Bolsonaro and Brazil Court the Global Far Right

In his first months in office, Jair Bolsonaro has rejected Brazil's diplomatic trajectory in favor of religious ideological positions and extreme right global alliances. 

August 21, 2019

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Brazilian Foreign Minister Araújo (Photo by U.S. State Department)

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Under the presidencies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, Brazil set out to distance itself from the influence of the United States while becoming a global economic and diplomatic player. The country spent years constructing a diplomatic agenda with the objective of gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Through the creation of the BRICS geopolitical bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and South-South agreements, Brazilian leadership aimed to develop new power dynamics by partnering with rising world powers. It also positioned itself as a relevant actor in conflict resolutions, such as during the crisis between the U.S. and Iran in 2010.

In less than a year in office, President Jair Bolsonaro has dramatically altered the course of the country. He has forged alliances with like-minded leaders of the United States, Italy, Israel, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has also distanced Brazil from global multilateral organizations and previously negotiated alliances. At the same time, he has adopted a logic dictated by religious values, moving away from agendas linked to human rights and inserting the country once again in the orbit of the United States. In doing so, Bolsonaro’s Brazil has committed itself to advancing an international ideological realignment favoring extreme agendas as the president’s “verbal incontinence” costs him more moderate allies.

Bolsonaro’s Conservative Cabinet

One of Bolsonaro’s first acts was to stack his cabinet with Christian fundamentalists, former generals, climate change deniers, and other ideologues, setting up his government to find predictable company in the international sphere.

At the front is the Brazilian foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who believes he is on a crusade in defense of Christianity. In an interview with The Financial Times, Araújo declared that “Christian values should be back at the core of how we see the world.” In an event with Brazilian diplomats, Araújo cried and compared Bolsonaro to Jesus Christ. Twitter users have nicknamed Araújo 4Chancellor, an unflattering reference to the 4Chan online forum where the alt-right movement was born.

Bolsonaro appointed Araújo as chancellor on the recommendation of the “philosopher” and favourite astrologer of the Brazilian extreme right, Olavo de Carvalho, a controversial figure who was also behind the appointment of the minister of education and is pivotal in government decision-making. All this, despite the fact that Carvalho lives in Virginia.

These figures play key roles in cultivating a relationship between Bolsonaro’s government and the international far-right.

“Part of Olavo de Carvalho's influence comes from his work to present to the Brazilian right the ideas and concepts of the new extremist movements in the U.S. and Europe. This is an aspect of his work that has been underestimated by analysts,” said Maurício Santoro, a professor of political science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and an expert in Latin American international cooperation and Brazilian foreign policy.

“In the Brazilian government, the foreign minister and congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro [son of Jair Bolsonaro] are important figures in these efforts, in particular for their ties with Steve Bannon,” he added.

During Brazil’s election campaign in 2018, Bannon and Eduardo Bolsonaro met in Washington, and Olavo de Carvalho dined with Bannon in January this year, showing not only an ideological affinity, but a clear rapprochement between Donald Trump's former guru and President Bolsonaro’s inner circle.

Olavo de Carvalho has been running an online philosophy course for years and has gathered a troupe of loyal followers. In a simple and even didactic way, Carvalho’s videos and posts for tens of thousands of social media followers preach the defense of traditional values, interspersed with conspiratorial theories such as the threat of “cultural Marxism.” He has even flirted with bogus theories such as the flat earth.

Meanwhile, another Bolsonaro confidant is Filipe Martins, special advisor to the president for international affairs, a disciple of Olavo de Carvalho, and an enthusiast of Bannon. Detractors have dubbed Martins, a native of the city Sorocaba in the state of São Paulo, “Sorocabannon.”

On the day of Bolsonaro's victory, Martins wrote on Twitter, “The new crusade is decreed. Deus vult!” (Latin for “God wills it,” the Crusader battle cry taken up by far-right extremists), as if to be imagining himself in a modern holy war against the Left. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s government has pledged to stamp out “communist indoctrination” and broadly taken aim at progressives.

Brazil’s Changing Global Role

Under Araújo's command of Brazil’s foreign policy, the country withdrew from the UN migration accord and, through his speeches, signalled an alignment with the conservative-minded governments of the United States and Israel.

At the UN Human Rights Council in June, Brazil aligned itself with Islamic dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as well as Pakistan and Russia in opposing proposals on sex education, LGBT rights, and women’s reproductive rights, as well as the use of the term “gender” in all voted documents.

Araújo has also worked to extinguish conversations on climate emergency within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reject the scientific consensus on the state of the climate, citing his skepticism about climate change. At the end of July, the Brazilian government sent diplomatic representatives to a meeting of climate change deniers in the United States.

According to UERJ professor Maurício Santoro, political blocs in the rest of the world are taking note of this realignment. “Brazil is relevant to extremists in the U.S. and Europe because it represents their first ally in Latin America,” he said.

With Donald Trump nurturing the possibility of a far-right global alliance, Brazil emerged as an appealing ally that could serve the immediate interests of the United States, such as in applying pressure in attempts to suffocate Venezuela’s Maduro government.

