What Bolsonaro’s Huddle With Putin Says About BRICS
Founded in a bygone geopolitical era, the economic grouping complicates great-power competition today.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: The leaders of Brazil and Russia buddy up as the Ukraine crisis spirals, Honduras’s former president is arrested at the request of the United States, and Bolivia’s government develops a unique way to fight globalization.
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A Small Table Affair
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited Moscow on Wednesday amid towering tensions over Russia’s troop buildup on Ukraine’s border. Seated close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bolsonaro made no public mention of Ukraine but received a warm embrace from the Russian leader. The display was in some ways indicative of the foreign-policy corner Bolsonaro has backed himself into.
While Bolsonaro’s domestic approval ratings remain low, a big bilateral visit could theoretically demonstrate international clout ahead of Brazil’s October presidential elections—which current polls show him losing to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Throughout Bolsonaro’s term, the Biden administration and leaders in much of Western Europe and China have held him at a distance for a variety of reasons, including his embrace of Amazon deforestation, his insinuations that COVID-19 could have been part of a Chinese “bacteriological war,” and his general proclivity for undemocratic behavior. Meanwhile, in a pre-campaign tour to demonstrate his own international weight, Lula was received last fall by French President Emmanuel Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and Germany’s then-chancellor-in-waiting, Olaf Scholz.
As a Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared possible in recent weeks, Washington urged Bolsonaro repeatedly to cancel his friendly visit to Moscow. (The United States named Brazil a major non-NATO ally in 2019, under former President Donald Trump.) But Bolsonaro went ahead with the trip, declaring to Putin in vague comments that Brazil is in “solidarity” with Russia. Both leaders expressed condolences for the victims of fatal mudslides on Tuesday in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis, who numbered over 100 by late Thursday.
“An important country like Brazil making an official visit at this moment is really [sending] a wrong signal—not just to the Russians but to various other countries that could have similar disputes,” former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Melvyn Levitsky told Folha de São Paulo. Part of Brazil’s diplomatic community—including Bolsonaro’s own former foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo—took the same position.
On Thursday, Bolsonaro went on to visit Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, calling him a “brother.” In an appeal to his base, Orban plans to host several right-wing populist figures ahead of his own reelection vote in April.
While Bolsonaro’s visit to Moscow alarmed the United States, it also demonstrates continuity in Brazil-Russia relations, which have slowly intensified under presidents of all political stripes over the past few decades. In fact, one of the most vocal defenders of Bolsonaro’s decision to take the trip was Lula’s former foreign minister and current foreign-policy advisor, Celso Amorim.
Amorim defended the trip as a method of avoiding “submitting to an agenda of Washington,” a motto that sums up Brazil-Russia ties more broadly.
“Russia is so far from Brazil that it does not represent a strategic threat. The economic relationship is limited, but having close political relations with other great powers like Moscow helps Brazil manage its highly asymmetric relationship with the United States,” Oliver Stuenkel of the Getulio Vargas Foundation tweeted.
Brazil and Russia are both part of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies, along with China, India, and South Africa. The countries hold annual summits and—in protest of what they view as abusive lending practices by the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions—launched a joint development bank in 2014.
The BRICS members forged their partnership in the 2000s and formally launched it in 2009—when Amorim was Brazil’s foreign minister. It was a time when Western countries looked much more benignly on the economic rise of both Russia and China; indeed, it was a Goldman Sachs economist who coined the acronym BRICS, suggesting the countries should be given more influence in global forums.
When the BRICS countries began cooperating politically, many Western analysts did not read it as a major event. But, despite the odds, the grouping has slowly but steadily plodded along ever since. Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay have joined its development bank. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the BRICS development bank dispensed a modest sum of around $9 billion in pandemic relief to its member countries.
Amorim is a BRICS enthusiast, as he noted in a new essay laying out his foreign-policy vision in the Brazilian Journal of International Affairs. If Lula is elected, Amorim’s recent writing and comments suggest far closer Brazilian relations with both Russia and China are to come. Brazil would also aim for more positive ties with the United States, closer relations with Latin American countries and the European Union, and a greater foreign-policy focus on climate change and global health.
“It is unclear, at this moment, if we will have a bipolarity with multipolar traits,” Amorim wrote, or if “the world will be more multipolar, even if there is bipolar dominance.”
Relationships between the BRICS countries complicate the idea of a neatly divided global playing field between allies of the United States and those of its adversaries.
True to the BRICS principle of noninterference, South Africa has been hesitant to speak up about the Russian buildup of troops near Ukraine. And India, which is part of the Quad security pact with the United States, abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote to discuss Ukraine on Jan. 31. (China, for its part, announced its opposition to further NATO enlargement after a bilateral summit between the Chinese and Russian leaders on Feb. 4, in exchange for Russia announcing its opposition to Taiwanese independence.)
