Trump buddies up with Bolsonaro
By JILL COLVIN and PETER PRENGAMAN
Wednesday, March 20
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump welcomed Brazil’s new far-right leader to the White House Tuesday and made clear that flattery pays.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — the “Trump of the Tropics”— ran an unabashedly pro-Trump, pro-American campaign last year, emulating Trump in tone and style. It seems to have paid off for Bolsonaro on his first official trip to Washington.
At a joint news conference, Trump announced that he’d agreed to designate Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” — something Brazil had pursued to smooth U.S. weapons purchases and military coordination. Trump even said he’d be open to granting full NATO membership to Latin America’s largest and most populous nation, even though Brazil doesn’t quality to join the North Atlantic alliance.
The showing was the latest example of the premium Trump puts on personal relationships and the extent to which he’s willing to work with those who sing his virtues. And it renewed focus on the growing wave of populist strongmen who have captured voters’ support with blunt admonitions of “political correctness” and hardline immigration views.
As they sat down for the first time, Trump hailed Bolsonaro’s run as “one of the incredible campaigns,” saying he was “honored” it had drawn comparisons to his own 2016 victory. And he predicted the two would have a “fantastic working relationship,” telling reporters at a joint press conference that they have “many views” in common. The two also exchanged soccer jerseys in a sign of their budding friendship.
Bolsonaro was equally complimentary, predicting Trump would win re-election in 2020 and drawing parallels between their efforts.
Standing side-by-side in the White House Rose Garden, Bolsonaro said their two countries “stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God, our Creator, against the gender ideology or the politically correct attitudes and against fake news.”
“I’m very proud to hear the president use the term ‘fake news’,” Trump later remarked.
The embrace represents a shift in U.S.-Brazilian relations. In 2013, leaks from Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had wiretapped conversations of former President Dilma Rousseff, leading to several years of tense relations between the nations.
Bolsonaro had arrived in the U.S. with a half a dozen ministers and a goal of expanding trade, diplomatic and military cooperation between the two largest economies in the Western Hemisphere. And Trump appeared eager to deliver.
He announced he would back Brazil’s effort’s to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, while floating the idea of full NATO membership, though he said he’d “have to talk to a lot of people” for Brazil to join the organization.
However, James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who was the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009 to 2013, said Brazil does not qualify for full membership under the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.
“The idea of formal membership is a nonstarter in every dimension — the treaty doesn’t allow it, the Brazilians wouldn’t want it and the Europeans wouldn’t approve,” Stavridis said in an email exchange.
The efforts came as both countries continue to denounce the crisis in Venezuela and called on members of the Venezuelan military to end their support for President Nicolas Maduro. Both the U.S. and Brazil have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, and Trump reiterated that “all options” to address Venezuela’s economic and political crisis remain on the table.
The leaders also were expected to discuss a range of other issues, including expanding trade relations and increasing U.S. private-sector investment in Brazil.
Bolsonaro has much in common with Trump. He, too, ran an insurgent, social media-powered campaign. And like Trump, he has blasted unflattering stories as “fake news” and used Twitter and Facebook to bypass mainstream news organizations.
As a congressman, Bolsonaro frequently made disparaging comments about gays, women, indigenous groups and blacks, and he has praised torture and killings by police and waxed nostalgic for Brazil’s old military dictatorship. While such comments have drawn sharp criticism, they have also generated attention and fed into his narrative as a leader unencumbered by political correctness.
Bolsonaro has also echoed Trump’s hardline immigration policies, calling immigrants from several poor countries the “scum of the world” and saying Brazil cannot become a “country of open borders.”
In an interview with Fox News Monday, Bolsonaro said he supported Trump’s immigration policies and his efforts to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions or do not intend to do the best or do good for the American people,” he said.
Bolsonaro also had the support of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has since parted ways with the White House. While Bolsonaro has dismissed reports that Bannon played a key role in his campaign, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo approached Bannon in July of last year and the two struck up a friendship. In August, Eduardo posted a picture of the two of them on Instagram with a caption that said Bannon was an “enthusiast” of his father’s candidacy and that they would “unite forces against cultural Marxism.” It was one of several meetings, Bannon said.
On Sunday, Bannon joined Bolsonaro for a dinner at the Brazilian Embassy along with various Cabinet members and other leaders, where they discussed subjects including the country’s economic plans.
Bolsonaro, Bannon told The Associated Press, “understands the Trump program and understands President Trump” and said both represent a “tectonic plate shift in the world of politics” toward blunt, politically incorrect leaders in the model of Trump.
“This is a new kind of global political moment,” he said.
