By Camila Asano and Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli*
In a tense atmosphere, the first bilateral meeting between U.S. presidents Joe Biden and Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro is expected to take place this Thursday July 9 at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. A staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has never disguised his displeasure at the Democrat’s victory and has sometimes publicly repeated the baseless accusation of fraud in the 2020 U.S. elections.
Despite this, Bolsonaro is a key part of Biden’s calculations to demonstrate his leadership on the continent. Amidst the controversies surrounding the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the Summit, Biden struggled to ensure that Latin American presidents would attend. The Summit risked becoming a display of how U.S. influence in the Continent is waning. As the largest Latin American economy, Brazil’s presence in the Summit became crucial, especially after Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that he would not attend because the Summit does not represent the region in full.
Bolsonaro himself wavered on whether to attend. Biden made diplomatic efforts to guarantee his presence, which went as far as appointing a special envoy to convince him, in person. But Bolsonaro does not like being confronted, under any circumstances.
According to anonymous sources interviewed by the Washington Post Bolsonaro conditioned his attendance. He asked for a private meeting with Biden and excluded two issues from the table: his own questioning of the reliability of Brazil’s electoral system and the deforestation of the Amazon.
Bolsonaro fears the fact that Biden is committed to address climate change. Of course, the Amazon is central to global efforts to mitigate further climate emergencies. In a confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate in May, the nominee for Ambassador to Brazil, Elizabeth Bagley, reaffirmed her confidence in democratic institutions and in the Brazilian electoral system, highlighting the need to maintain public confidence in this system on the eve of the Presidential elections. “I will reinforce the U.S. commitment to strengthening democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Brazil and throughout the hemisphere,” Bagley said.
Taking a leaf out of Trump’s book, the Brazilian president is discrediting the electoral system by saying there is a high risk that fraud can take place at the electronic ballot box — a narrative that paves the way for legitimizing a rejection of results in case he loses the elections. Questioning the electoral results could lead to violence and a Brazilian version of the insurrectionists invasion of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
In the Brazilian case, the risk of violence is heightened by Bolsonaro’s support of more flexible gun ownership laws and the changes he is promoting in terms of access to firearms and ammunition. A recent survey by Instituto Sou da Paz carried out through the Access to Information Act shows that the number of people with a collector, sports shooter and/or hunter license increased by 262 percent between July 2019 and March 2022, totaling 605,000 people with this type of license in the country.
It is unacceptable then, that in order to guarantee Bolsonaro’s presence at the Summit of the Americas, the Biden administration is willing to become an accomplice to the erosion of democracy in Brazil. Rather than cozying up to Bolsonaro, the U.S. should be sending the message that any attempt to destroy Brazil’s democracy will not acceptable, not in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. Biden should also be firm when it comes to standing up and calling on Bolsonaro to commit to the preservation of the Amazon, in the interests of not just Brazilians but humanity as a whole.
Biden’s commitments to democracy should not end when the meeting is over. He should project confidence in Brazil’s electoral system and strongly reject any efforts to discredit it. By reaffirming the security and reliability of the electoral system, the losers will find it harder to deny the results.
Camila Asano, é diretora de programas da Conectas Direitos Humanos
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, é diretora para os Andes do WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America)