The apprentice meets the master as Bolsonaro visits Trump

Jair Bolsonaro has been one of the few South American leaders friendly towards Trump. (Bloomberg pic)

BRASILIA: One of the world’s most enthusiastic students of President Donald Trump’s turbulent, Twitter-based style of government will finally meet the master on Tuesday when Brazil’s new head of state visits the White House.

For Jair Bolsonaro, who revels in the “Trump of the Tropics’’ moniker, the trip offers him the opportunity to both drum up business for Brazil and to relaunch his image on the global stage after an underwhelming debut at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The US leader, on the other hand, will relish the attention of an unabashed fan and ally in his combative approach toward China.

Few – if any – Latin American presidents have embraced their US counterparts with as much fervour as Bolsonaro, whose lawmaker son Eduardo recently addressed a Trump rally in Florida, urging the crowd to “build that wall.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro is now president of the lower house’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.

But while the affection appears mutual, the Trump administration has yet to offer the Brazilian government much more than supportive tweets.

There’s been no US ambassador in Brasilia since the middle of 2018.

“Brazil only stands to gain from a closer relationship with the US,” Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said in an interview.

“In the past, there were limits to the relationship with the US on the pretext of avoiding subservience, but that’s a great fallacy.”

Two deals appear close to fruition.

One would pave the way for US companies to explore Brazil for uranium and invest in new nuclear power plants.

The other involves commercial use of the Alcantara rocket launch site.

While the US has long been eager to use the base, Brazil has been reluctant to lease sovereign land to a foreign power without oversight of the sensitive technology involved.

One of Brazil’s main hopes for this trip is that the US will formally endorse its bid to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and declare the country a major non-NATO ally.

In return, Brazil could unilaterally scrap the visa requirements for visiting US citizens.

Preliminary talks on potential future trade deals are also likely to feature, but for the Brazilians, the trip is at least as much about the optics as the substance.

For Bolsonaro, it should also some respite after a difficult week, unless awkward questions about the alleged killers of left-wing politician Marielle Franco follow him to Washington.

Common concerns

For the US, talks between the two leaders will focus on defence co-operation, measures to combat transnational crime, as well as Venezuela, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

While the crisis in Venezuela is also a priority for Brazil, a military intervention is not on the cards, according to Brazil’s ambassador to Washington Sergio Amaral.

Instead, the two countries will discuss ways to increase the pressure on President Nicolas Maduro.

China is also a common concern for both leaders.

While Bolsonaro has dialled down much of his anti-Beijing rhetoric, he remains deeply wary of Chinese interests in Latin America.

“From the perspective of the United States, we see this as a historic opportunity for Brazil and the United States to work together across a whole host of areas, economics, security and a range of others,” National Security Adviser John Bolton said.

Playing both sides

Much of Bolsonaro’s trip is aimed at showcasing Brazil’s new foreign policy to a domestic audience, breaking with a decades-long tradition of multilateralism to embrace the US and Israel.

Alongside meetings with investors from the US Chamber of Commerce, the Brazilian president is also due to meet with leaders from evangelical churches, who may wish to press him on his pre-election commitment to move Brazil’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

His itinerary in Washington reveals an attempt to play to both sides of his base that, in many respects, are in opposition to one another, according to Matias Spektor, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation who authored two books about meetings between US and Brazilian presidents.

Seeking concessions from Trump on trade and support for OECD membership will please those who espouse liberal macroeconomics, while cozying up to former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon at an embassy dinner will play to social conservatives who decry the spread of so-called “cultural Marxism.”

Yet Trump had a deep falling-out with Bannon, partly because of criticisms that the former adviser vented to Michael Wolff for the 2018 book “Fire and Fury.”

“If there is a single risk to the visit, I think it’s precisely Bolsonaro’s attachment to Bannon getting in the way of all the other things Bolsonaro wants to achieve while he’s in town,” Spektor said.