolsonaro to the White House to jump start a new partnership in the run-up to the Summit of the Americas to be held in the summer of 2022 in the U.S.

Pragmatism over ideology should dictate the next steps with Brazil, just as the Biden administration has demonstrated with Mexico and Argentina in the Western Hemisphere, and with countless other partners globally.

The Biden administration should take advantage of the most pro-American government in Brazil’s recent history, overcome its reservations, and advance important U.S. national security interests with the most powerful and consequential country in Latin America.

Originally published on on November 23, 2021.

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