Washington’s pressures on Bolsonaro ahead of his trip to Russia are indicative of the sea change in geopolitics since BRICS’s founding. If Brazil’s October elections go Lula’s way, Amorim soon may be able to test whether his vision of multipolarity is still possible in a new age of supercharged great-power tensions.
Friday, March 11: Gabriel Boric is inaugurated as president of Chile.
Friday, March 11: The deadline for presidential candidates to register in Colombia.
Sunday, March 13: Colombia holds congressional elections.
What We’re Following
Saab saga. The Colombian financier Alex Saab was a key moneyman for Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela until Saab was arrested in 2020 in Cape Verde and extradited last October to the United States, where he is being tried on money laundering charges. Maduro broke off internationally mediated negotiations with Venezuela’s opposition in protest of the extradition.
But explosive U.S. court records unsealed Wednesday reveal that Saab worked as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2018 and 2019, before failing to meet a deadline to surrender himself to U.S. law enforcement as part of his cooperation deal. Afterward, he was indicted in absentia in a Miami federal court for money laundering, leading to his arrest.
While one of Saab’s lawyers protested the records’ release, saying they would put Saab’s family in danger, another of his lawyers rejected claims that Saab had been cooperating with the United States and said Maduro knew about the meetings with the DEA.
Maduro’s government did not immediately comment after Wednesday’s news broke.
Sinovac in Ecuador. The Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech will build a vaccine plant in Ecuador, the firm and Ecuadorian officials announced Tuesday, following Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso’s visit two weeks ago to Beijing. Details were discussed during the visit.
One location being studied for the plant is the seaside province of Guayas, home to Ecuador’s economic capital of Guayaquil. The plant will aim to make vaccines against both COVID-19 and other diseases. Sinovac has been a major provider of COVID-19 vaccines to Latin America.
Naming inspiration. In Bolivia, the government is distributing catalogs of names from Indigenous Aymara, Quechua, and Guarani traditions to try to discourage parents from naming their newborns after international soccer players and film stars.
Jesús Gómez, the director of Bolivia’s Civic Registry of Peace, told the news agency EFE that in both rural and urban areas, parents have chosen names such as Ricky Martin, Neymar, and Messi. Instead, the catalog recommends names such as Aruni (“one with words”) and Antawara (“dusk”) for girls and Inti (“sun”) and Sumaq (“beautiful”) for boys.
“It’s good for us to globalize ourselves with our identity before other people globalize us,” the Guarani anthropologist Elías Caurey told EFE.
Question of the Week
Monthly remittances from the United States to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have boomed during the pandemic and may rise even more as migrant workers are subcontracted in U.S. infrastructure projects planned as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Megan Janetsky reported for Foreign Policy.
In January 2020, what was the total amount in remittances that was sent from the United States to Guatemala?
That amount rose to $1.51 billion in December 2021, Janetsky reported.
In Focus: Honduras’s Hernández Arrested
Less than a month after leaving office, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested Tuesday in Tegucigalpa at the request of the United States, which wants him extradited to face drug trafficking charges.
Those charges include helping to smuggle 500 metric tons of cocaine that were moving northward from South America to the Guatemalan border and protecting drug trafficking organizations that committed “brutal acts of violence with no consequences,” Vice reported. Honduras’s Supreme Court must now rule on his extradition.
For many Hondurans, the arrest felt like immense vindication. Accusations that Hernández was linked to drug trafficking schemes had swirled for years, and witnesses in a U.S. court case described his involvement in 2019. But the United States has a policy of not indicting sitting heads of state of foreign countries.
The case and its aftermath will test the Honduran justice system that new President Xiomara Castro has vowed to overhaul: Hernández “has fallen, but other operators of the system, the others who benefited, have not,” wrote Carlos Dada, the editor of El Faro.
Dada wrote that Honduras’s justice system lacks the “political and juridical capacity” to judge Hernández but called for him to be tried internationally rather than in the United States, which cooperated with Hernández in the war on drugs and migration issues while the Justice Department investigated him. Honduras is a recipient of U.S. security assistance, and U.S. and Honduran officials met regularly during Hernández’s tenure to collaborate on efforts to halt northward migration.
“The United States was also [Hernández’s] accomplice in the construction of a state that was militarized, authoritarian, and violated human rights,” Dada wrote.
Offering another view, Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales pointed out on Twitter that without U.S. pressure, Hernández may not have stepped down when his term was up. (Hernández’s political opponents accused him of fraud in the 2017 election that brought him a second term, which the Organization of American States called unsuccessfully to redo.)
Other Central American leaders who have been accused of corruption and anti-democratic measures are surely watching how Hernández’s extradition plays out, Dada added. “They are probably concluding that the best way to avoid similar luck is to not leave power.”
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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