SÃO PAULO, Brazil — My country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has still not recognized Joe Biden as the winner of America’s presidential election.
In his silence, he stands alongside other world leaders such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. “I’m holding back a little more,” Mr. Bolsonaro said recently, adding that there was “a lot of fraud” in the election.
It’s an understandable response, as he seems to have a problem accepting facts. Just think about it: This is a guy who still claims hydroxychloroquine is the cure for Covid-19. He maintains that the pandemic is overblown. He asserts that his government has simply eradicated corruption and that Brazil never had a military dictatorship. He says that the Amazon is not burning at all.
But there’s more to the refusal than Mr. Bolsonaro’s now commonplace bizarreness. As one of President Trump’s fiercest allies on the global stage, Mr. Bolsonaro is clearly not ready to mourn the departure of his fellow leader. He’s in denial.
Perhaps for good reason. For Mr. Bolsonaro, who took up the nickname “Trump of the tropics,” his fate and that of his American counterpart are entwined. And as opposition forces seem to be gathering strength, he may be worried that with Mr. Trump’s defeat comes his own.
For all of Mr. Bolsonaro’s eagerness to embrace Mr. Trump — “I’m more and more in love with him,” he said last year — the rewards have been pretty thin on the ground. For a start, after his first trip to the United States, Mr. Bolsonaro ended visa requirements for visitors from America. The measure has not been reciprocated. And unlike most American presidents, Mr. Trump never visited Brazil. (That’s rude!)
Then there’s the economy. In 2019, Brazil agreed to give up some benefits at the World Trade Organization in return for the United States’ backing of Brazil’s bid to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which the government hoped would increase investor confidence in the country’s economy. That has not happened.
Mr. Bolsonaro also granted American wheat and ethanol producers special trading concessions, harming his own country’s agricultural sector in the process. To reciprocate the favor, the Trump administration placed tariffs on Brazilian aluminum. Worst. Buddy. Ever.
But Mr. Trump’s tenure has given Mr. Bolsonaro one big win: He was free to act in the Amazon as he pleased. This meant weakening the enforcement of environmental regulations, which, in his opinion, “don’t protect anything.” He has systematically turned a blind eye as cattle farmers, loggers and miners have continued to plunder the rainforest. Destruction has soared under his administration: This year, the scale of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to a 12-year high.
In wreaking such environmental and human havoc, Mr. Bolsonaro could act with impunity; after all, he had Mr. Trump’s blessing. “I have gotten to know President @jairbolsonaro well in our dealings with Brazil,” the American president wrote on Twitter in 2019. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil.”
Ah, those were the days. Mr. Biden is unlikely to be so permissive (and will, please Lord, be on Twitter less). With the United States no longer led by someone who thinks climate change is a hoax, Mr. Bolsonaro can expect to encounter much more pressure. Brazil, in the words of the political scientist Oliver Stuenkel, may soon have to “face down a joint U.S.-European alliance threatening to isolate Brazil economically over its failure to protect the world’s largest tropical forest.”
Mr. Bolsonaro, to give him his due, seems to be aware that a Biden administration is likely to restrict his room for maneuver. “We recently saw a great candidate for head of state say that if I didn’t put out the fire in the Amazon, he will put up commercial barriers against Brazil,” he said in November, referring to a statement made by Mr. Biden during a presidential debate. Don’t worry, though: He has a plan to deal with it. “Just diplomacy is not enough,” he said. “When saliva runs out, one has to have gunpowder, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
It’s possible — necessary, I would say — to ridicule these as the words of a madman. But underneath the bravado is the recognition that the situation is changing for Mr. Bolsonaro, and not for the better. Mr. Trump’s loss robs the Brazilian president not only of a friendly (at least in theory) presence in Washington, but also of a kindred spirit. For right-wing populists, Mr. Trump was a trailblazer, a beacon, even a leader. His departure marks a worrying reversal and perhaps spells trouble ahead.
Certainly, that’s the view (and hope!) of many Brazilians. Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 seemed to foretell the rise of the country’s own maverick, right-wing populist to power; perhaps Mr. Trump’s exit will prove to be similarly prescient. Who knows? Judging from Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent comments — “Hope is the last to die,” he said grimly the day after the election — the thought must have crossed his mind.
But Mr. Bolsonaro is not easily deterred. He promises to stand strong at his post. After all, Mr. Trump “was not the most important person in the world,” as he said last month. “The most important person is God.”
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