This kind of close relationship with the United States to advance Trump’s far-right agenda also has broader reverberations at the international level. According to Santoro, “the possibility of a diplomatically-aligned Brazil with the United States would be a rift in the articulations of the global South, such as BRICS, and could influence negotiations in multilateral forums on issues such as human rights and the environment.” Brazil’s shifting positions on gender and sexuality issues at the UN are just one example of this.

What’s more, Brazil’s changing foreign policy positions have also led it to diverge from its once-allies on the economic front. In a recent article for the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, columnist Guga Chacra argued that the existence of BRICS no longer makes sense. “Each member of BRICS has taken a different course,” he wrote. The “Venezuela question,” for example, has driven a wedge between Bolsonaro and Putin, while Turkey or Mexico could conceivably displace Brazil in the alternative bloc, according to Chacra.

Joining a Larger Illiberal Movement

Amid the defense of conservative values and a strong nationalist tone, countries under far-right leadership like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Matteo Salvini’s Italy have emerged as natural allies for Brazil.

In an interview with Radio France International, former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S., Rubens Ricúpero, said that Brazil has come to be seem “as one of the members of this group that Americans call anti-liberal or illiberal democracy regimes, [like] the governments of Trump, Salvini, and Orbán.”

This April, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo traveled to Italy and Hungary, where he criticized the influence of George Soros and advocated for “reinforcing the crusade against socialism in the world.” The objective of the trip was to strengthen Bannon’s idealized agenda of uniting the far right worldwide.

In May, it was Chancellor Araújo's turn to visit Hungary, Poland, and Italy, with the objective of promoting the Brazilian arms industry. Bolsonaro hopes to also visit these countries later this year.

Through his speeches, Bolsonaro has demonstrated his intent to move Brazil toward an illiberal, even authoritarian regime. In less than a year of government, Bolsonaro has threatened journalists, attacked universities with cutbacks to exact ideological revenge, and constantly praised the “legacy” of the military dictatorship, while at the same time cutting funds of a working group to identify the remains of guerrilla fighters killed by the regime. He also replaced members of the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances (CEMDP) with advisers from his own party and military personnel who have expressed nostalgia for the dictatorial period.

In addition, Bolsonaro has appointed military personnel to various executive power positions and government agencies and imposed a mandate of “Christian sentiments” over the National Film Agency (ANCINE).

In this illiberal project, Bolsonaro is mirroring rhetoric of President Trump, the most visible leader among the growing number of right-wing populist and heads of state around the world. According to José Antonio Lima, a journalist specialized in Brazilian politics and foreign policy, these far-right leaders’ agendas overlap in key ways, and Bolsonaro has clearly inserted himself in the conversation: “Despite the specificities of each country, in general these figures act to change the rules of the game and demolish the structures of liberal democracy, such as an independent judiciary and the protection of minorities.”

Fighting Liberal Democracy

According to Tanguy Baghdadi, a professor of international relations and expert in Brazilian foreign policy, part of this shared agenda also involves the “deconstruction and denial of the international order built in the post-World War II and, more specifically, after the Cold War.” Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies put him in this camp.

A fundamental characteristic of the deconstruction of the global order is the replacement or weakening of multilateral organizations, alliances, and institutions that guarantee and perpetuate democratic values and collective security by a model that is dictated by religious values, as well as by illiberalism and populism.

The new Brazilian foreign policy is guided by conservative Christian values, causing discomfort even among members of the Brazilian diplomatic corps. And it follows the internal recipe of the Bolsonaro government of promoting an agenda that borders religious fundamentalism punctuated by demonstrations of authoritarianism and cruelty. In one instance, Bolsonaro ominously said to Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) president Felipe Santa Cruz, whose father Fernando Augusto de Santa Cruz Oliveira disappeared during the military dictatorship after being arrested, “If the president of the OAB wants to know how his father disappeared during the military period, I'll tell him.”

Bolsonaro has also praised the head of a notorious dictatorship-era torture unit and defended the use of torture, revealing a fascist bent that will have human rights consequences at home, while also shaping relations abroad. 

“Bolsonaro has many characteristics in common with other populist and nationalist politicians, such as aggressiveness against minorities, attacks on the press and on the institutions of checks and balances on the executive such as congress and the supreme federal court,” explained Santoro, adding that “these similarities are turning into a global articulation [amid] a global crisis of democracy, marked by the rise of the extreme right in Europe and the Americas.”

The significance and potential economic gains of this alignment with the global extreme right seems to be a mystery even to members of the government itself. Santoro said that conversations he has had with contacts in Bolsonaro’s government reveal “contradictory reflections on the objectives” of Brazil’s new alliances and the maintenance of a joint agenda with BRICS.

“The disputes reflect the lack of coordination among the various groups that make up the government,” he said. While there appears to be interest on the economic front in seeking greater cooperation with the BRICS countries, such as through the bloc’s multilateral New Development Bank, the Bolsonaro administration’s approach to foreign relations appears to be driven by a fundamentalist anti-progressive agenda couched in the rhetoric of security concerns. Like his ally in Washington, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and shoot-from-the-hip policy are empowering the far-right at home and abroad.

Even though the potential economic gains of this alignment with the global extreme right remain unclear, Bolsonaro’s objectives seem to make sense within a logic of ideological realignment. His central goal is the promotion of a conservative agenda at the global level, without concerns for liberal or democratic values.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist and holds a Ph.D. in human rights from the University of Deusto in Spain.

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