Joe Biden and Dilma Rousseff. (AP)

Joe Biden and Dilma Rousseff. (AP)

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The Silent Partner

By Brian Winter

"It is certainly possible to imagine a future in which Brazil and the United States have settled into a mature equilibrium," writes AS/COA's vice president in Revista piauí.

Since taking office on January 20, Joe Biden has found time to speak by telephone or in person with the leaders of more than three dozen countries, ranging from the very large (China, India, Australia) to the very small (Estonia, United Arab Emirates, Belgium). The list has included close allies of Washington, such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as figures considered to be problematic or outright rivals, like Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and the biggest bogeyman of them all: Vladimir Putin. In Latin America, Biden has spoken with the leaders of Colombia and Guatemala as well as Mexico, whose president Andrés Manuel López Obrador received Biden’s second phone call overall (behind only Trudeau), despite being one of the last leaders in the world to recognize Biden’s disputed election.

The most notable absence: Jair Bolsonaro, the president of the world’s sixth-most populous country, who once famously saluted a US flag while campaigning in Florida and has, since taking office, pursued the most unabashedly pro-Washington foreign policy of any Brazilian leader since the return of democracy in 1985. In recent months, Bolsonaro’s emissaries have repeatedly enquired about a conversation with Biden, sources in both Brasilia and Washington told me. The official response is that the US president is busy – but nobody on either side really believes it. At the White House climate summit in April, Biden patiently listened to speeches from other global leaders but left the room minutes before Bolsonaro, speaking 19th, began his address. US diplomats later insisted the timing was a coincidence, but as one Brazilian official told me: “It seems like Biden will do almost anything to avoid us.”

That interpretation seems correct. Biden has clearly been trying to maintain a certain distance from a leader who has fanned the flames in the Amazon, denied the basic science of COVID-19, and questioned the integrity of elections in both Brazil and the United States while resolutely aligning himself – still – with the man who did not win in November 2020: Donald Trump. Yes, Biden has established dialogue with other global figures he doesn’t like. But Bolsonaro is considered a special case, primarily because of his penchant for all-out, flamethrowing war, on Twitter and in real life, with his critics at home and abroad. Everyone in Washington remembers the summer of 2019, when Macron’s criticism of fires in the Amazon unleashed a bitter and bizarre public exchange that ended with Bolsonaro insulting the French president’s wife. More relevant, it caused a deep diplomatic freeze between Brasilia and Paris that continues to this day. Keeping a wide berth between Bolsonaro and Biden, who has his own history of verbal tussles, may have helped prevent a similar confrontation – while allowing the broader bilateral relationship to continue. It is better not to talk at all than to scream, or tweet in ALL CAPS, many believe.

Indeed, despite the silence at the presidential level, or perhaps because of it, the Brazil-United States relationship has defied doomsday predictions so far under Biden, surprising diplomats on both sides with its constructive agenda and (mostly) civilized tone…

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