Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House today is remarkable in many ways. Much of the media attention will focus on the similarities in their outspoken political styles, shared affinity for Twitter, controversial statements and the ire they generate from the left. The public theme for the summit is the crisis in Venezuela, which will certainly be the main focus. But there is a big importance to this meeting that goes beyond Bolsonaro and Trump, and Washington needs to understand it.
Today’s meeting symbolizes a major shift in the dynamic between the United States and the fifth-largest country in the world, and it caps off a stunning political shift for South America in a short period. In just a single election cycle, the continent has gone from being unified in leftist hostility to the United States to arguably the most pro-American bloc of countries in the world. The meeting is also another sign of a shift in Washington’s attitude toward the hemisphere, from the benign neglect of previous administrations to active engagement and visible cooperation, particularly on the Venezuela crisis that has been building for much of the last decade.
Bolsonaro broke long-standing tradition in Brazil by making his first trip abroad as president to Washington rather than to Argentina. The pro-American president in Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, was one of Trump’s first visitors in the Oval Office in 2017, so he didn’t mind. But the electoral wave that carried Bolsonaro to Washington today is the sonic boom arriving with him that needs to be heard in this town above the political and media-driven noise that threatens to drown it out.
The presidential election in 2018 was mischaracterized by much of the international media as a blow to democracy in Brazil, a swerve toward authoritarianism and the product of a polarized electorate. That was not true. Brazilian voters were widely united in their hunger for change and broad distrust of a discredited and corrupt political establishment. Bolsonaro emerged from a crowded field simply as the beneficiary of this dynamic, not its creator. The broad middle class of Brazil, which is a majority of the electorate, has no ideology or party loyalties. They handed him a landslide victory because he alone advocated change. Also, those voters happen to admire the United States not for its power and dominance, but for how good life can be here for the average American family. They don’t dream of running across our borders. They dream of having that same good, stable and safe life for themselves in their neighborhoods, and an economy that rewards hard work and playing by the rules.
When it considers Brazil today, Washington’s political class needs to spend less time discussing the latest tweet and more time understanding the political moment. Bolsonaro is carrying a long list of concerns in common with a lot of people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, such as reforming trade, dealing with China, fighting drug trafficking along porous borders, reducing crime, reviving manufacturing and a better bilateral framework for investment in growth. Jobs, safety, sovereignty and a better life. These issues resonate with the heartland of Brazil’s electorate, much like they do with the expanse of Middle America.
Brazil’s huge economy has been mostly closed for generations, and it desperately needs to upgrade its technology and infrastructure to grow. The U.S. wants to export its unrivaled innovations and know how. Brazil’s commodity-heavy export sector has made it increasingly beholden to China, and the U.S. wants to rebalance China’s leverage in its back yard. Brazil needs more productive investment from private sources to bring down its high unemployment, while U.S. investors are looking for better returns in emerging markets. Both countries need to rein in the destabilizing pressures from Venezuela and Cuba for the sake of stability in the region. For the first time in a long while, we have two presidents squarely on the same page on all of this.
So while it will be good for both if Trump and Bolsonaro hit it off today, it isn’t ultimately in their hands to seize this moment. Real, lasting benefits for both countries also depend on opinion leaders and policymakers understanding where the real political centers of gravity lie in each country right now, and how they will determine the fate of the relationship more than these two men.
Regardless of their respective political bases, neither president can afford to lose middle class support and still govern effectively. This reality is seen as the most significant brake on Bolsonaro’s sharper ideological edges, and some read the 2018 midterm elections in the United States as proving the point here. If so, the real potential for a closer relationship with Brazil lies beyond the trappings of summit handshakes. It’s up to the emerging political forces who aspire to represent the heartlands of both countries to get to know each other better and join hands.
Kevin Ivers is a Latin America expert and vice president at DCI Group in Washington, D.C.
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