Whoever Wins in Brazil, the United States Needs Creative Diplomacy

Whoever Wins in Brazil, the United States Needs Creative Diplomacy

Whoever wins the runoff, the Biden administration will be unlikely to embrace the winner and will need to be creative in its response.

Brazilians went to the ballot box on October 2 to choose their future leaders. With no presidential candidate accumulating fifty percent of the vote, the race will be decided in an October 30 runoff between current President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (Lula). The pair could not be more polarizing, with Bolsonaro representing far-right conservative values and Lula adhering to leftist ideals that, depending on who you ask, dip into socialism. As Brazil is the largest country in South America in landmass, population, and gross domestic product (GDP), whoever is at its helm will exert considerable influence on shaping the continent’s political and economic narratives. 

Whoever wins the runoff, the Biden administration will be unlikely to embrace the winner and will need to be creative in its response. There are three critical flashpoints for the U.S.-Brazil relationship: the war in Ukraine, relations with Latin American leftist governments, and climate policy. A survey of these issues helps clarify U.S. national security interests in the region and beyond.

Lula and Bolsonaro have taken a Russia-friendly stance on the invasion of Ukraine, calling for negotiations but condemning the use of sanctions and pledging to continue buying Russian oil. Lula has even gone so far as to say that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian leader Vladimir Putin bear equal responsibility for the war. If Lula wins, the Biden administration should be prepared to encourage Brazil to buy oil from Venezuela rather than Russia. While funneling cash into Nicolas Maduro’s regime is not ideal, it is the lesser evil for American interests. Given Lula’s affinity for restoring relations with Venezuela, this approach would have a decent chance of success. 

Presumably, Bolsonaro would not entertain such an arrangement. He dissolved diplomatic relations with Venezuela in step with the Trump administration, does not recognize Maduro as a legitimate leader, and joined the United States in recognizing Juan Guaido as the democratically elected president. Narrowing the differences between Brazilian and U.S. policy toward the war in Ukraine might prove difficult because it is unclear what Bolsonaro’s ultimate position is. Brazil’s economy has been heavily affected by the war as increasing prices for fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides hurt the bottom line for agriculture and other industries. If the Biden administration helped Bolsonaro with this domestic problem, he might be more likely to support Washington’s Ukraine policy.

Despite the characterizations of Bolsonaro being “Trump-like,” he may be the preferred candidate among Washington policymakers in terms of advancing U.S. interests regionally. True, he falls on the wrong side of Biden’s democracy versus autocracy framework, but his government will undoubtedly continue to exclude Venezuela and Cuba from economic, political, and social partnerships. In 2020, Cuba and Brazil had zero service exports between the two nations. In commodities, Brazil exported $209 million to the island, and Cuba sent $3.14 million to Brazil. Bolsonaro’s voice against Maduro has been strong, and he also refused to endorse a United Nations (UN) resolution condemning U.S. sanctions on Cuba in 2019. While some U.S. regional allies were infuriated that Venezuela and Cuba were excluded from the Summit of the Americas, Bolsonaro has remained steadfast. Lula, however, wants to restore diplomatic relations with Maduro and increase trade with Cuba.

Finally, there is the degradation of the Amazon rainforest.

In 2021, for the first time, the Amazon emitted more carbon dioxide (CO2) than it could absorb. This tipping point has drastic implications for global climate change. The health of the Amazon is essential to reversing the adverse effects of excessive CO2 in the atmosphere. A reformed Brazilian environmental policy would align with the Biden administration’s executive actions on climate. That is more likely to happen under Lula than Bolsonaro since the former fully supports the protection and rehabilitation of the Amazon rainforest. During Bolsonaro’s presidency, more than 13,000 square miles of the jungle have been lost due to eased mining and logging regulations and lax enforcement of environmental laws.

If Bolsonaro wins the runoff, he must be pressured to stand by his pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2028. The Biden administration could serve as a valuable partner in developing policies to sustainably manage the Amazon without choking the Brazilian economy. 

Despite the policy differences between Lula and Bolsonaro, overall U.S. interests would be best served by political stability in Brazil. Therefore, the Biden administration might prefer to identify a clear-cut outcome after the runoff, regardless of who the winner may be.

Lucy Santora is a former Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society.

Image: Reuters.