This article was updated on March 21, 2019.
This is a joint analysis published by Brazil’s Conectas Direitos Humanos and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
On March 19, President Donald Trump met for the first time with the newly elected Brazilian president, the ultraconservative Jair Bolsonaro. This was not an official state visit accompanied with the pomp of U.S. protocol; however, the two ended the meeting as expected with a joint pronouncement on shared interests and priorities.
Trump and Bolsonaro represent a convergence of right-wing political trends in terms of their agendas, the strategies used in their rise to power, and their repeated use of controversial rhetoric. Both share dangerously similar views on human rights: they have made deplorable comments about women, LGBT+ communities, migrants, and Afro-descendants, and threatened to implement policies that attempt to roll back protections for these groups.
In the name of economic development, both have boldly expressed disdain for environmental concerns and rolled back safeguards that will have dire consequences in their respective countries, especially against Native Americans and Brazil’s indigenous groups. Both have endorsed police use of deadly force, regardless of civil liberties and how this disproportionately affects people of color. In many ways, the least surprising thing about their meeting at the White House was how it served as a platform to uplift two leaders with extremist, anti-human rights views and policies.
It was unsurprising that Bolsonaro remained purposefully vague on the prospects for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.
In some ways, the meeting between the two presidents generated more show than substance. One of Bolsonaro’s primary intentions going into the meeting was to burnish his image through a positive relationship with the president of the United States. His praise for Trump’s “border wall” and the reversal of longstanding Brazil U.S. visa policy was all meant to signal a “reset” of U.S.-Brazil relations. Indeed, throughout the visit Bolsonaro repeatedly appeased Trump and curried favor with other right-wing supporters, claiming he is against everything Trump opposes, from socialism to political correctness to fake news to “gender ideology.” Bolsonaro also basked in the notion of a newfound Brazil-U.S. alliance on trade, economic progress, and the possibility of a unique NATO-like security arrangement.
Given this context, it was unsurprising that Bolsonaro remained purposefully vague on the prospects for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. Trump reiterated at his meeting with Bolsonaro that “all options are on the table” for Venezuela, doubling down on past rhetoric by his administration officials concerning U.S. military intervention in the country. During the press conference, Bolsonaro declined to go into detail about Brazil’s position. In response to reporters’ questions at the White House, Bolsonaro was obscure on Brazil’s position, saying that there are some “reserved subjects” that “will no longer be strategic” if spoken about publicly.
The fact that yesterday Bolsonaro did not unambiguously reiterate Brazil’s official position with regards to military intervention in Venezuela creates concerning levels of uncertainty.
To be sure, Brazil shares the U.S. position (and that of many other countries) on Venezuela in terms of officially recognizing Juan Guaidó as president and rejecting Nicolás Maduro’s government. However, up until now there have been notable differences in the approach to Venezuela. As a member of multilateral body the Lima Group—established to help find a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s crisis—Brazil’s official position has been to reject any military intervention in Venezuela. In fact, the day before the Trump-Bolsonaro press conference, Brazil government spokesperson Otavio Santana reiterated that Brazil does not support any type of military solution.
Could this change? It’s important to note that Bolsonaro is facing constraints at home: namely, the Brazilian armed forces have acted as a strong countervailing force to any “military option” rhetoric. Given that the military and military-backed interest groups makes up a key component in the fractious coalition that helped drive Bolsonaro to power, how likely is it that Bolsonaro will move to alienate them?
“It’s a serious matter when the Brazilian head of state issues ambiguous statements, in disagreement with the official position of a country...”
Still, as pointed out by the Brazilian human rights organization Conectas, the fact that yesterday Bolsonaro did not unambiguously reiterate Brazil’s official position with regards to military intervention in Venezuela creates concerning levels of uncertainty.
“It’s a serious matter when the Brazilian head of state issues ambiguous statements, in disagreement with the official position of a country,” said Camila Asano, a Conectas human rights program coordinator. “If the idea is to do what’s best for the Venezuelan people, then the prospect of a military intervention must be emphatically ruled out, due to the incredibly harmful impact this would have.”
It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences of a growing bond between Trump and Bolsonaro will be for the people of Brazil, Venezuela and the region. What pressures will the United States exert on Brazil? What will result from the promises of new security arrangements? What other strategic options regarding Venezuela are on the table that the two presidents would not discuss publicly?
From the public pronouncements at the White House, the meeting between Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro was far from what is needed now—leadership that will focus on mitigating the suffering of the Venezuela people, distributing aid in accordance to humanitarian principles, a humane response to the ongoing flow of Venezuelan migration in the region that respects indigenous rights, and supporting a peaceful, democratic solution to the country’s political crisis.