USNDB Response to Bolsonaro’s Letter to Biden
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Since re-democratization in the 1980s, Brazil has worked extensively to respect social, economic, and environmental legislation as stated in the Federal Constitution of 1988. Under the current administration, however, the world has seen a dismantling of Brazil’s most essential governmental agencies. What we see in President Bolsonaro’s letter to President Biden is a hypocritical message that does not coincide with his government’s approach to Brazilian problems and the relationship he has maintained with the United States under the Trump Administration. Bolsonaro has moved away from pursuing the rule of law, sustainable development, and among many other setbacks, has put Brazil on a course that does not respect freedom and democracy. His lack of leadership in combating COVID-19, especially with the recent reports from the state of Amazonas, where the health system ran out of oxygen, shows his inability to care for Brazilian citizens. Following Trump’s footsteps, Bolsonaro has been pushing for preventive care through hydroxychloroquine, a medication whose efficiency to treat Covid-19 patients has not been scientifically proven. Furthermore, he has politicized the matter of vaccination opposing historical efforts by the Brazilian healthcare system on vaccine campaigns. Bolsonaro’s criminal handling of the pandemic has been confirmed in a recently published study done at the University of São Paulo (USP) that shows that he has, in fact, “executed an institutional strategy for the spread of coronavirus”.
In his letter, Bolsonaro persistently refers to democracy as an ideal that unites the United States and Brazil, stating that the two countries should fight together to safeguard their democracies. This is a cynical remark given Bolsonaro’s active contribution to the deterioration of Brazilian democracy over the past two years, based on a modeling Trump-like behavior in the region. Since 2018, Bolsonaro has engaged in countless attacks on democracy, including a categorical disregard for democratic practices that ensure free and fair elections, participation in the worsening of the situation of marginalized groups, and attacks on religious plurality and freedom. We should also not forget that Bolsonaro has in many occasions encouraged people to rally to close the Congress and the Supreme Court in Brazil. The absence in the letter of concrete actions undertaken by the government to ensure democracy or human rights is, therefore, not surprising. Had Bolsonaro mentioned his policies towards Indigenous people, women, or the LGBTQ+ communities, it would have become clear that his government’s policies and practices actually run counter to democracy and human rights values.
Bolsonaro’s failure to enforce environmental protections is also notorious. His disregard for the environment has led to increased deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and raging fires in Brazil's central savanna (Cerrado) and the world's largest tropical wetland (Pantanal). Bolsonaro states his intention to continue collaborating with the United States to protect the environment, while his government undermines the very Brazilian agencies that work to preserve the environment, such as IBAMA. Additionally, in response to Biden’s threats to impose trade barriers on Brazil to stop the deforestation of the Amazon, Bolsonaro belligerently stated that he might have to use “gunpowder instead of diplomacy” to deal with his threats. As long as Bolsonaro continues to benefit large landholders and corporations to the detriment of the environment, his words about Brazil’s commitment to environmental protection will remain deceptive and meaningless.
The Technological Safeguard Agreement, which would allow the United States to use Brazil’s principal spaceport in Alcântara, Maranhão, is yet another example of how human rights violations are often a byproduct of policies and actions undertaken by Bolsonaro’s government. In his letter, Bolsonaro deliberately ignores the forced removal of 800 Afro-Brazilian Quilombola families from their constitutionally guaranteed territories near the region, breaking the promise made before signing the agreement that no land expropriation would happen.
This type of disregard for basic human rights is precisely one of the reasons why the United States should not seek to expand economic relations with Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Despite Bolsonaro’s appeal for an expanded economic partnership with the United States, the Biden-Harris administration should understand that enhancing the U.S.-Brazilian economic relationship during the current administration could be very detrimental to social justice advocates in Brazil, as it would signal that the U.S.
government accepts Bolsonaro’s policies regarding human rights and the environment. Per the stance of the U.S. Congress’ Ways and Means Committee in 2020, it is clear that Bolsonaro’s attempt to pursue a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. will not go further unless he changes his government agenda significantly.
Overall, Bolsonaro’s letter to President Biden is disingenuous, superficial, and, above all, incongruent with his own government’s actions. With Trump out of power, Bolsonaro seems to have been left with no other option but to pretend that his government cares for social, human, or environmental rights.