Latin America’s Two Biggest Populists Are Preparing for a Showdown With Biden

Dealing with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador could be the biggest thing the U.S. president does this year.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gestures during his daily morning briefing in Mexico City on June 10, 2020.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gestures during his daily morning briefing in Mexico City on June 10, 2020. Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Latin America’s two biggest populists, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, had famously warm relationships with former U.S. President Donald Trump. Both stubbornly delayed acknowledging Joe Biden’s electoral victory, even as they declared a desire for productive relations with his administration and the United States. Yet, U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Brazilian bilateral relationships appear to be heading for a collision course. Channeling the relationships with both López Obrador and Bolsonaro in a productive direction will require all of the diplomatic finesse that the Biden administration can muster. Push them too little, and they could interpret inaction as tantamount to endorsement of their agendas. Too hard, and they could lash out—earning domestic political benefits in the process.

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz used to liken diplomacy to gardening, with security and prosperity preserved through the patient nurturing of relationships and the occasional pulling of weeds. In Mexico and Brazil, the Biden administration confronts a garden overrun by weeds and in need of serious tilling. It will soon find that all the fraternizing during the Trump administration mostly just masked a growing divergence in policy agendas.

In Latin America, López Obrador’s Mexico may prove to be one of Biden’s most formidable challenges. The Mexican president has likely judged Biden as more concerned with Mexico’s policy direction than his predecessor and thus more likely to interfere with his domestic policy agenda. In turn, López Obrador moved quickly to gain leverage over the new U.S. president and set the terms of the bilateral relationship. After successfully seeking Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos’ extradition from the United States, the former Mexican minister of defense accused of aiding the shadowy H-2 cartel, López Obrador’s attorney general’s office exonerated him after a highly perfunctory investigation of its own.

To add insult to injury, the López Obrador government released the 751-page evidence file painstakingly compiled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Justice Department, in contravention of the two countries’ mutual legal assistance treaty. López Obrador has since accused the DEA of “fabricating” evidence against Cienfuegos. And then, López Obrador successfully pushed for a “foreign agents law,” limiting the ability of DEA agents to move around the country and curtailing cooperation with Mexican officials.

On the trade front, just as the Biden administration seeks to further integrate North America’s economy, López Obrador is walking back from his pledge to “fully honor” the newly implemented United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. He now supports selective enforcement of particular provisions, especially in the energy sector. Recent legislation prioritizing the state-owned electricity company in the country’s power grid likely runs afoul of both Mexico’s constitution and significant USMCA provisions. (The law has been temporarily suspended by a court ruling pending further review.) Not only will the law chill billions of dollars in potential foreign investments by reversing the opening of Mexico’s energy industry under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, but it also doubles down on expensive and highly polluting energy sources. López Obrador’s nationalist bet on Mexico’s flagging state-owned enterprises also makes cooperation on climate change, a key component of Biden’s engagement with Latin America, more difficult.

In many areas of potential cooperation, in other words, the U.S.-Mexican bilateral relationship is on the rocks. Under López Obrador, Mexico will require far more of the Biden administration’s bandwidth than under previous presidents, especially if the president’s National Regeneration Movement increases its power (as is expected) in midterm elections this June.

In Brazil, Biden may find building a rapport with Bolsonaro to be decidedly more difficult than Trump ever did. In the first two years of his term, Bolsonaro deepened his personal relationship with Trump but never bothered to develop a meaningful link to the United States as a whole. In spite of one of the most competent diplomatic corps in the world, the Brazilian government under Bolsonaro has encountered enormous difficulties working with the various components of the U.S. government’s decision-making apparatus, which certainly includes the president but also Congress, opposition parties, and above all, the bureaucracy.

While serving in Brazil’s National Congress for decades years before becoming president, Bolsonaro never saw the point in compromise with his colleagues. He never had to lead a party or committee, wasn’t the leader of a caucus, and didn’t sponsor legislation with other members. Instead, disruption appears to be his political forte, such as when he stuck with Trump’s narrative that the U.S. election had been stolen, giving him no reward from Trump and earning him the ire of the incoming Biden administration.

Biden will be hard-pressed to find policy matters he and Bolsonaro can agree on, but pushing back on China’s gains in Latin America’s largest country could be one option. For instance, the Biden administration must prepare for Brazil’s 5G auction, which has encouraged Bolsonaro to ban Huawei from being one of its potential suppliers. (Nokia and Ericsson are the others.) However, even when encouraged by Trump, there were limited returns in reversing China’s weight in Brazil, as Bolsonaro understands the profundity of Brazil’s commercial dependency on Beijing. With Trump out of office, the danger is that Bolsonaro could actually swing further toward China rather than embracing Biden and the United States as a natural partner.

Biden’s emphasis on climate change is likely to be a further point of divergence, since any agreement would require Bolsonaro to change both his narrative and policies toward environmental protection. The urge to put climate change and sustainability at the center of the U.S.-Brazilian bilateral relationship will be strong given the centrality of the Amazon Rainforest to these issues, but the United States should resist this impulse and try to broaden the aperture. For instance, security cooperation using Brazil’s “major non-NATO ally status” could be a more fruitful gambit.

In other words, Bolsonaro may have come to office venerating the United States, but he doesn’t feel the same way about Biden. And it is hard to imagine how Biden could overcome that.

Given the difficulty of making real progress, Biden should instead aim for avoiding turning López Obrador and Bolsonaro into antagonists. Both figures have the ability to create major headaches for the United States, rebuffing the U.S. president and leveraging any fallout to win domestic support. Avoiding this regrettable result alone will require considerable effort.

U.S. strategy must begin with personnel. Biden has started strong by selecting Brian Nichols, a career diplomat steeped in difficult political environments from his time serving as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe and as the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Ideally, Biden will follow this pick with competent political appointees for U.S. ambassador to Mexico and U.S. ambassador to Brazil. It is important that both be trusted figures who have Biden’s ear and convey that gravitas on the ground.

Second, Biden must institutionalize these bilateral relationships and use his understated style to keep Mexico and Brazil cooperating on critical issues of concern. López Obrador and Bolsonaro are likely to respond more positively to overtures behind closed doors and through official diplomatic channels than to grievances aired in public. The challenge, of course, will be sending the message that quiet and determined diplomacy is not synonymous with ignoring vexing questions in the bilateral relationships that the two presidents would prefer to leave unanswered.

Third, the United States should rely on the positive relationship among the private sectors in all three countries to achieve some level of policy convergence. López Obrador appears cognizant of Mexico’s need for a strong trading relationship with the United States, and the USMCA remains one of the few tools the United States has in its arsenal to restrain his nationalistic chest thumping.

On the Brazilian side, corporate diplomacy originating in the private sector could be one of the best strategies to enhance positive perceptions of the relationship and the desire for increased U.S. engagement with Brazil. Although many agreements have been established at the government level, a core part of the bilateral relationship lies within the Brazilian and U.S. private sectors. Rather than force policy convergence on the government-to-government level, the Biden administration should not hesitate to use the private sector to seek common ground.

As two of the most consequential relationships in the Western Hemisphere, Biden must tend to the overgrown Mexican and Brazilian diplomatic gardens. Doing so will probably occupy far more time than anyone estimates. Yet tended right, the United States may find that Mexico and Brazil offer some of the most arable soil in the region.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.

Thiago de Aragão is a senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and partner at Arko Advice, a top political risk consultancy in Brazil.

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