Amid Bromance, Trump, Bolsonaro Forge Security Alliance
President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” at the White House on Tuesday, and most of Washington seemed transfixed by the two leaders’ budding nationalist bromance and effusive embrace of each other’s brash style and bravado.
Indeed, it was difficult not to be. During an Oval Office meeting and a joint press conference in the Rose Garden, the two gushed about their shared conservative values and endorsed each other’s confrontations with the mainstream media.
“I think Brazil’s relationship with the United States, because of our friendship is better than it’s ever been so far,” Trump said after the leaders held a lunch meeting.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who crafted his own anti-establishment campaign based on Trump’s 2016 run, pledged that the United States and Brazil would “stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God our creator against the gender ideology or the politically correct attitudes and against fake news.”
Trump, addressing the media in the Rose Garden, responded that he was “very proud to hear the president use the term ‘fake news.’”
Beyond all the colorful mutual admiration, the real magnitude of the historic meeting should not be lost, especially when it comes to advancing U.S. security interests, regional experts stress.
Brazilian political leaders have long held the U.S. at arm’s length, harboring deep anti-imperialist suspicions since a 1964 coup, supported by the U.S. government, overthrew then-President Joao Goulart. The suspicions remained even after the country’s shift to democracy in the mid-1980s.
But Bolsonaro eschewed that past, pledging a new “chapter of cooperation” and a grand new alliance between the two most populous nations and largest economies in the Western hemisphere. He and Trump promised to work together to improve trade, oppose socialism and other leftist movements, and specifically to confront the political crisis in Venezuela.
Trump and Bolsonaro also signed an agreement with U.S. companies on technical safeguards to allow commercial satellite launches in northern Brazil. Bolsonaro even stopped by CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to discuss “international themes in the region,” according to his son, Eduardo, a Brazilian lawmaker accompanying the president on his first overseas trip.
Trump responded by designating Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” and said he would possibly go further by supporting a campaign to make Brazil “maybe a NATO ally.”
Becoming a major non-NATO ally gives a country the ability to purchase U.S. military equipment and technology. Trump also pledged to support Brazil’s efforts to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, an international group that helps democratic countries foster economic growth and world trade.
“The U.S.-Brazil alliance has the capacity to really shake international relations up – you can’t overestimate the possibilities of the U.S. and Brazil getting together to pursue mutual interests,” said Jose Cardenas, an expert on Latin America who has served in several senior positions at the National Security Council, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.
While the trade side of the equation has its pluses and minuses for American industry, on a national security front the alliance is a strategic boon for the U.S. It not only hedges in the Maduro regime geographically between two major U.S. allies – Colombia and now Brazil – it also could provide the Trump administration more leverage in confronting the influences of China, Russia and Iran in all of Latin America.
National Security Adviser John Bolton last fall elevated Latin America as a national security priority and made no bones about where he stood. Bolton delivered a speech at Miami’s Freedom Tower to a group of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles, calling the leftist governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua the “troika of tyranny in this hemisphere” and a “triangle of terror” that has caused “immense human suffering.”
The administration has pledged to push back against the three countries’ leaders and other destabilizing anti-democratic activities in the region as well as their larger state sponsors – China, Russia and Iran.
The first two are an immediate source of administration irritation regarding Venezuela, where they continue to assist the cash-strapped Maduro government as the U.S. has ramped up sanctions on the embattled leader and his Russian sponsors.
As a candidate, Bolsonaro raised concern about China’s growing influence in Latin America and the significant investment Beijing had previously made in Brazilian state companies. He also angered China by visiting Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory, not its own nation-state.
Still, China has strong economic ties to Brazil, which is its main supplier of wood and beef, and shifting that trade dynamic won’t happen overnight.
“Bolsonaro is breaking the historic mold, and if it can be actualized, it represents a true cultural shift – to identify so closely with Americans,” Cardenas told RealClearPolitics. “It’s almost like an aircraft carrier that takes a week to turn around – it’s not going to be immediate.”
