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A Sanders Presidency Would Be a Disaster for Bolsonaro

Right now, the best thing Brazil’s far-right president has going for him is Donald Trump. If Bernie Sanders is elected, that all changes.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (R) and his Justice Minister Sergio Moro arrive at the Brazilian Marines headquarters in Brasilia, for a ceremony to commemorate the 154th anniversary of the Riachuelo Naval Battle, on June 11, 2019. Evaristo Sa / AFP / Getty

On Wednesday morning, Bernie Sanders tweeted his support for former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, imprisoned since April of last year on flimsy corruption charges. Sanders was responding to bombshell exposés published by the Intercept last Sunday documenting collusion between the chief prosecutor and the presiding judge in Lula’s case. That judge, Sergio Moro, consistently maintained that his handling of Lula’s case was entirely apolitical — even after he was appointed minister of justice by Lula’s opponent, the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. That pretense has now been discredited by the Intercept’s reporting.

Bernie joined “with political and social leaders across the globe who are calling on Brazil’s judiciary to release Lula and annul his conviction.” The Intercept has many more documents at its disposal, their impact as yet unknown. But an important shift may be at hand in Brazilian politics, particularly if Lula’s sentence is overturned as a result of Moro’s now-exposed antics.

Bolsonaro has already shown himself ill-equipped to deal with the doubts now gathering over Lula’s conviction. When asked about the findings at a press conference on Tuesday, Bolsonaro abruptly stormed out of the room. During the election last year, polls clearly demonstrated that Lula, substantially ahead of Bolsonaro, would have won the election. If Lula’s hasty trial was driven by a partisan political agenda — something the Left has argued from the start but that now can be proven — Bolsonaro’s legitimacy as president will be called into question domestically.

But Bernie’s comments evoke another challenge Bolsonaro may face, this time from abroad: the loss of a powerful, if capricious, ally in Donald Trump. Indeed, as I previously noted in Jacobin, the Bolsonaro administration “has not demonstrated the chops to bring Brazil back from the fringe should the winds of international diplomacy start to shift” away from the reactionary worldview that unites Bolsonaro and Trump.

How would Bolsonaro contend with a democratic socialist in the White House? To understand the potential effects of a Sanders presidency within Brazil, it may be instructive to examine a different moment when a US president came to power calling out the authoritarian abuses of Latin American officials. Roughly four decades ago, Jimmy Carter’s presidency, moderate though it was, managed to erode the confidence of Brazil’s military dictatorship, supported by every US president since the 1964 coup. But Carter’s attempts to reign in the authoritarian abuses of Latin American strongmen were ultimately constrained by his unwillingness to challenge broader notions of American imperialism and economic orthodoxy. Given the nature of the political project he is advancing, Sanders has even more potential to inspire democratic forces in Brazil while frustrating the ambitions of its reactionary right.

The Authoritarian Axis

The election of Jimmy Carter in November 1976 signaled a change not just for the United States’ domestic priorities, but also for its foreign policy. “We are now free,” Carter declared in 1977, “of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” From May 30 to June 12, First Lady Rosalynn Carter visited Jamaica, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil to personally deliver the message that respect for human rights should now be the metric by which observers gauged the US relationship with countries in Latin America and around the world. At least in symbolic terms, Washington would no longer unquestionably support antidemocratic regimes around the world.

The administration of General Ernesto Geisel (1974–79) chafed at the new US government’s air of moral and political superiority. Brazil was not just another Latin American republic, according to the nationalist tenet embraced by the military regime. Its domestic affairs were not to be meddled with by a First Lady who engaged not once but twice with dissidents: first when she was handed a letter of grievances from striking students at the University of Brasilia (government officials dismissed it as a forgery) and promised to deliver it to the president, and second when she met with two American missionaries in Recife who had been arrested and beaten by local authorities mere days before the First Lady’s arrival.

Despite its discomfort with Rosalynn Carter’s visit and other strains on the US-Brazil relationship, the Geisel administration sought to publicly downplay any fissures with the hemispheric superpower. When Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Francisco Azeredo da Silveira met with the US Secretary of State, he proclaimed that “in Brazil there is no anti-American sentiment and the government strives to ensure that no such sentiment arises.” Brazil and the United States experienced unprecedented friction during Carter’s presidency, but no definitive break.

In November 1977, the newly created Brazilian opposition newspaper Em Tempo used the one-year anniversary of Carter’s election to reflect on the American government’s human rights policies. The newspaper, which would later be involved in the creation of the Workers’ Party, served as an outlet for diverse progressive voices at a time when such expression remained highly circumscribed under the fourteen-year-strong military regime.

“What are Jimmy Carter’s intentions,” Em Tempo asked, “in raising the banner of human rights so high?” The paper observed that not much had substantively changed in the year since Carter came to power on a post-Watergate platform of transparency at home and equanimity abroad. However, it did acknowledge a definite shift in the tone of Latin American governance. Dictators started to employ terms like “constitutional normalization.” Carter had signed on to several international human rights treaties that had awaited US support for years and “pulled the ideological and political rug out from under most dictatorships on the capitalist periphery.” According to Em Tempo, these efforts served to “reconfigure the hateful image of North American imperialism bequeathed by the war in Vietnam and the CIA’s ‘destabilizing’ actions, like the one that caused the fall and death of Allende in Chile.”

But the paper did not see such actions as stemming merely from the benevolence of the American president. Rather, they were interpreted as the early stages of a new strategy to contain socialist advances. As heinous reports of torture in several Latin American countries mounted over the years, the United States could no longer simply ignore the question of human rights violations in its own backyard, especially because such abuses purportedly fueled the “socialist alternative” to US hegemony, Em Tempo argued. Carter, then, in the paper’s telling, had been called for the job of reshaping the American empire’s approach to sustaining international capitalism.

