Brazil’s Military Rejects the US Military Base that Bolsonaro Wants

Raúl Zibechi

It had not been a week since he took office as president, when Bolsonaro had his first direct confrontation with the military high command, which thwarted his desire to grant Brazilian territory for the US to install a military base. The president let this possibility slip in the first interview granted on January 3. Immediately three senior officers spoke with the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo, close to the armed forces, to affirm that a US base in Brazil is “unnecessary and inopportune” and that the president’s idea does not correspond to “national policy defense”.  Moreover, one of the officers told the newspaper that the presence of foreign troops is only justified “when there is a risk of external aggression without reaction capacity, which could jeopardize the integrity of the nation.”

The article recalls that in 1945 presidents Getulio Vargas and Franklin Roosvelt signed an agreement for the US air force to leave the Parnamirim base in Rio Grande do Norte, where American aircraft of all types operated to transport troops for the front of Africa in the framework of the Second World War. The base was in the site closest to the African continent, so it was considered of strategic interest. Although the White House wanted at that time to extend the use of the base for 50 years (renamed Natal Air Base), “the newly created Brazilian Air Force had its own plans” and never again spoke of a foreign base in Brazil.

At the meeting of the Lima group on January 4, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo reaffirmed the possibility of installing a Pentagon base as part of a “broader agenda” of Brazil with the United States.”We have every interest in increasing cooperation with the US in all areas,” the foreign minister said, saying it would be part of the agenda to be discussed at a meeting between Bolsonaro and Donald Trump next March.

But the president repeated the same script when he received Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Planalto Palace (seat of the Government) in Brasilia. On the same day, January 4, the Ministry of Defense claimed that

“it has no knowledge of any dealings in that regard and that it did not address the issue with the president.” Moreover, according to O Estado de Sao Paulo, “officers of the Armed Forces consulted reacted with surprise to the president’s statement.”

Within the government there is an open dispute, nothing diplomatic or measured, between the two sectors that make up its base of support: the nationalist military and the economists of the Chicago School who defend the neoliberal model at all costs. It was evident that this dispute would mark the main characteristics of the new Administration.  What was unthinkable are two central issues: that it should come out so soon (barely three days after taking office) and that the debates be aired in the media, without the modesty required by good government manners.

But there was another fact less visible, but no less profound, that reveals the enormous fracture that exists in the upper echelons. It was the transmission of command of the foreign ministers, where the powerful bureaucracy of Itamaraty marks its presence and puts limits to those who want to get out of the script, with similar power with which the Armed Forces do it. It happened on January 2 when the former Chancellor Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, of the Social Democratic Party, transferred the position:

He made a long speech in defense of the best traditions of Brazilian diplomacy and was warmly and long applauded by the diplomats present, much more than the new minister Ernesto Araújo. While the ceased foreign minister stressed the need to maintain multilateralism and pragmatism, Araújo criticized globalization and showed a clear alignment with the US, Israel, Italy, Hungary and Poland. The newspaper Correio Brasiliense, aligned with the Armed Forces, titled the “Rupture without diplomacy,” stressing that it is “very rare” for a minister who assumes to be much less applauded than the one who leaves.

The newspaper criticizes with harshness the new international alignment, assuring that

“the problem of the new foreign policy is not in tune with Bolsonaro’s speech, but the need to position itself strategically in relation to foreign trade, national defense policy and the relationship with neighbors, in a world in which the axis of world trade moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Brazil can not enter headlong into the US trade war against China, which became our largest trading partner, without gaining anything in return.”

To make matters worse, the new government issued a provisional measure that alters the legal regime of Brazilian Foreign Service officials, opening space for non-diplomats to hold office positions. The Foreign Service of Itamaraty is extremely jealous of its traditions and its proverbial professionalism. As can be seen from the first days of the Bolsonaro government, there are several forces that are tending to limit their automatic alignment with the White House and their veneration for Trump. The military is the main force in that direction, since for more than half a century they have been very jealous of the country’s sovereignty. In no way will they accept the installation of a foreign military base, nor will they negotiate any treaty on the use of the Alcántara rocket base.

In a recent article, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso warns the new president that it would not be opportune to take sides with the US in the trade war with China.

“It is at least anachronistic to think that competition for power and influence in the international system will be between communist and capitalist gladiators, crusaders of the Christian faith against cosmopolitans without faith or country.”

The domesticating forces of the ultra-right ideological impulse of the Bolsonaro cabinet are acting on many more fronts than expected, in a range that includes military and diplomatic through the most prestigious media and politicians.

Translation by Internationalist 360°