Moreover, Bolsonaro can’t afford to kick out the Chinese and their strong investments without the U.S. stepping in to replace them. Trump on Tuesday expressed a willingness to accept more beef imports from Brazil but can’t go too far too soon or he risks angering the U.S. agricultural industry.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies can more quickly benefit from the new alliance and will likely use it to home in on narco-trafficking and its ties to Hezbollah, rather than the military intervention in Venezuela that Nicolas Maduro has so often predicted and railed against.
“It’s apparent around the comments about [Bolsonaro’s] visit to the CIA that he is very much prioritizing counter-terrorism,” said Fernando Cutz, a senior adviser at the Cohen Group who previously served as a top aide specializing in Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council during the Trump and Obama administrations.
Brazil and Colombia already have allowed the U.S. to position humanitarian aid intended for their beleaguered neighbor on its borders, but likely won’t serve as launching pads for any type of Washington-led military intervention.
While both Trump and Bolsonaro said they are leaving a military option against Venezuela on the table, they are signaling they won’t use it unless something extreme happens — if, say, Maduro-led forces start massacring people in the streets or provoke an armed conflict on the Colombian or Brazilian borders.
Instead, Trump administration officials have an opportunity to build on the new ties to further isolate Venezuela while cracking down on terrorist-related narco-trafficking in the region after the Obama administration shifted resources away from that activity.
In 2017, former U.S. officials charged the previous administration with systematically disbanding law enforcement investigative units across the federal government focused on disrupting Iranian, Syrian and Venezuelan terrorism financing out of concern that that the work could cause friction with Iranian officials and scuttle the nuclear deal with that nation.
Early last year, the Trump administration formed an interagency task force focused on Hezbollah’s financing and promotion of narco-terrorism, but it has yet to launch a coordinated assault against those finance networks in the Western Hemisphere. Most of the activity occurs in the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, which has become a haven for narco-trafficking and illegal arms sales.
“Hezbollah is very strong in Brazil and it’s one of the challenges that Bolsonaro is facing,” Johan Obdola, who served as the counter-narcotics chief in Venezuela before leaving that post in 1997, told RealClearPolitics. “This narco-terrorism activity that we’ve seen growing really fast in the tri-border area … once it starts showing up and growing its capabilities, it’s very hard to stop.”
While Bolsonaro’s CIA visit is not playing well in the Brazilian media, which accuse him of being submissive to the U.S., Cutz said the Langley stop shows his commitment to a new security alliance.
“It’s an outward sign of his understanding of what needs his country has and what limitations his country has – and how we might work tougher,” Cutz said. “Brazil’s southern border that it shares with Argentina and Paraguay, it’s a dangerous place. I wouldn’t call it much of a terrorist threat, but a lot of the financing of Hezbollah comes from that region – and it’s a place where money-laundering in general takes place for a lot of bad actors around the world.”
Obdola, who founded the Canada-based Global Organization for Intelligence, a consulting firm focused on transnational crime, also said Hezbollah’s foothold in Venezuela, established over several years, is giving the group safe haven to extend its illicit activities across Latin America.
As Iran and Venezuela have become increasingly isolated and sanctioned by the U.S and much of the international community, the two governments have forged closer bonds, with the help of Hezbollah.
In Venezuela, Hezbollah operatives are granted passports and allowed to operate freely on the east side of the country. In recent years, there also have been close military ties among Venezuela, Iran and Hezbollah.
Since 2012, Obdola said, Iran’s elite counter-terrorism unit, the Quds force, has held training camps across Latin America — using its Hezbollah operatives to train the Venezuelan military and Colombia’s FARC rebels.
The U.S.-Colombia security model, while imperfect, has worked to stabilize Colombia and prevent it from becoming a failed state. Under the “Plan Colombia” program, the U.S. provided roughly $10 billion in aid and military assistance to Bogota between 2000 and 2015 to fight leftist narco-terrorist insurgents and now provides $400 million annually.
The new relationship forged with Brazil provides a similar -- albeit more focused and likely less costly -- security opportunity.
“We can have deeper military-to-military relationships and intelligence sharing,” Cardenas said. “It’s extremely important to have these strategic allies for the purpose of regional security and our own security interests. If things are working right, we will detect threats a lot further away before they come to our border.”