Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a far-right politician has been elected as president of Brazil. The outcome of these elections signifies an imperative shift in Brazilian politics and social tolerance. During the period from 2003-2016, Brazil was governed by Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) – Workers’ Party, a left-wing political party. Social movements and democratic participation increased and many marginalized groups, such as Indigenous populations, gained opportunity to advocate for their claims.

Bolsonaro’s ideologies and policies challenge many progressive changes in Brazil. For instance, environmentalism is thought to be severely weakened under Bolsonaro’s government; he intends to deregulate industry practices, fuse the environmental ministry with the agriculture ministry, cease new demarcation of Indigenous reserves, and open existing reserves to mining.

Furthermore, other democratic practices are likely to be challenged. Bolsonaro has firmly declared his intentions to suppress any political opposers, giving them options of prison or exile.  His rhetoric is also largely racist and exclusionary targeting groups such as Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous populations. Moreover, Bolsonaro presents dangers to the protection of human rights through his intention to bring back methods used during Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship.  Torture, for example, is a method that he has openly promoted and vowed to use.

Bolsonaro’s controversial views and proposed changes are not unexpected considering his historical trajectory in government and politics. He was an officer during Brazil’s military dictatorship that ended in 1985. He was later elected as a congressman and has served for seven terms. During his 27-year career as a congressman he repeatedly advocated for extreme right-wing values and policies. In his speeches he frequently alluded to the military dictatorship as a glorious moment in Brazil’s history.

The military dictatorship is relatively recent in Brazil’s history and therefore, it is quite shocking that Brazilians chose Bolsonaro as their next president. Bolsonaro’s win heavily relied on his promise to fight to end three main problems plaguing Brazilian society: high and increasing crime rates, a crippling economy, and widespread government corruption. The people of Brazil have lost much confidence in their government, especially through the enormous government corruption scandals following Operation Car Wash. The perceived dysfunction of the government and decreasing livelihoods have driven Brazilians to seek radical change.

The results of the new election, however, may place Canada in a difficult position. Many of Bolsonaro’s perspectives, views, and policy propositions do not align with Canadian values, and some are evidently contradictory. Canada will likely face a dilemma when attempting to promote and defend liberal values internationally while at the same time seeking to construct better relations with Brazil.

Canada has important interests in Brazil. Canada is pursuing a comprehensive free-trade agreement with MERCOSUR, Brazil being one of the member states. Representatives from Canada and MERCOSUR countries have expressed positive results of preliminary talks and good prospects for future negotiations. In addition, many Canadian companies benefit greatly doing business in Brazil. Essential sectors include oil and gas, infrastructure, information and communications technology; and there are significant opportunities in mining, defence and security, agriculture and agri-food, power, ocean technologies, among other sectors.

On the other hand, Canada has firmly committed to uphold and champion core liberal values internationally, and especially within multilateral institutions. For example, Canada’s priorities in the Organization of American States (OAS), of which Brazil is a member, are clearly defined to strengthen democracy, governance, human rights, security, diversity, and economic growth.

Canada may have to face the predicament of pursuing closer relationships with a government that undermines and opposes many liberal values. There are already indications of Canada’s predicament. In response to the Brazilian election, Minister Freeland issued a statement to congratulate the people of Brazil for exercising their democratic rights. She mentioned the deep relationship between Canada and Brazil and emphasized the importance of democratic values and human rights, as well as economic cooperation. Her statement, however, excluded any reference to Bolsonaro and therefore, there was no direct endorsement of the new president-elect.

Although there are major discrepancies in the values between Canada and Bolsonaro, it is important for Canada to be strategic in its approach. It would be unwise to challenge Bolsonaro directly, especially considering that President Trump has expressed his support for Bolsanaro, congratulated him directly, and declared his intent to work side-by-side. Criticizing the president-elect would likely hinder Canadian interests.

Furthermore, in order for Canada to sustain its influence in the region, its relationship with Brazil and leadership in Latin American multilateral institutions must remain strong. Canada must avoid diminishing Brazil’s support. Brazil is the largest economy in Latin America and holds significant influence in the region. Furthermore, by maintaining good relations with Brazil, Canada can more easily exercise soft power and press for the respect of democracy and human rights.

In the unfortunate event that the Brazilian government grossly undermines democratic practices and violates human rights, Canada would have to reassess its approach. However, it must do so in collaboration with other nations. Canada’s response / plan of action must be supported multilaterally to optimize the effects of such a response and decrease the possibility of facing retaliation alone. Coalitions would be vital with countries with significant regional influence, such as Mexico; as well as countries that share borders with Brazil also holding regional influence, such as Colombia, and Argentina. Furthermore, important action would have to be taken through strong multilateral organizations such as, UNASUR, MERCOSUR, G-20, and the OAS.


Stefania Novoa is an M.A. student in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her specialization is Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution, and her region of interest is Latin America. She has an Honours Bachelor’s degree from the University of Ottawa and has also completed post-secondary studies in Colombia. Her professional experience includes working at the Department of National Defence Canada, Global Affairs Canada, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and the Trade Facilitation Office Canada. You can contact her at stefanianovoa@cmail.carleton.ca.

Image provided by Leonardo Veras

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