Agustin Grizia is a recent graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, holding a master’s degree in Latin American Studies. His research interests include the politics of the Southern Cone, U.S.-Latin America relations, and Latin America-China relations.
The coronavirus crisis has made Brazil the latest battleground between the United States and China, but this isn’t the first time recently that the South American nation has figured in U.S. grand strategy. Last November, Brazil became the first Latin American country in twenty-six years to vote against condemning the U.S.-led embargo of Cuba at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The resolution condemning the embargo is usually approved by an overwhelming majority of countries, with the exception of a few U.S. allies. This significant change in Brazil’s position evidently was made to appeal to U.S. President Donald J. Trump, though six months later, it remains to be seen if the gesture will pay off.
The countries of Latin America have long shared foreign policy goals, as evidenced by their similar voting records in international fora. The peaceful resolution of regional conflicts, respect for international law, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and non-intervention have always been guiding principles for Latin American regional foreign policy. UNGA, as the only organ of the UN in which all members have equal representation, is a case in point. Since decisions are not legally binding for its members, countries are free to use UNGA to express their ideological preferences regardless of their pragmatic interests.
Examining recent UNGA voting records shows a voting coincidence of only 38 percent between the countries of Latin America and the United States on those issues deemed important by the U.S. Department of State. These differences, while sometimes accentuated in times of major political rifts with Washington, were maintained even in times of ideological affinity between the U.S. president and presidents in Latin America. Even so, Brazil’s vote under Bolsonaro not to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba in 2019 represented a significant change in the longstanding consistency of Latin American voting on issues of ideological importance.
This vote carried diplomatic and reputational costs. By siding with the United States, Brazil was not only alienating itself within UNGA but also breaking long-established traditions in the region regarding diplomatic relations with Cuba. Moreover, it did so knowing the risks in terms of its own economic interests in Cuba, raising the question of why Brasilia would make such an unusual strategic decision.
This shift in Brazilian foreign policy likely reflects Bolsonaro’s calculation that ideological affinity with the U.S. president could benefit the country’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, some analysts note that President Trump’s election brought legitimacy to Bolsonaro’s agenda. During a campaign trip to the United States in January 2018, he said, “Trump is an example to me. I know there is a distance between me and Trump, but I hope to become closer to him, for the good of Brazil and of the United States.”
The personal, political, and ideological similarity between both presidents is evident. Their populist appeals benefit from the support of similar conservative, anti-establishment, and often evangelical constituencies. Both scapegoat the media and use social media to speak to their bases. And both promised a tougher approach to combatting crime, radical economic reform to curb unemployment and falling incomes, and support for conservative and religious causes.
However, that the political and ideological affinity between the two leaders has translated into benefits for Brazil remains unclear. Economically, although U.S. foreign aid to Brazil has increased significantly, investment has not, and the total amount of trade has stagnated, maintaining a significant imbalance favorable to Washington. What is more, the Trump administration seems unphased by friendly actions by Bolsonaro’s government, secretly supporting Argentina’s entrance to the OECD over that of Brazil. Meanwhile, Brazil’s capitulation to U.S. interests has surrendered the leadership role it previously enjoyed in the region, such as when it espoused and supported the creation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Critics accuse the current administration of breaking Brazil’s tradition as a “soft power heavyweight.”
The Trump administration achieved unprecedented support for its foreign policy priorities at the UN from Brazil. While these circumstances seem more an exception than a rule in the history of Latin American relations with the United States, the latter has in Bolsonaro a unique opportunity to demonstrate why the region should consider the United States a friendly neighbor. Especially as other global powers, such as China, increasingly offer trade deals, investment, and cultural exchanges with Latin American governments, the United States has a renewed opportunity to profile the benefits of partnering with Washington to the countries of the Americas. If not, it can be expected that the region will continue to distance itself from the United States in foreign policy objectives.