Brazil’s Bolsonaro heads to US to strengthen economic and military cooperation

The far-right leader flew out of Brasilia early Sunday with six ministers, among them Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and Justice Minister Sergio Moro, Brazilian media reported.

Bolsonaro will meet US President Donald Trump in the White House on Tuesday during a visit aimed at boosting already-growing economic, political and military cooperation between the Americas’ two largest militaries, two Brazilian government officials said on Thursday. Washington will strengthen ties with Brasilia to a level usually reserved for NATO allies.

It is Bolsonaro’s first trip abroad for a bilateral meeting since taking office on January 1, after he attended the Davos summit in Switzerland in January. Bolsonaro, who will also meet in Washington with the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), is scheduled to return to Brazil on Tuesday.

Outside the White House Sunday afternoon, dozens of demonstrators gathered to protest the visit – holding signs including one that accused Bolsonaro of being a “murderer” over apparent links to suspects in the murder of rights activist Marielle Franco. Police have said those ties are coincidental.

Negotiations on ‘major non-NATO ally’ status

During the visit, Brazil could seek the status of “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), which gives a country preferential access to the purchase of US military equipment and technology, including free surplus material, expedited export processing and prioritised cooperation on training.

Currently 17 countries have MNNA status. Brazil would become just the second Latin American country to join their ranks after Argentina, which received the designation in 1998. Colombia last year became a NATO partner, allowing Colombian armed forces to take part in NATO exercises and other NATO activities.

The Brazilian officials said they have been negotiating the designation since the beginning of this year. They requested anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss it publicly.

The White House declined to comment.

The MNNA designation would ease the transfer of defence technology at a time when Brazil’s aerospace industry has forged new ties with the United States, including a planned tie-up between Boeing Co and Brazilian plane maker Embraer SA on both defence and commercial aircraft.

The Brazilian President also announced on Saturday that one key result of his current trip would be the signing of an agreement under which the US might gain access to a satellite-launching base in Brazil near the Equator.

Brazil hopes to get a piece of the $300 billion-a-year space launch business by drawing US companies interested in sending up small satellites at a lower cost from the Alcantara base run by the Brazilian Air Force on the Atlantic coast.

Admirer of Trump

But a Trump-Bolsonaro bond could see the leaders of the Americas’ two largest democracies working on many other regional issues.

Most pressing is the crisis in Venezuela, where the US and Brazil – and dozens of other countries – have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president with the goal of forcing President Nicolas Maduro from power.

The tough-talking Bolsonaro has also long expressed his admiration for Trump. He echoes the US leader in spurning multilateral organisations and leftist politics, while promoting businesses over environmental concerns at home.

Their shared nationalist sentiment can be seen in another relationship: that of Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, who is a federal lawmaker, with Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon. Eduardo Bolsonaro announced in early February that he was part of the Brussels-based group known as The Movement, which Bannon set up to promote far-right nationalistic values and tactics.

Eyes on Venezuela

But most eyes will be on developments surrounding Venezuela, which shares a border with Brazil.

Previous Brazilian administrations took a friends-to-all approach to neighbouring countries. But not Bolsonaro.

The 63-year-old former paratrooper is vehemently opposed to leftist currents, at home and abroad, and he shares Trump’s hostility to the “dictator” Maduro, who took over after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

Trump has repeatedly insisted that “all options are on the table” with regards to Venezuela, a phrase understood to include military action.

But Bolsonaro, like other members of the mostly Latin American Lima Group, has ruled out military action in favour of a policy of tightening the economic and diplomatic noose around Maduro.

As well as a “private meeting” with Trump in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Bolsonaro will sit down with OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, and participate in various forums to promote economic opportunities in Brazil.

The US is Brazil’s second biggest trade partner after China.

Bolsonaro to visit Chile, Israel

After his arrival Sunday, Bolsonaro will dine at the residence of Brazilian ambassador Sergio Amaral with “opinion makers” including, according to press reports, Bannon and US-based Brazilian writer Olavo de Carvalho, considered Bolsonaro’s ideological guru.

After his return to Brazil, Bolsonaro is planning a trip to Chile and then, in late March, to Israel. He forged close ties with Israel’s conservative leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when Bolsonaro promised Brazil would move its embassy to Jerusalem, following Donald Trump’s move. Brazil’s far-right leader later walked back. Netanyahu nervertheless attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration.

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