Between a Rock and a Hard Right

While the Amazon is burning, Brazil’s political leaders indulge in grandstanding. For these machos, annihilating the rainforest equals strength. And although their Chilean counterparts abhor the Bolsonaro crew’s backyard behavior, they also cherish a retrograde fetish with geopolitics and growth.

Chile is one of the few countries where conservatism has not yet – not yet – degenerated into fascist crazytown. Even though local conservatism knows figures like Pinochet-lover José Antonio Kast, whose tail President Piñera chases, and others hell-bent on installing a more vicious police state, conservatives overall remain genuinely interested in societal advancement and debate issues of public concern. They aren’t opposed to taxation and even touch the holy grail – the economy – to create a circular one. That doesn’t make them progressives. They still oppose reproductive rights more viciously than the old left and flirt with xenophobia, for example.

But opposition parties, society, and the red lines conservatives themselves drew after the dictatorship have so far blunted the worst impulses.

Brazilian conservatives, on the other hand, never reckoned with history at all and remained resentful. This resentment has festered for decades, in the oligarchic media and at the political margins. And the soft coup against Dilma Rousseff and Workers’ Party rule sent a signal that conservatives were gunning for real power again. Ever since the soft coup, the right has ruled relatively unimpeded, only occasionally reined in by courts and parliament.

Out of that swamp rose Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. As any authoritarian, he’s marketed as innovator who freshens up the stale political landscape. Under his leadership, conservatives now celebrate depravity and pervert freedom by sanctifying their followers’ primordial instincts.

Tight Spot

This divide between reasonable conservatism and authoritarian depravity puts Chilean foreign policy between a rock and a hard place. As some analysts think Lula’s imprisonment proves the working of the rule of law, and Chile’s previous left-wing government treated Rousseff’s deposition as normal parliamentary procedure, the current one ignores rising extrajudicial killings and lawmakers fleeing into exile.

But the Amazon fires don’t go away that easily. These fires aren’t natural disasters but government and corporate policy. Bolsonaro encourages the destruction of the Amazon in favor of economic growth. He even rejected G-7 funds to help put out the fires. His real constituencies – agribusiness and foreign capital – couldn’t have asked for more.

Under mounting pressure from ‘developed countries,’ with which the new administration wanted to grow closer ties, Bolsonaro pretended to care by tasking the military with firefighting and by imposing a slash-and-burn moratorium. But the military operates where it’s ordered to, not where it burns and a moratorium only works if agencies can enforce it, which Bolsonaro made sure they can’t.

Unlike with his links to organized crime and death squads, Bolsonaro is relatively open about policy, specifically the destruction of the Amazon. But Chilean authorities are asleep a the wheel. Otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted time and money by sending firefighting equipment to Brazil or mediating over the G-7 funds between Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron.

So far, Chile’s policy-makers gave Brazil a pass because they valued its market size and admired its military prowess. Brazil also enjoyed a ‘confidence bonus’ as it never sought conflict with Chile.

This rosy approach might have made sense during the boom years, when Lula asserted Brazil, and therefore Latin America, on the global stage. Chile’s connections to the government back then translated into heightened political and economic cooperation. But those times are gone for good.

A nationalist Brazil, without even the pretense of the rule of law, where the highest representatives of government see Marxists behind any opposition, are ignorant about the ecological system, and whose economy has been crumbling for years can’t offer Chile anything.

A cooldown in relations should not pose problems. Decision-makers just would need to act on what they know. For example, a high-browed conservative like foreign minister Teodoro Ribera knows his counterpart, Ernesto Araújo, is a nutjob who admires Trump because he apparently saved the “West from global cultural Marxism.” Likewise, Piñera knows that Bolsonaro’s views on democracy, ecology, even the economy, are dangerous.


If decision-makers don’t abolish the confidence bonus, circumstances will.

Chile’s right-wing currently rolls over because of the Bolsonaro crew’s admiration for Augusto Pinochet. The Brazilians rightly see Chile’s political rulers as Chicago Men who protect Pinochet’s legacy, i.e., the violent re-making of society. Yet, the Piñera administration is naive if it believes someone like Bolsonaro would prefer a democratized copy over a pure Pinochetista like José Antonio Kast. The latter is no political idiot and already cultivates closer personal ties to Bolsonaro than Piñera does.

COP25 threatens to become another breaking point. Chile did the right thing by pulling the summit to Santiago. But curiously, ever since, analysts have been quiet over the reasons – Bolsonaro’s embrace of conspiracy theories.

Chile’s conservatives are on the hook to avoid another Copenhagen. To do so, they will have to rebuke Brazilian madness. That would require to take a stance just once – right when they became cozy in the space between the rock and the hard right.

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