Brazil’s Bolsonaro Completes a U.S. Sweep of South America

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A decade ago, when I was commander of U.S. Southern Command with responsibility for all military engagement south of the U.S., I visited Brazil often. I always came away with an appreciation for the warmth of the people, the vast natural resources, the power and depth of the Amazon River, and the rich and complex culture of a nation that always seems to deliver an unexpected move. As Brazil’s recent election approached, I could almost feel the ground shifting across South and Central America, and sensed we were in for a swerve.

As of Sunday, Brazil moved sharply, almost unthinkably, to the right. With the leading leftist candidate, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on ice for a dozen years serving a jail sentence for corruption, a former Brazilian Army officer, Jair Bolsonaro, won a strong victory. 

The parallels with the U.S. election of 2016, in which eight years of Democratic control of the White House improbably yielded to Donald Trump, are notable. Brazil is a powerful nation with the eighth-largest economy in the world, but recent economic troubles and corruption scandals have helped yet again to fulfill the old saw that it is destined to be the “country of tomorrow … forever.”

Has that tomorrow finally arrived? What does this election mean for Brazil, the region, the U.S. and the world?

Bolsonaro will no doubt take a “mão de ferro” (literally “hard hand” in Portuguese) stance against crime and gangs. He ran strongly on a promise to deal with the homicide epidemic that has killed more than 63,000 in 2017. The challenge will be doing so within the boundaries of human rights and the law, something for which he appears to have little respect. He said the police should be rewarded for killing criminals, who he believes have no rights and “are not normal human beings.” 

Brazil, which already has a rich culture of impunity toward its leaders, can be expected to empower the police in the same way President Rodrigo Duterte has done in the Philippines. Such tactics may have short-term impact on crime rates, but over time in Central America and Mexico, they haven’t delivered long-term results. Look for a very harsh set of measures unleashed on the streets of Brazil, with plenty of violence ahead.

Related to this will be internal pressure on democracy as an institution. Years ago, Bolsonaro called for Congress to be shut down, and has mused publicly about the effectiveness and attractiveness of a dictatorship, even praising the military government that ran Brazil for three decades until 1985. While his statements moderated somewhat during the campaign, it is highly likely that he will pressure the courts and the Congress to test the limits of his power.

Bolsonaro’s election also further solidifies the turn to the right throughout the region. With the exception of Mexico, which often moves orthogonally to its neighbors, most nations are moving to the right. Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru — the strongest economies in South America — have all elected conservative presidents in the last three years. Even Bolivia and Ecuador have shifted somewhat to the right. While Cuba and Venezuela have remained in the leftist camp (so long as Nicolas Maduro can cling to power in Venezuela), the Brazil election alone moves 200 million of the 500 million in Latin America into the rightist camp. It’s a huge move — and one that will be looked on very favorably by the Donald Trump administration. Trump will find a close ally and indeed an acolyte in Bolsonaro, and currently strained relations between the nations will warm considerably. 

One of the strongest potential zones of cooperation will be the military. While I was with Southcom, Brazil leaned as far away as possible from the U.S. military. While we had cordial minor engagements, there were real barriers separating us. Now look for Brazil’s military to spend more on U.S. defense systems; operate with us in training exercises, especially at sea and in the air; participate more fully in counter-narcotic efforts with Drug Enforcement Agency and Pentagon teams; take part in counterterrorism drills with the U.S.; and put more emphasis on research and development in aviation, cyberdefense and special forces.

Economically, the Bolsonaro regime will be extraordinarily pro-business. Again taking a page from the Trump administration, it will look to cut regulation across the economy; reduce environmental protections for the oil and gas sectors; move closer to the U.S. and away from China (a nation Bolsonaro strongly criticized during the campaign, despite its huge investments in everything from ports to telecoms to agriculture); and find ways to pump up the economy with infrastructure projects. Bolsonaro’s key economic advisor, Paulo Guedes, studied at the University of Chicago and can be expected to meld free-market Chicago School economic theory with current Trump administration practice.

Taken together, the U.S. will overnight find an enthusiastic international and regional partner. The Brazilian economy will likely enjoy a short-term burst of energy, while the country will continue to fret about violence that could well go up sharply, at least in the short term, as the Bolsonaro crackdown begins.

The Brazilian military will have a far greater voice in the nation’s direction, the Congress will be diminished, and the judiciary will be challenged to maintain the independence that has marked its work in overturning Dilma Rouseff’s presidency and sending Lula to prison. The media will find itself under great pressure. How far Bolsonaro is willing to go in pushing the boundaries of rule of law, democracy and human rights remains to be seen — but the smart bet would say he will go as far as the other institutions of Brazil will let him. 

For the U.S., this election represents a real opportunity — to have a strong partner in dealing with Venezuela and Cuba as well as the flow of narcotics, energy production and military operations. But Washington will have to make clear-eyed judgments in regard to how the regime behaves. We should use our considerable influence to both improve geostrategic outcomes for the benefit of both our nations, but maintain our values throughout the region as well.

We managed to find that balance in helping Colombia end its civil war and take down its drug kingpins, but it’s going to far harder finding that balance in Brazil with the “Trump of the Tropics” in charge.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

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