The newspaper furthermore posited that the Carter administration was divided in two wings, one more conservative, led by Undersecretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Terence Todman and concerned with ensuring American profits abroad, and another more humanitarian faction, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Patricia Derian and former Ted Kennedy aide Mark Schneider, which was interested in exerting American influence on behalf of democratic principles. As of 1977, it remained to be seen which side would prevail.

While Em Tempo covered international affairs, its main focus was on the new unionism taking hold in Brazil at the time; and on the other social groups coming to the fore during the slow-motion return to democracy, like the National Union of Students (UNE) and women’s, LGBT, and black rights organizations. The paper often expressed concern about the prospect of American infiltration in the Brazilian labor movement, which they feared was designed to undermine its main leader, Lula. Em Tempo reported in late September 1978, for example, that the AFL-CIO worked closely with the CIA to export a type of unionism that would create workforces abroad pliant to the imperatives of North American capitalism.

When Ari Campista, the head of the National Confederation of Industrial Workers and a notorious yellow unionist, accused Lula of being a CIA agent, Em Tempo defended him. The paper criticized Campista for proposing that Brazilian labor unions sever ties with international partners. This move, made in the name of nationalism, would isolate Brazilian labor unions and contradict the notion of proletarian internationalism, so dear to the editors at Em Tempo. As the urban labor movement grew in strength, the paper also frequently reported on the countryside, arguing that the advent of multinational agribusiness was part of “imperialism’s new plans.”

This focus on labor informed a critical view of Carter’s administration. Even if the US president was earnestly troubled by the dictatorship’s human rights violations, his economic agenda inspired little confidence among Brazilian leftists that the United States was serious about challenging the logic undergirding the military regime. As Catherine V. Scott has argued, “the Carter administration’s inclination, when faced with the crisis of capitalism in the late 1970s … was to usher in new policies and governing strategies that accelerated the domestic weakening of organized labor and sought greater global financial integration that would eventually constrain the state’s ability to fulfill the post-World War II Keynesian social contract.”

In other words, the demobilizing neoliberalism that would become so identified with Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan, and that so disappointed any Brazilian leftist hoping for a meaningful change after the horrors of Nixon and Kissinger, can instead be traced further back. Carter’s failure to connect his purportedly bold new approach to foreign affairs with a fresh economic vision undermined his ability to truly remake the paradigm of international diplomacy. Therein lies the crucial difference between Carter’s legacy and the approach Bernie Sanders has set forth.

Sanders would take office in direct conflict with Bolsonaro, whom he considers part of “a new authoritarian axis.” In the wake of Bolsonaro’s election, Sanders argued that “our job is to combat authoritarianism and build a movement of people who believe in democracy.” This is hardly the language of top-down regime change, reflecting instead a belief in populist grassroots mobilization connecting ordinary people in the United States, Brazil, and around the world.

From Below and Across Borders

In a New Yorker profile of Bernie’s foreign policy vision published last April, Sanders recalled an exchange program he implemented as mayor of Burlington that sent children from Vermont to the Soviet Union and welcomed Russian kids to his city. “It was just an incredible experience to see these kids getting along as well as they did … a lot of attitudes about foreign policy are based on lack of knowledge. He concluded on a note some no doubt will consider hopelessly naive but that, in the current climate, sounds downright groundbreaking: “To bring farmers from Turkey to farmers in Iowa. You know, just to get people to see each other as human beings. I think it could go a distance.”

The implication of Bernie’s statement is that those farmers, if brought face to face, might just realize the shared elements of their social, political, and economic struggles. From such soil, a lasting solidarity might sprout. “He’s bringing those views on the importance of tackling economic inequality into foreign policy,” declared Suzanne DiMaggio, one of Bernie’s foreign policy advisors. Indeed, last year, speaking at Johns Hopkins University, Bernie asserted that “we need an international movement that mobilizes behind a vision of shared prosperity, security, and dignity for all people.”

The first element of that recipe — shared prosperity for everyone around the world — exemplifies a crucial difference between Carter’s frustrated human rights agenda and Bernie’s proposed approach. Unlike Carter, the self-styled peanut farmer from rural Georgia with a strikingly run-of-the-mill economic vision, the senator from Vermont sees foreign policy not as a discrete sort of alchemy that takes place beyond the borders of the United States, independent of economic and political arrangements at home, but rather as an outgrowth of the governing systems that leaders inherit. A real break with the foreign policy strictures of the past, in other words, would entail a forceful challenge to the political status quo, an effort very few American presidents have been willing to make given the heavy political cost for little perceived reward (to say nothing of deeply held ideological commitments). Bernie has repeatedly committed himself to such an effort.

For his part, Bolsonaro lacks the rhetorical and political skills that would be required of him to walk back the violent pronouncements he has made regarding the Left, of which Sanders is clearly a member. Given his proto-neoliberalism and the stakes of the global Cold War, Carter managed to work with Latin American generals despite his emphasis on human rights and their displeasure with being lectured by an American president. By 1979, Carter had largely abandoned human rights as a pillar of his foreign policy, presaging the return of a more assertive brand of US imperialism under Ronald Reagan (1981–1989).

If Bernie is committed to a truly revolutionary foreign policy, however, there is nothing to credibly justify a working relationship with Bolsonaro. It may seem counterintuitive given who they elected last year, but the route to a better country, a better hemisphere, and a better world, rests with Brazil’s people rather than its current leadership. The architects of a new US foreign policy must take that to heart.