Forrest Hylton | Bolsonaro’s Gamble · LRB 12 March 2022

For most of the Cold War, Brazil was held tight in the US orbit, and its military dictators were instrumental in setting up pro-US coup franchises throughout Latin America. In March 1960, however, when Jânio Quadros was running for president, he visited Havana. The following year, after winning the election, Quadros awarded Che Guevara the Order of the Southern Cross, Brazil’s highest honour. Quadros stepped down in August 1961; his successor, João Goulart, renewed full diplomatic relations with the USSR, and resisted pressure from John F. Kennedy to side with the US in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

These moves were unacceptable both to the US government, which was obsessed with combatting Castro and pro-Cuban guerrillas through counter-insurgency, and to conservative elements in the Brazilian armed forces, Catholic church, political parties, media and universities. In part, this explains why Brazil’s postwar democratic experiment in developmental reform was short-lived. Goulart was ousted in a coup in 1964; the military dictatorship gave way to neoliberal democracy under the 1988 constitution, with moves towards moderate social democracy after Lula’s victory in 2002, until the overthrow of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

There is more distance now between Washington and Brazil than there has been for decades. In mid-February, days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Bolsonaro paid a visit to Moscow to express his ‘solidarity’ with Vladimir Putin. The US State Department said ‘the timing … could not be worse.’ Before Bolsonaro silenced him publicly, General Mourão, the vice-president who represents the ‘good cop’ faction in the armed forces, condemned the invasion. (Mourão later stated that the military will not intervene in the Brazilian electoral process.) A rift opened up in Brasília: on one side, President Bolsonaro and the pro-Putin faction in the military, represented by General Braga Neto; on the other, the faction represented by General Mourão, plus the foreign ministry and its career diplomats worried about Brazil’s place in the US-dominated ‘international community’.

Itamaraty’s (and Mourão’s) position won out in the UN general assembly, where Brazil voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rather than abstaining like China. Brazil is not China, of course, and its diplomats rushed to save face as Bolsonaro continued to repeat Putin’s talking points. Factions in the military may be hoping (against hope) that these will bolster Bolsonaro’s image as a tough, warrior-like leader ahead of October’s elections (Braga Neto is likely to be his running mate); Lula currently holds a fifteen-point lead, which may well increase as food and fuel prices go up in the coming months. This has already begun, with immediate political shockwaves.

Bolsonaro shares Putin’s loathing of communism and the USSR, and tries to associate Lula and the PT with both. That didn’t stop him, during his recent junket to Moscow, paying tribute to the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis in the Second World War; a position all the more incoherent because neo-Nazis have occupied prominent places in Bolsonaro’s administration.

No less incoherent are the WhatsApp messages Bolsonaro sends out to his followers, denouncing Europe as a bastion of crypto-communism, wearing the guise of progressive anti-racism, feminism and environmentalism rather than class struggle. Europe and the US are ‘vassals’ of what he calls the New World Order; only China, Russia and the Gulf monarchies are working to resist this global takeover. Perhaps this explains his trip to the Gulf immediately after the Copenhagen summit.

In the present crisis, it seems Bolsonaro and his allies in the military haven’t thought through the consequences of his actions in terms of a potential US response. The Biden administration is unlikely to forget Bolsonaro’s betrayal. Staying in power even if he loses the election will not be an option: the US won’t help him, and nor will Russia. Like Putin, Bolsonaro may think everything is going according to plan, but that does not make it so.

Speaking before the Mexican Congress last week, Lula emphasised the need for historical understanding of past wars and their devastating consequences, for the poor in particular. While affirming the right of nations to self-determination and condemning the Russian invasion – which segments of the Brazilian left have been reluctant to do – Lula also criticised the US strategy of straddling the globe with military bases, up to Russia’s borders, as well as its military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The money spent on one of those wars could have eradicated hunger across the planet.

Lula has the courage of his convictions, and should he win in 2022, it’s reasonably certain that his Foreign Ministry – perhaps led once again by Celso Amorim – will seek for Brazil the active role on the world stage for which, in Lula’s eyes, it is destined. For the first time since the overthrow of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, Brazil may once again pursue an independent foreign policy, taking up where João Goulart left off. Given the current calibre of political leadership in Brazil and around the globe, such a change of course would be most welcome.

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