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Shifting Brazil’s South American Foreign Policy under Bolsonaro's Government

Shifting Brazil’s South American Foreign Policy under Bolsonaro's Government
Graciela De Conti Pagliari | August 2019

Brazilian president Jair Messias Bolsonaro has come to power promising to move the country away from “old politics.” He wants to radically change many aspects of Brazilian politics, adopting more conservative social norms, and proposing a crusade to free the country from what he calls an ideological submission.

One area where his government wants to make a clean ideological break with the past is foreign policy and Brazil’s role in the international arena. Bolsonaro wants to overturn patterns of integration and cooperation that took decades to build, and were once deemed pivotal for Brazil.

The emergence of Brazil’s cooperation

Significant political and social transformations shaped South American countries in recent decades. A wave of more inclusive governments strengthened democracy, extended social benefits, and laid the foundations for a regional identity in security and defense issues. This confluence has resulted in more dialogue and cooperation in many areas, including defense issues. International associations created during this period, such as UNASUR (Union of South American Nations)and SADC (South American Defense Council), have eased tensions among states and facilitated regional cooperation. 

Bolsonaro wants to overturn patterns
of integration and cooperation that took
decades to build, and were once deemed 
pivotal for Brazil.

Since the Fernando Collor de Melo presidency (1990–2), regional integration has been a key component of Brazilian foreign policy, beginning with the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), established in 1991, with an aim to bring the Southern Cone countries together and to better promote their place in the international arena.[1]

The importance of regional cooperation in Brazilian foreign policy increased with Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002), who organized meetings between South American presidents beginning in 2000, and supported a proactive international agenda to develop autonomy through integration. Subsequently, the region reached a strategic partnership with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010), which substantially intensified the notion that South America shares a common identity. This initially took place with CASA (the South American Community of Nations, 2004) and was solidified with UNASUR (2008) and the South American Defense Council. The latter represents, on the one hand, the primary multilateral forum to discuss security and defense issues in the region, and on the other, a multilateral space for South American countries in a single institution.

In the 2000s, Brazil developed a broad agenda focusing on its traditional partners as well as new ones. The country was searching for a new place as a global player, considering its position as a regional power with a peaceful and cooperative foreign policy. Stimulated by strong economic growth, various other factors also contributed to this agenda, including Brazil’s lower unemployment rates, its leading role in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) “emerging-country movement to transform the global order,” and a stronger emphasis on South-South cooperation.

The decision to strengthen regionalism and multilateralism came at the end of the Cold War when it became clear that, to be able to play a more significant role in the international arena, countries needed to join regional blocs. UNASUR was designed to play a crucial role, fostering South American integration. Conceived as a multilateral forum in South America without the United States, UNASUR prioritized cooperation among southern partners. During its early years, UNASUR played a leading role in the region, with key responsibility in many democratic crises, such as in Bolivia (2008), Ecuador (2010), Paraguay (2012), and Venezuela (2014/2015/2016).[2]

However, in 2016, a political crisis within the institution ensued, and finally in 2018, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay suspended their participation in the bloc.

Bolsonaro’s Time

One of Bolsonaro’s first actions was to weaken UNASUR and eventually to remove Brazil’s from it. In much the same spirit, Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes declared shortly after the presidential election, that MERCOSUR would not be a priority in Bolsonaro’s government. This declaration signals a turning point in the perceived importance of MERCOSUR, which Brazil had previously considered strategic to its aspirations.[3]

On April 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
denounced the UNASUR treaty, highlighting
the construction of a new forum to replace it

On April 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the UNASUR treaty, highlighting the construction of a new forum to replace it. This pact, headed by the Chilean government and named PROSUR (Forum for the Progress of South America) was signed in Santiago on March 22, with Chile holding the Presidency pro tempore. This forum is different from UNASUR, where the participation of all twelve South American countries was essential. Now, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela are not part of PROSUR, although the former two had observer status. PROSUR does not include all countries in the region, in a sharp break with the common identity policy followed by Brazil in recent decades.

