Presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Mauricio Macri would seem to have a lot in common, but not their appointment diaries. Both took office amid high hopes that their market-friendly approaches would liberate economies from state-centred populism and place it on a growth path, but for both it seems there is no end in sight for recession and stagflation.
And yet these kindred spirits have taken strangely long to touch base. Until now a new Brazilian president making his first visit abroad to the South American giant’s most important neighbour was as automatic as his Argentine colleague’s presence at his inauguration, even when ideological poles apart. Yet Macri opted to skip Bolsonaro’s New Year’s Day inauguration – unless he was merely reluctant to sacrifice holiday time, one can only assume that Macri was averse to starting a year written entirely in electoral code by appearing next to anybody so way out in right field as Bolsonaro and thus antagonise the middle ground so crucial to his re-election, especially with a campaign pitch far more anti-populist than pro-market. Payback has taken the form of Argentina only being graced with Bolsonaro’s presence after five months of presidency and as his fifth overseas visit – after Switzerland (the Davos Economic Forum), the United States (with Donald Trump even more a twin soul than Macri), Israel (ditto for Benjamin Netanyahu) and Chile (another market-friendly administration). Even when the Brazilian leader did come, it was only for less than a day.
The context, however, has changed since Macri’s snub at the start of the year. The focus of Cambiemos’ campaign strategy is now far more defending the president’s centre-right electoral base than playing for the middle ground which he aims to keep divided more than regain – Bolsonaro’s warm support for Macri’s re-election is perhaps not as counterproductive as it might appear. On his side, Bolsonaro has yet to live up to either the best or the worst expectations. Just as in Argentina, a mere change of government has not sufficed to turn the economy around with shrinking growth (the projections of 2.5 percent at the start of the year have already halved), which does not help Macri either. But without in any way underestimating such dangerous initiatives as relaxing gun controls, only a fraction of his xenophobic and homophobic discourse with its open contempt for the environment and human rights has been translated into reality to date, mercifully enough, although the worst may be still to come.
As Bolsonaro paid his courtesy call, the two men also sought to expand their common ground to a common currency – pleasant enough wishful thinking for Macri from the way dollar volatility has blighted his re-election drive this year. The idea is far from new – indeed it formed part of the original vision of Mercosur from the start along with the common institutions like Parlasur. Over two decades ago Carlos Menem boasted that Mercosur could create a common currency faster than the euro (a reality since 1999) and the idea was keenly pursued by the populist predecessors of Macri and Bolsonaro so deplored by both men in order to free regional trade from the almighty dollar as a supreme anti-imperialist gesture. But to aim for monetary convergence and integration is running before you can walk when Mercosur has had such problems perfecting something as relatively simple as a customs union for merchandise trade. A common currency would surely help a bilateral trade which has slumped from almost US$40 billion to around US$27 billion in the last five years, but in truth the problems run much deeper.
Having said all this, the Brazilian leader’s visit should still be seen as positive. Bolsonaro’s presence was just as legitimate as the protests against him and however abrasive and obnoxious his rhetoric, he does deserve recognition as a democratically elected president. While we should still expect our own president to condemn remarks that praise Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, criticise police tactics that are seeing officers kill more people than ever in Rio de Janiero’s favelas and express dismay at the policies that are removing vital protections for the Amazon rainforest. But given the economic turmoil, anything to strengthen the relations between two such important regional and trading partners should only be encouraged.