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Why are the priorities of Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s changing?

By Priti Singh

The hopes of a recovery in the Brazilian economy after President Jair Bolsonaro was elected to office in January this year have been dashed, as economic growth continues to be very sluggish. Bolsonaro s priorities when he came to power were clear, as were his close links with the United States. He promised liberal economic reforms including pension reforms; he was against environmental organizations (in support of the congressional agri-business group known as the ruralistas); against corruption and crime and sought educational reforms to remove any ideological (Marxist) indoctrination.

Many of the decisions that he took soon after assuming office such as reassigning the control over indigenous reserve lands to the agriculture ministry and loosening gun regulations on ownership, heightened civilian concerns. His efforts towards militarization of schools where management is shared between teachers and police ostensibly to improve education by removing the influence of drug traffickers and bring discipline, has also been controversial.

While he won the presidential elections with a majority, far-right Bolsonaro has seen a fair share of criticism. Bolsonaro has been accused of being a dangerous cheerleader of dictatorship , a homophobic misogynist and a racist even while he was campaigning before the elections. Analysts agree that his sudden rise in Brazilian politics was a result of a number of factors, the more prominent among them being the prevalent economic recession, the scandalous corruption charges against many prominent leaders, the increasing crime and violence which led to a morally fatigued Brazilian population and a populist wave of support for an upright family man who was offering a conservative, rightist and corruption-free solution to Brazil s many woes. The fact that the powerful agri-business lobby supported him unabashedly certainly helped his case.

However popular or unpopular his domestic choices, Bolsonaro s international engagements have drawn a lot of attention. Though not surprising, his support towards Chile and Colombia along with four other right-wing presidents in South America for the creation of the new regional Forum for the Progress of South America (PROSUR) to replace the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) created by South American left-wing governments is being observed with a lot of interest. Expanding the country s economic and political reach beyond the southern cone is in Brazil s interest, more to neutralize the internal pressures of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and the antics of its immediate and smaller neighbours within this regional bloc. Bolsonaro understands that the success of forums such as the BRICS and IBSA in the past is what had let Brazil keep its options open and avoid getting further ensnared in the problems of its binding regional institutions. The initial uncertainty about MERCOSUR continuing as a bloc under Bolsonaro, was soon resolved when he argued for a more streamlined MERCOSUR with a focus strictly on economic issues, and has recently announced the imminent signing of a free trade agreement with European Union and of introducing a new currency during his trip to Argentina in early June. This seems to be an indication of changing priorities of Bolsonaro, who had apparently not been concerned with keeping MERCOSUR alive.

There have been other indications as well. He refused to host the next meeting on climate change (Conference of Parties 25) earlier scheduled to be in Brazil in 2019 and now to be held in Santiago, Chile. He had during his campaign indicated that Brazil would also withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. However, he soon backtracked and announced that Brazil was going to adhere to the Agreement.

A main dilemma for Bolsonaro is China. China is Brazil s largest trading partner along with the US. Bolsonaro is also called the Trump of the Tropics a nickname that clearly indicates his ideological leanings. Bolsonaro used strong words to describe China as a predator during his election campaign in 2018 but knows well that Brazil cannot be made great again without China. During Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao s visit in the last week of May to Beijing, he stated that China was a reliable and stable partner for Brazil and was supportive of China s Belt and Road Initiative. Brazil is also looking towards expanding its ties with China through other forums such as the BRICS, WTO and the G20. With Brazil taking over the presidency of BRICS in 2019, a decision regarding its strategic and economic significance is critical. Brazil s open hostility against the government of Maduro in Venezuela goes against the support given by Russia and China, two members of BRICS. Brazil has historically seen itself as a balancing power in a multipolar world and used these groupings to play this role effectively in the international arena. This is not simply an ideological stance but a practical one, which means that it is not going to be easy for Bolsonaro to go against these past principles.

Bolsonaro thus seems full of contradictions also known of late as an unpopular populist . However, more than anything else, his seemingly changing priorities only underline that he has to be a pragmatist to fulfill his passion to take Brazil on the path towards development. That is what Bolsonaro s priorities were and it may be argued, remain so. His methods and his Trump-esque statements may be questioned and criticized but Bolsonaro has to be practical in order to achieve the economic growth he desires for his country, be it through the US, China or international forums. In the upcoming visit of Indian prime minister Modi to Brazil and the eleventh BRICS summit later this year, India would do well to keep in mind Brazilian strategic positioning and priorities for a fruitful discussion.

The author is Chairperson & Associate Professor, Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.