The rhetorical argument behind the creation of PROSUR was that this forum constitutes a more flexible structure, and an agile decision-making mechanism.[4]  Chilean President Sebastian Piñera called this “a forum without ideology,” and a space to work together “to achieve more freedom, integration, and development.” While the idea of cooperation has not disappeared completely from Brazil’s foreign policy, with PROSUR a pan-regional approach is no longer part of the agenda.

Some analysts say that MERCOSUR and UNASUR need to be updated. They consider UNASUR to be driven by an ideology that led to its paralysis in recent times. Others consider that MERCOSUR needs more agility to sign new commercial agreements, particularly as the bloc focuses almost exclusively on the automotive sector. Besides that, the entry of Venezuela to MERCOSUR in 2006 was opposed for various reasons, which, in a certain manner, provoked a poorly situation based on the allegation that the country was disrupting the democratic clause established by the 1998 Ushuaia Protocol on Democratic Commitment. The consensus needed in decision-making processes is difficult to achieve in institutions with partners with very different strengths. However, a commitment to cooperation-building with strong institutions seems a far better solution than the new approach, which removes institutionalization in favor of fragmentation and ad hoc arrangements.

It is challenging to assess UNASUR’s performance, given that it began only a decade ago. However, it is possible to outline many important improvements in cooperation between the region’s countries, especially in defense issues. Governments of very different political stripes have collaborated in UNASUR. Yet another regional forum is not a solution in a fragmented region.

Yet another regional forum is 
not a solution in a fragmented region

Despite Bolsonaro’s criticisms of existing regional forums, he has not committed Brazil to help build this new space, a role it played with MERCOSUR and UNASUR.[5] Although the government has not specifically stated its policy, these first movements suggest that Brazil is unlikely to disregard the South American region. But the terms for cooperation with South American countries are shifting since South-South relations are no longer a priority for the new Brazilian government. If PROSUR is to have a long and prosperous existence, it will only be possible to evaluate in the future. Nevertheless, simply replacing one institution with another has never been the solution for regional relations.




[1] Its founding members were Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Venezuela is a member since 2006, but now its State Party status is suspended under the Ushuaia Protocol on Democratic Commitment, Article 5, The State of Bolivia is in process of accession. There are six associated States: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Surinam.

[2] See more about UNSARUR’s role in political crises in Mariana O.P. de Lyra, “A atuação da UNASUL nas crises democráticas sul-americanas (2008–2015)” (paper presented at the 9th Latin American Congress of Political Science, ALACIP, Montevideo, June 26–8, 2017). Nonetheless, in the negotiations with Venezuela, the results were not as substantive.

[3] In spite of this statement, during the MERCOSUR summit in Santa Fe (Argentina) in July, Brazil received the rotating presidency of the bloc over the next six months. After the opposition win in Argentina primary vote in August 11, Bolsonaro spoke against the possibility of the left wing politicians return to power in region, fearing a refugee crisis if presidential candidate Mauricio Macri loses the election. This statement broke the tradition of its predecessors, which forged Brazil’s role in the region, respecting all countries and especially its main economic partner of the region. “Brazil’s Bolsonaro warns of Argentine refugee crisis if Macri loses” Reuters, August 12, 2019,

[4] However, these characteristics are not new in the regional architecture once all its forums (such as UNASUR and MERCOSUR) were based on a poor institutionalization since all of them are intergovernmental structures, with few decision-making bodies.

[5] The government, however, was celebrated the agreement achieved in June between European Union and MERCOSUR. “Bolsonaro comemora acordo do Mercosul com a União Europeia”, Agência Brasil, June 29, 2019,

Visiting Fellow Graciela De Conti Pagliari is a Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil. She received her Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Brasília (UnB) and her M.A. in International Relations from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). Her research interests include regional security, national defense, civil-military relations, geopolitics, Latin American/South American international relations, comparative perspectives on Brazil, and Brazilian foreign policy. Her research as a Visiting Fellow at LARC focuses on cooperation-conflict dynamics in Latin America, and Brazilian security and defense policy.