How Brazil and Mexico Will Come to Terms With the Biden Presidency
The costs of being orphaned in the Americas is too great to snub him forever.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
After the Electoral College math became clear on Saturday, congratulations for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris came pouring in from around Latin America. However, the region’s two largest countries—Brazil and Mexico—remain conspicuous holdouts. In declining to recognize Biden’s victory, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador find themselves in the dubious company of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In many ways, Bolsonaro and López Obrador had the most at stake in President Donald Trump’s reelection among Latin American leaders. Bolsonaro has embraced the moniker “Trump of the Tropics,” while López Obrador has found a modus vivendi with Trump’s transactional foreign policy. Trump provided cover to the region’s two most notable populists, bringing them in from the diplomatic cold during some of their darkest hours. When Bolsonaro faced an onslaught of criticism from world leaders over a series of destructive Amazon fires, for instance, Trump offered his “full and complete support” for Bolsonaro’s environmental record.
Bolsonaro, who has barnacled himself to Trump, has elided any mention of the U.S. election in the past days. On the other hand, three of his sons, all politicians who have prominent roles in his administration, have tweeted confabulations about election fraud and questioned the legitimacy of Brazil’s own electronic voting system. Recently, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s third son, complained of a left-wing conspiracy when news organizations refused to give credence to Trump’s false claims that victory had been stolen from him.
Meanwhile, López Obrador has said explicitly that he will await the resolution of all legal challenges before congratulating the winner. Although some observers on both sides of the border portrayed his move as a profile in prudence and restraint, the Mexican president exercised neither prudence nor restraint when he moved to quickly congratulate Evo Morales of Bolivia after last year’s presidential election rife with (highly credible) claims of fraud. After all, this is a man who, on his defeat in elections in 2006, accused the winner, Felipe Calderón, of rigging the vote. He even held a faux inauguration in Mexico City attended by some 100,000 people to herald the start of his “parallel government.” The politician’s profile grew to the point that he became a perennial contender for the presidency, until eventually winning in 2018.
Of course, both leaders will eventually have to come to terms with the Biden presidency. The risk of being orphaned in the Americas is too great. Bolsonaro may find it necessary to recalibrate his policies, especially on the environment, if he wants to continue Brazil’s foreign-policy realignment toward the United States. Then again, the enduring appeal of Trump’s brand, coupled with what Trump has painted as Biden’s narrow margin of victory, may embolden Bolsonaro as he prepares for his own reelection in 2022.
The longer López Obrador holds out, the more he risks damaging the bipartisan goodwill of the U.S.-Mexican relationship. Unnecessary tension is not how he should want to start Mexico’s relationship with the Biden administration, especially with so much at stake for his anti-corruption plan and the continued implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the Trump administration’s replacement for NAFTA.
It may be too early to draw definitive answers on what this means for the future of U.S.-Brazilian and U.S.-Mexican relations, but the silence from Brasília and Mexico City is deafening.