Partners at Odds
The ambiguous relationship between the United States and Brazil is expected to open a new chapter with Donald Trump in the White House.
In November 2015 the owner of Trump Tower during a CBS interview accused Brazil along with China, Japan and India of stealing jobs from the United States through the exportation of production. If this accusation is a sign of what Brazil can expect from 2017 on the country could be in trouble.
U.S goods and services trade with Brazil was estimated at US$ 95.4 billion in 2015. Exports were US$ 59.5 billion and imports US$ 33.9 billion. The U.S. trade surplus with Brazil in goods and services was US$ 23.6 billion in 2015, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Brazilian scholar Solange Reis from the Observatório Político dos Estados Unidos (Political Observatory of the US) and a professor of International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo believes that Trump’s rhetoric will translate into actions that could have a huge impact on the country, particularly in the agroindustrial business. Brazil is one of the largest food exporters in the world. The core of Trump’s voters are from rural areas and feel resentful about what they believe to be a loss of market to other countries. But Reis also notes that Trump’s “protectionist discourse will meet many structural barriers that will make full protectionism very difficult”.
Brazilian sociologist Rodrigo Gallo from the Sociology and Politics School of São Paulo Foundation (FESPSP) views Trump’s unexpected victory pragmatically. He told the Americas Program that he thinks there will be few changes. Given that the U.S. still hasn’t healed from the economic crisis and needs to grow, Trump cannot completely alter foreign trade policy, he says. Gallo argues that the newly elected president will face obstacles trying to get congressional approval for some of his campaign promises since even within the Republican majority many reject his policies.
He maintains that Trump will inevitably moderate his positions. “One man is candidate Trump whose promises aimed for votes and the other is President Trump who needs to adapt his promises to a complex and ever- changing reality”, observes Gallo.
“Trump was elected with a discourse based on intolerance. His campaign played on sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism and xenophobia and these are part of the public identity of some of his supporters, including important players during this moment of transition”, points out Flávia Biroli, feminist and History Professor at the University of Brasília.President-elect Donald Trump has surrounded himself with white nationalists and other figures that have been criticized even by the right wing of the Republican Party. Members of his inner circle, like Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, have set off a red alert among minorities around the world.
Trump’s victory has caught the Brazilian government off guard. On June 6 Brazilian chancellor José Serra from the neoliberal Social Democratic Party said in an interview with the public television station TV Cultura that Trump would never win. “It won’t happen. It can’t happen”. Brazilians weren’t alone in their belief that Trump would fall short of the White House.
The same prediction was made by many statesmen and chancellors, as the billionaire outsider was seen as a long shot when he started his journey.
Under the current government led by former Vice President Michel Temer who was pivotal in the impeachment of his former president Dilma Roussef, Brazil can expect less multilateralism and more bilateralism. However, Reis believes Trump will pay less attention to South America than his predecessors, reducing Brazil’s relevance in Trump foreign policy. This scenario could theoretically boost Brazilian hegemony in the region, but “we don’t have this capability today. ”, she states. “We don’t have this aspiration anymore”.
Serra defends the abandonment of Mercosur’s south-south integration bent as ridding it of excess ideology. “Now the diplomacy will reflect once again in a more transparent and consistent manner the real values of the Brazilian society, and its economic interests in service of Brazil as a whole, and no longer the preferences and ideological preferences of one political party and its foreign allies”, said the chancellor to the press during a meeting with Argentina’s president Mauricio Macri. The statement was clearly meant to distance himself from former chancellor Celso Amorim and Roussef’s Workers’ Party.
In February the Brazilian Senate approved a project that changes the rules for oil exploration carried out by the state company Petrobras. Petrobras, still engulfed in corruption scandals, was obliged to invest at least 30% of every consortium deal to pre-salt layer exploration and open the seas to foreign investors, which favors U.S. players.
Oil is an essential fossil fuel to any industrialized country and plays a vital role for the American economy especially with a deeply dependent car fleet. Gallo predicts oil will continue to be a major point of leverage in Brazil’s foreign relations and will enhance its negotiating position at the table with the United States.
The project was initiated by Serra while in Congress. Seen as a U.S. enthusiast, Serra not only defends closer relations between the two countries but also promotes less interaction with South American players, including the Mercosur members. His view diverges from Dilma’s government and from former chancellor Celso Amorim who played this role during three governments, starting with the late Itamar Franco, then with Serra’s party colleague Fernando Henrique Cardoso and finally playing a major role in the Luís Inácio Lula da Silva years. José Serra is accused of receiving a R$ 23 million (US$ 6,88 million) bribe in a Swiss bank and Temer is ineligible to run for office for eight years because a regional election court found him guilty of violating election laws. Lula is impicated in the Lava-Jato Federal Police Force investigation.
Welcome to the American Nightmare
Brazilians who want to immigrate to United States can expect many more obstacles than before and hopes of reciprocal suspension of visa have vanished, explains Reis. The Temer government is studying unilateral suspension of the visa requirement for U.S. citizens, although the number of Brazilians visiting the United States is 5 times higher than the other way around. She adds“But it’s still soon to evaluate Trump’s government since he doesn’t have a political background or even a long time alignment with the Republican Party. So we are in the field of speculation”.
Biroli notes that Trump projects an image of immigrants as “others” who are un-American and responsible for the deteriorating standard of living of the white lower-middle class. Bitterness in Trump’s campaign was a modus operandi as it is in the European extreme-right, she points out.
“What the average American is not being told is that worsening living conditions in the U.S. are directly connected with the concentration of wealth in the last decades. Trump appeals to xenophobia and adheres to neoliberal politics and the meritocracy speech. It means that inequality will be deepened and at the same time intolerance acts as a bait to mobilize resentment”. The rise of oligarchies and empowering of old ones like the Koch brothers is on display in the United States, a scenario more akin to a Game of Thrones episode than to the country of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Since the elections, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have changed their tone with Trump. “The difference is between those who play the game of capital but still try to preserve fundamental rights in a minimum way, and those who only play the money game and use antidemocratic ways of governing and in private life. This environment promotes hate groups like white kids chanting “Trump” to minority school rivals or those who painted swastikas and pro-Trump messages in New York City’s Adam Yauch park.
“It’s a reactive re-adaptation to the equity agenda moving against the limits of what can be said and can be done, of what we accept and what we can’t accept as a society. We are on the edge now, incorporating as an acceptable part of our daily lives fascist world views that we’ve been working to push to the margins of society for decades”, evaluates Biroli.
Looking at the Brexit, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs and the emergence of France’s Marine Le Pen, professor Gallo holds that we are seeing the strengthening of a more conservative agenda that corresponds to two logics. The first as an effect of the world economic crisis, which makes voters fearful and susceptible to choose conservatives showing themselves as saviors while holding refugees and immigrants as partly or totally to blame for the nation’s misfortunes. The second is the periodical change in political orientation, as people tend to alternate preferences. Brazil saw the decline of the social-democrat currents (with conservative touches) of Franco, FHC, Lula and Dilma and the rise of the right wing of Temer, Serra and even Jair Bolsonaro a congressman who favors the past’s military dictatorship and is touted in the international press as the Brazilian version of Donald Trump.
“What we’re seeing happening in the United States and Brazil are actions and rhetoric that legitimize intolerance, hate and violence”, says Biroli. She notes that this make things even harder for immigrants.
“There is a tendency to have more deportations, criminalization of irregular immigrants, loss of rights of the residents who get involved in crimes and infractions, and rejection of refugees. Seeing the white nationalists heading to the White House, one can imagine that there will be a thin line between migratory politics and human rights violations”, ends Solange Reis.