New Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a politically incorrect conservative who unabashedly styles himself after President Trump, will meet with Mr. Trump for the first time at the White House on Tuesday as both leaders seek to ramp up pressure on Venezuela.
Known as “Trump of the tropics,” Mr. Bolsonaro shares Mr. Trump’s strong opposition to Venezuela’s socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro, and a desire to transfer power to opposition leader Juan Guaido, whose claim to be “interim president” has been recognized by both Washington and Brasilia.
So far, the strategy hasn’t worked, with Mr. Maduro largely retaining the support of the Venezuelan military.
A senior administration official said Monday that the U.S. wants to use the Brazilian military as a back-channel to persuade the Venezuelan military to desert the socialist government, and to reassure the country’s armed forces of Washington’s peaceful intentions in seeking to transfer power to Mr. Guaido.
“The Brazilian military has very good relationships with the Venezuelan military, and the Brazilian military can clearly communicate with them,” the official said.
He added that the U.S. wants to pass along the message to the Venezuelan military about the importance of “protecting civilians, not repressing, and not maintaining the usurpation of democracy that Maduro seeks.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s aides have said in recent days that President Trump could offer Brazil upgraded status as a “major non-NATO ally” eligible for priority access to U.S. military technology, only the second South American country — after Argentina — to be given the designation.
The largest democracy in South America, Brazil borders Venezuela and has borne about 120,000 refugees fleeing the country that is spiraling into a deeper economic and social crisis. Mr. Bolsonaro is meeting officials from the Organization of American States and addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during his Washington stop.
National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said Mr. Trump is eager “to strengthen ties” with Brazil.
“We think Brazil did an outstanding job a few weeks ago in the effort to deliver humanitarian assistance in to [Venezuela], it’s really outrageous that the Maduro regime tried to block that,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview with Brazil’s Globonews. “We’d like to find ways to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people; we think the best way to do that would be to transfer power to Juan Guaido.”
Mr. Bolsonaro “is likely to commit to taking on a much more aggressive policy towards Venezuela,” said Alexander Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
“The current U.S. strategy for regime change in Venezuela — based on supporting Juan Guaido’s claim to the Venezuelan presidency and trying to trigger a military coup against the Maduro government — has not been working,” Mr. Main said. “The Trump administration’s single-minded goal is to persuade South American allies to join the U.S. in imposing crippling economic sanctions on Venezuela.”
Beyond their common foreign policy goals, Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro, a onetime political maverick whose election in October stunned Brazil’s political establishment, share nationalist and socially conservative views that shape their agendas.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a federal lawmaker in Brazil, has even joined forces with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and was seen sporting a “Make Brazil Great Again” hat this week at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Mr. Bannon dined with Mr. Bolsonaro and others at the Brazilian embassy in Washington on Sunday night.
The senior administration official said part of the pre-summit discussions have involved warning the Brazilians about the security risks of doing business with Chinese tech giant Huawei, which is accused of spying on its communications network.
“We’ve discussed our concerns in regards to security issues with regard to China, what that will mean for Brazil,” the official said. “They’ve heard from our experts on security and intelligence matters to understand the consequences of these networks, and how frankly dangerous they can [be to] undermine their security domestically.”
But Mr. Bolsonaro is expected to walk a fine line on Mr. Trump’s trade war with Beijing — China, not the U.S., is Brazil’s biggest trading partner and biggest export market.
Denise Chrispim Marin, a Sao Paolo-based journalist with Veja.com, said Brazilian business leaders are hopeful that “the better political relationship between the U.S. and Brazil will result in better business ambience, more American investments in Brazil and easier access to the American market.”
She said for Mr. Bolsonaro and Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araujo, the meeting “will be highest moment of the century.”
“Ernesto Araujo believes that Trump is the guy who will lead the Occident to a new era of prosperity and high values, based on family and morality,” she said.