Alessandra Beber Castilho
PhD Candidate at the Joint PhD in International Relations – King’s College London and University of São Paulo.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s disregard for the media and other actors of the international arena, such as International Organizations (IO) and NGOs, may seem like a major discontinuity of Brazil’s diplomatic tradition. Nonetheless, his stance is strikingly similar to the way in which the military dealt with these international actors during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985). As the President is a self-confessed admirer of the authoritarian period, and being a former military man himself, this should not come as a surprise.
The Brazilian military and part of the Brazilian civil society saw the 1964 coup d’état that ousted then President João Goulart as a necessary move to save Brazil from Communism, a crucial victory of the West during the Cold War (1). After the coup, Itamaraty (Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) took up the task of legitimising the new regime abroad, not as a reactionary authoritarian dictatorship, but as the outcome of a rightful democratic process (2). However, the promulgation of the Institutional Act no. 5 in 1968 brought a challenge to its legitimisation. In the wake of the events that transpired in the Western world in the late 1960s, the world began to pay attention to human rights violations committed by US allies. Solidarity movements towards Brazilian people gained strength, and many Brazilian exiles started talking (3). In 1970, Amnesty International released a report about torture in Brazil, which drew great attention to the human rights violations that were being committed in the country.
For the Brazilian military regime, however, the criticism of some actors, such as media outlets and Human Rights organizations was part of a plot designed by what they called the International Communist Movement. Allegedly, the plot was a defamatory device aimed at tarnishing Brazil’s image abroad since the country had imposed a major defeat to the communist world in 1964. Notwithstanding, the country was able to dismiss accusations regarding human rights violations, especially torture and forced disappearance in fora such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (4). The human rights issue was not a problem for US-Brazil relations during the government of Brazilian military President Emilio G. Medici (1969-1974). It was also, indeed, overlooked by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who saw Brazil as an important ally of the Nixon Doctrine (5).
The United States’ position would change with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter was responsible for one of the major shifts in US Foreign Policy. This new foreign policy was vocal about human rights violations by traditional US allies, Brazil included – something that caused great discomfort between military President Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979) and Carter himself. The Brazilian military perceived this shift as a betrayal since the regime that emerged after the 1964 coup was only possible with the help of the United States (6).
Unlike the military in 1964, President Jair Bolsonaro was democratically elected in October 2018. However, it is interesting to trace the parallels between his foreign policy approaches and those of the military regime. Notwithstanding the blatant authoritarianism, the passionate defense of the military dictatorship and the fact that Bolsonaro himself is a former member of the Brazilian army, it is noteworthy to see a repetition of conspiracy theorists’ Cold War rhetoric, this time mixed with new alt-right elements.
Ernesto Araújo, Bolsonaro’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, gained notoriety after publishing an article called Trump e o Ocidente (Trump and the West) in 2017. In this article, he defends the position that Trump’s election in 2016 was the ultimate victory of the West, the one thing that could prevent its demise. According to Araújo, Western civilization is under the threat of dangerous forces that, in the past, were known as Communism – nowadays these forces go under the name of globalism (7). Bolsonaro, in his inauguration speech in the 2019 UN General Assembly, much like the military in 1964, claimed that he had saved the country from the perils of Socialism (8).
As the Human Rights issue drew the attention of the international public opinion during the military dictatorship, now we face criticism because of the way the Brazilian government has been dealing with the environment, especially the Amazon fires in 2019 as well as more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. In his speech at the inauguration of the 2020 UN General Assembly, Bolsonaro has claimed that the country has been a victim of a massive disinformation campaign led by the media and international organizations, such as the ways in which the fires that afflicted the Amazon forest and the Pantanal region are discussed. Furthermore, he reaffirmed his unconditional allegiance towards US President Donald Trump. In this sense, regarding US-Brazilian relations, he has established a more radical form of Americanist foreign policy, something we can call Trumpism. Just like the military regime under President Médici found support amongst those in the Nixon administration, Bolsonaro has in Trump an important ally in the international arena. However, things will certainly change when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in the United States. Much like Geisel and Carter, we can expect a weakening of US-Brazilian relations, and the country will face harsher criticism abroad.
(1) Green, James N. We Cannot Remain Silent – opposition to the Brazilian military dictatorship in the United States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
(2) Airgram, Embassy Rio de Janeiro to the Department of State, 23.04.1964. Pol 2-1 Joint Weekas Brazil. Political & Defense. Box 1932. Central Foreign Policy Files 1964-66, RG 59 General Records of the Department of State. NARA – College Park, MD.
(3) Green, 2010
(4) Bernardi, Bruno Boti. Silence, hindrances and omissions: the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights and the Brazilian military dictatorship. The International Journal of Human Rights, 2017 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2017.1299915
(5) Spektor, Matias. Kissinger e o Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2009.
(6) Reis, Daniel Arao. Ditadura e democracia no Brasil: Do golpe de 1964 à Constituição de 1988. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2014.
(7) Araújo, Ernesto. Trump e o Ocidente. Cadernos de Política Exterior. Ano III, número 6, 2017. http://funag.gov.br/biblioteca/download/CADERNOS-DO-IPRI-N-6.pdf
(8) Leia a íntegra do discurso de Bolsonaro na ONU. Folha de São Paulo, 24.09.2019 https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2020/09/22/leia-a-integra-do-discurso-de-bolsonaro-na-assembleia-geral-da-onu.htm