How Far Can Bolsonaro Push Relations with Chile?

Before Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s pragmatic foreign policy aligned well with Chile’s. But Bolsonaro’s upending of that approach will complicate matters, even for Chile’s neo-pinochetists who cheered his victory. A rethink of relations with Brazil should have occurred long ago, but now it’s inevitable.

In a transformative blow to Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency – and therefore relations with Chile – his executioner in chief, Sergio Moro, resigned as justice minister. This doesn’t need pontification; a rat’s leaving the sinking ship. Moro boosted Bolsonaro by supporting his iron-fist message, ignoring his shady election campaign, and by taking out Lula da Silva, who led Bolsonaro by 10-15% in the 2018 polls.

The Genocidal Turn

Moro’s resignation suggests shifting power relations around Bolsonaro, not least because of his genocidal approach to the coronavirus crisis. Yet, reports suggesting Bolsonaro is increasingly isolated are inaccurate. About a third of the electorate, plus the military support him and his unapologetic blend of capitalism and violence.

Bolsonaro is not part of an ‘Ostrich Alliance,’ as political scientist Oliver Stuenkel suggested and major publications mindlessly copied. Unlike the stereotypical ostrich, Bolsonaro does not choose ignorance. He knows the virus is deadly and will kill countless Brazilians. But for Bolsonaro it’s a bet.

His 2017 campaign revolved around economic liberalization and modernization. This was music even for centrists, who covered for him because a guy who talks about freedom can’t be that bad. Investors signaled their preference for Bolsonaro, which helped spark a gold fever among voters and analysts. Bolsonaro then learned that economic growth is his get-out-of-jail card.

But he also knows that the coronavirus will tank the economy. So the farther he can distance himself from economic collapse, the higher his reelection chances.

Brazil and Chile enjoyed a special relationship. This proved useful after the return of democracy, when radical pragmatism entered Teatinos 180 and university departments. Foreign policy then turned economistic. Even left-wing political elites – many of which had signed up to pinochetist economics anyway – realized they can retain legitimacy and business only by facilitating growth. Hence, Chile didn’t shy away from cultivating relations with vile dictatorships if they served the economy. Socialist dictatorships (except China), however, were used for ‘othering,’ polishing Chile’s democratic credentials.

All aboard the Bolsonaro train: Chilean senators visit Brazil

Chile’s Skin in Brazil

Radical pragmatism was apparent in the timid statement the foreign ministry released during Michelle Bachelet’s presidency responding to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. By employing lofty language about democracy and friendship, the administration validated Rousseff’s removal. Contrary to media reports, Rousseff’s undoing wasn’t corruption. On the surface it was an accounting trick every government uses. The actual reason, however, was fear of Lava Jato, the corruption investigation that Lula’s reforms enabled and which threatened to devour Brazil’s ruling class.

Not referring to these developments meant the Bachelet administration prioritized inter-state relations over inter-personal ones. Fair enough. International politics is a dirty business. Behind the curtain, however, a fresh approach toward Brazil should have been drafted in response to the white coup.

Chile could have leveraged multilateralism to help preserve the rainforest. Related initiatives would also have strengthened grassroots democracy and supported Chile’s green tech sector. And Michel Temer should not have been treated like a normal president.

None of that happened. Instead, radical pragmatism dominated economic relations, while newly sworn-in President Sebastián Piñera was happy to leverage Bolsonaro’s anti-leftism against Venezuela. This increasing ideologization, Piñera wagered, would elevate his global image. And domestically, Bolsonaro’s victory was the Chilean right’s biggest win.

An admirer of Augusto Pinochet, Bolsonaro appointed Paulo Guedes – a Chicago Boy who studied in Chile during the dictatorship – as economy minister. And Ernesto Araújo took over as foreign minister. Araújo has maintained the same paranoia that guided 1980s dictatorship foreign policy, seeing ‘global Marxist conspiracies’ everywhere. Thus, neo-pinochetism arrived in Brazil’s most powerful institutions – flanked by a sympathetic justice minister.

This promised opportunities for Chilean capital and politically shifted the balance of power away from the left governments in the region that dominated Chile’s domestic agenda. Managing this success, Piñera invited ‘president-elect’ Bolsonaro to Chile on election night already. And although Bolsonaro’s dirty tricks were widely reported, Piñera lauded the elections as “clean and democratic.” Right-wing popstars like José Antonio Kast and Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, both fervent Pinochet boosters, even visited Bolsonaro on the campaign trail to turn their devotion into political capital.

Piñera invites, Bolsonaro accepts and Kast travels

Can Chile Beat Bolsonaro?

Although Bolsonaro seems weak now, his strong base could help him reconsolidate his presidency, perhaps as a mannequin of a military junta. But Brazil won’t be the same. It will remain the country that’s run by, or at least enabled, the parody of a tinpot dictator. It’s the country where thousands died of Covid-19 because of an inadequate response; where science is attacked as left-wing voodoo; where officials accelerate the destruction of a globally important ecosystem; whose leader kisses Trump’s feet and is ridiculed by China. And it’s the country where white coups happen if the rule of law threatens certain interests.

The environmental policies, nationalism, institutionalized corruption, the attack on science, and the response to coronavirus all run contrary to Chilean interests. It can thus only wait and see, and perhaps focus on the local level. That would require a de-ideologization of foreign policy and the acceptance that Bolsonaro will cut the historic ties if he or his kin feel Chile is becoming ‘too left.’ Under such an unreliable leader, only marginal victories will be possible, and only by sucking up to him.

Radical pragmatism and the believe in eternal friendship has failed. Acceptance is the first step in correcting an error. Teatinos 180 should become intellectually more flexible. Brazil will get worse before it gets better.

Photo series: protest against Bolsonaro and Prosur summit

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