By Lisandra Paraguassu and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s new far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro forged a bond over their shared brand of conservative and populist politics on Tuesday, with Trump pledging to give more U.S. support to Brazil’s global ambitions.
In a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump said he told Bolsonaro he would designate Brazil a major non-NATO ally and possibly go further by supporting a campaign to make Brazil “maybe a NATO ally.”
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who rode to the presidency with a brash, anti-establishment campaign modeled on Trump’s 2016 run, has declared himself an unabashed admirer of the U.S. president and the American way of life.
He praised Trump for changing the United States in a way he said he hopes to change Brazil.
“Brazil and the United States are tied by the guarantee of liberty, respect for the traditional family, the fear of God our creator, against gender identity, political correctness and fake news,” Bolsonaro said, touching on themes that have inflamed his critics in Brazil concerned about his autocratic views.
Nicknamed the ‘Trump of the Tropics,’ Bolsonaro rose to power praising the U.S.-backed military government that ran Brazil for two decades before a return to democracy in 1985.
He moved quickly to ally Brazil closer to the United States, a shift in diplomatic priorities after over a decade of leftist party rule that had seen Brazil forging closer ties with regional allies.
At Tuesday’s news conference, the two presidents repeatedly rejected socialism, celebrating their joint efforts to oust Venezuela’s left-wing leader, Nicolas Maduro.
They showed an easy rapport, exchanging soccer jerseys from their national teams at the outset of their meeting in the Oval Office, with Trump’s name emblazoned on Brazil’s famous yellow shirt and Bolsonaro’s on the USA uniform.
The two also share a penchant for family politics, employing relations as some of their closest advisers. In the Rose Garden, Trump praised Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a congressman who sported a Trump 2020 hat when visiting Washington last year.
As leaders of the two largest economies in the Western Hemisphere, Trump and Bolsonaro also discussed how to increase trade and committed to reducing barriers.
“Brazil makes great product and we make great product, and our trade has been never as good as it should be in the past. And in some cases it should be far, far more,” Trump said.
They struck initial agreements on agricultural trade, with better access for American wheat and pork exports to Brazil and the possibility of restarting sales of Brazilian fresh beef to the United States.
Looming over their discussion was the fact that China, currently embroiled in a trade war with the United States, has eclipsed America in trade and investment with Brazil. Bolsonaro, who was critical of China in his campaign, announced hours after meeting Trump that he will visit the country in the second half of the year.
Bolsonaro’s Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, on Monday urged the United States to open its market more to Brazil if it wanted to change the status quo.
Trump also said he supported Brazil’s efforts to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a club of wealthier nations sharing best practices on economic policy.
But U.S. support would not come for free, according to Guedes. In exchange, the Americans asked Brazil to give up some benefits at the World Trade Organization (WTO), he told journalists earlier on Tuesday.
Becoming a “major non-NATO ally” implies a status upgrade that gives a country preferential access to the purchase of U.S. military equipment and technology.
Supporting Brazil for an association with NATO would be a considerable step further, one that Trump recognized would mean he would “have to talk to a lot of people.”
Colombia became in 2018 the only Latin American nation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as a “global partner,” which means it will not necessarily have to take part in military action.
In a Fox News interview on Monday, Bolsonaro threw his weight behind Trump’s immigration agenda, which includes a wall on the Mexican border.
“We do agree with President Trump’s decision or proposal on the wall,” Bolsonaro said, in remarks translated to English by the broadcaster. “The vast majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions. They do not intend to do the best or do good to the U.S. people.”
His comments sparked an uproar at home and among Brazilians in the United States, forcing Bolsonaro to issue an apology.
“I meant to say that a little part of the people who immigrate don’t have good intentions and I made a mistake. I apologize for that,” he said.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Roberta Rampton, additional reporting by Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper; Writing by Marcelo Rochabrun and Mary Milliken; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Phil Berlowitz)