Brazil and the United States share many things: democracy, a commitment to the rule of law, respect for human rights and complex, continental countries with huge agricultural sectors and innovative technology.
Unfortunately, more recently they’ve also garnered the distinction as the top two countries in the world for COVID-19 cases, with presidents who downplayed the threat and pushed for relaxation of social distancing rules to stem the economic damage.
In a virtual briefing with the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast Thursday, the South American country’s top diplomat in the United States said the former “shared values,” along with a close relationship between President Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, are driving trade collaboration throughout the pandemic that will link them together even more closely after it subsides.
The U.S. neared 2 million cases of COVID-19 Monday, not quite a third of the world’s total, but concerns are that the epicenter of the disease is shifting southward. Still earlier in its curve, Brazil is set to surpass 700,000 cases soon and on Sunday posted nearly 19,000 new infections. Its five-day average for new cases was higher than any other country in the world. Like the U.S., whose financial center of New York has seen the worst of COVID-19, Sao Paulo has been hit especially hard.
Mr. Bolsonaro, compared internationally to Mr. Trump for his brash populism, famously downplayed the coronavirus as a “little flu” early on and has marched maskless among supporters in protests against Congress and the Supreme Court.
Brazil is on its third health minister since the pandemic began. The latest international outrage over Brazil’s handling of the pandemic is the decision to revise the Ministry of Health’s website to remove cumulative totals and publish only new cases and deaths on a given day. This week Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to follow Mr. Trump’s lead in pulling out of the World Health Organization.
Chargé d’affaires Nestor Forster in Washington, who is awaiting approval for his nomination as ambassador, said there have been some “misrepresentations” about the Brazilian government’s response.
He said Mr. Bolsonaro has been focused on ensuring that even as Brazil tackles the health aspects of the crisis, it doesn’t ignore the social and economic fallout.
“What President Bolsonaro has been saying is, look, we have to take an integrated approach and fight all these fronts at the same time; we cannot concentrate on one and forget the other or we will lose the battle,” Mr. Forster said.
He said that the Ministry of Health is tasked not with enforcing measures to stem the outbreak, but with providing advice and distributing resources including the 10 million tests it has sent out so far.
“The federal government and Ministry of Health sets guidelines but it does not enforce guidelines, and it cannot micro-manage how much social distancing or how long the lockdown has to last in different states. That’s up to individual states and that’s a wise thing,” Mr. Forster said, noting the need to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach in a country with astounding geographical and socioeconomic diversity.
“You cannot have the same approach in the Amazon as you have in Sao Paulo as you have in the South as you have in the wetlands in the heart of Brazil,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Economy in March put in place a $150 billion stimulus package to relieve the economic burden, with measures that acclaim from the international community, from deferring tax collections to relaxing budget guidance to supporting the most vulnerable. Mr. Bolsonaro’s government, he said, has updated databases to increase the slate of families eligible to receive direct payments.
“We’re talking about 20 million Brazilians who had access to nothing. And, you know, they’re getting a check from the government as a temporary help during this very hard situation,” Mr. Forster said.
The ambassador stressed that this is a temporary departure from the path of fiscal reform that Brazil has been on as it seeks to upgrade an economy long plagued by red tape and join the ranks of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a process the U.S. has supported.
“It’s important to underline that these are seen as something of a wartime effort as something exceptional, extraordinary. This does not represent any backtracking from the commitment we have with the reform process, with fiscal responsibility with opening markets and so on.”
Mr. Forster credited an unprecedented pension reform last year with putting the government on a better fiscal path that enabled its response to the pandemic, and he pointed to new consumer rights and labor rules enshrined in an Economic Freedom Act passed last year.
Congress will take up a further tax reform bill and ratification of a trade deal with the European Union later in the year, potentially moving the process even ahead further.
Citing Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, the acting ambassador said the pandemic is “not an excuse for us to do less or to procrastinate. Much to the contrary, it’s an incentive for us to accelerate the process of reform.”
The reforms on tap, plus the alignment between the leaders in Washington and Brasilia, amount to an unprecedented moment in the U.S.-Brazil business and trade relationship — a strong statement from a career diplomat who has served in multiple postings in the U.S. since 1992.
“Right now, we have the broad agenda. We have the vision. You know, it’s a big challenge for all of us to give concrete form to that, but it goes along with the reforms that we’re trying to do domestically.”
The two countries are working on a “mini” trade deal that would focus on trade facilitation, relaxing regulation and encouraging digital trade, leaving more contentious issues like tariffs that require congressional approval for future talks, Politico reported, citing Mr. Forster.
Though they’re sometimes conflated in their approaches, unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro’s fight is to open Brazil’s economy further to the world to improve its competitiveness and lower the cost of business.
As the process unfolds, Mr. Forster sees no reason why the two sides can’t reach his American counterpart Todd Chapman’s stated goal of doubling trade in goods and services from the current total of $105 billion in five years.
“It’s not out of reach, it’s not unrealistic at all. And I only like to add that we should make a similar effort in the in the investment front,” Mr. Forster said.
Especially if firms heed his advice for tie-ups in agribusiness, that could have a big impact on Georgia, which has seen a heavy Brazilian investment presence emerge in the southern part of the state.
In March 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro visited President Trump at the White House, agreeing to drop relax visa requirements for business travelers and tourists between the countries. In December, their commerce ministers headlined a CEO forum in New York, committing to work together on energy, intellectual property, infrastructure and standards that would allow American companies to launch rockets from northeastern Brazil’s Alcântara Launch Center.
A year later, just days before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic March 11, the Brazilian president and his team were meeting with President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, sparking concern when a member of the Brazilian president’s press team was diagnosed with COVID-19. Mr. Forster was there, and eventually happened to catch the disease himself, recovering after about a week of mild symptoms.
What he heard in the meetings reiterated the countries’ resolve to work together, pandemic or not.
Even agriculture, long a sticking point in trade deals, could eventually be on the table, with the complementary sectors in the U.S. and Brazil coming together in the meantime to access to third markets and jointly promote “science-based agriculture” to break down trade barriers that threaten them both, he added.
“We together feed more than half of the world, so I see tremendous potential for an increased cooperation between our our agribusinesses,” Mr. Forster said.
On the Zoom webinar jointly hosted by the Georgia State University Center for International Business Education and Research, Mr. Forster seemed undeterred by the fact that Mr. Trump suspended travel to Brazil starting May 28 and called out its pandemic response in a press conference. Brazil was also left out of what Mr. Trump hopes will be an expanded G-7 summit that could include the presidents of India, Australia, South Korea and potentially, Russia.
“Brazil and the United States have the longest-standing relationship that Brazil has with any other country,” Mr. Forster said. “It started out almost 200 years ago in 1823, barely one year into our independence. And you know, it was never broken, never interrupted. We had closer moments, warmer moments, cooler moments. And the moment we’re living right now, is a special moment because it will enable us to bring forward all these elements that we share in terms of values and principles.”