In advance of the meeting, the countries signed several bilateral agreements, including one that allows the United States to use Brazil’s Alcantara Aerospace Launch Base for its satellites. Brazil also announced an end to visa requirements for U.S. tourists who visit the country, while Trump agreed to Brazilian participation in the Trusted Traveler “Global Entry” program.
Days after taking office on Jan. 1, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, said Brazil would consider letting the U.S. have a military base in the country as way to counter Russian influence in the region, particularly related to Brazil’s neighbor Venezuela.
That statement was roundly criticized, including by former military members of his government, and the administration backed off.
Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press writers Mauricio Savarese in Madrid and Ben Fox, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Catherine Lucey and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
Brazil police: school attackers imitating Columbine massacre
By MAURICIO SAVARESE and PETER PRENGAMAN
Friday, March 15
SUZANO, Brazil (AP) — Two young men who stormed their former school in southern Brazil armed with a gun, crossbows and axes, killing seven people, were trying to emulate the 1999 Columbine attack in Colorado and had been planning the assault for months, police said Thursday.
Friends and former classmates told investigators that 17-year-old Guilherme Taucci Monteiro and 25-year-old Henrique de Castro were obsessed with the attack on Columbine High School, Sao Paulo civil police director Ruy Ferraz told a news conference. He said the pair had been planning the attack since at least November.
Ferraz said the acquaintances said they didn’t believe the attack would actually happen, or feared that telling anyone would make them targets.
The Colombine attack, also undertaken by two heavily armed young men, left 13 dead. And as in Wednesday’s rampage, the Columbine assailants took their own lives.
Monteiro and de Castro “wanted to prove they could act like in Columbine High School with cruelty and with a tragic character so they could be more recognized than” even the Columbine killers, Ferraz said
Ferraz said a third person, a 17-year-old former student at the school, had been involved in planning but was not present at the school when the attack happened.
He did not identify the accomplice but said police have asked a judge to issue a warrant for the teen’s arrest.
The developments came hours after classmates, friends and relatives of the victims began saying goodbye during a mass wake in the Sao Paulo suburb of Suzano, where the attack happened.
Before launching the school assault, police said the assailants shot and killed Monteiro’s uncle, who owned a used-car dealership nearby. Monteiro had worked at the dealership, but had been fired by his uncle for petty crimes.
What happened next at the K-12 school, partially caught on surveillance camera footage at the building’s entrance and widely distributed in Brazil, was stomach-churning.
It showed Monteiro entering and shooting several people in the head as they tried to run away. De Castro followed, first striking wounded people with an ax and then swinging it wildly while scores of students ran past him. De Castro then armed his crossbow and walked farther into the school.
The dead included five students, a teacher and a school administrator. Nine others were wounded in the attack, including seven still hospitalized Thursday.
“I couldn’t sleep. I have two children in school and they are about the age of the victims,” said Wanda Augusta, a 46-year-old homemaker attending the wake.
“If only we could have identified the difficulties of these boys” before the attack, said Rossieli Soares, the state education secretary, who attended the wake at a volleyball arena. “This is a problem in our society.”
Police seized computers and notebooks from the homes of the two attackers, who were neighbors and lived less than a mile (kilometer) from the school. They also took computers from an arcade near the school that the attackers frequented.
While Latin America’s largest nation has deep problems with violence — it’s the world leader in annual homicides — school shootings like those in the U.S. are rare. Wednesday’s attack reminded many Brazilians of an attack in 2011, when a gunman roamed the halls of a Rio de Janeiro school and killed 12 students.
Joao Camilo Pires de Campos, Sao Paulo state’s public security secretary, summed up what was on the minds of many Brazilians.
“The big question is: What was the motivation of these former students?” he told reporters Wednesday.
Monteiro’s mother, Tatiana Taucci, offered a possible partial answer, saying that her son had been bullied at the school.
“Bullying, they call it. … He stopped going to school … because of this,” she told the Band News TV network.
Still, she said she was as surprised as anyone by her son’s involvement in the attack, which she said she heard about on television like everyone else.
Ferraz, the police director, said that while bullying had been mentioned in some testimony from acquaintances, they did not believe it to be meaningful to the investigation.
Minutes before the school rampage, Monteiro posted 26 photos on his Facebook page, including several with a gun and one that showed him giving the middle finger as he looked into the camera.
In some of the photos, he wore a black scarf with a white imprint of a skull and cross bones. No text accompanied the posts.
During the attack, Monteiro opened fire with a .38 caliber handgun and de Castro used a crossbow, de Campos said.
The attackers were also carrying Molotov cocktails, knives and small axes, authorities said.
One of the wounded, Jose Vitor, ran to a hospital close to the school with an ax still lodged in his right shoulder.
“He is an agile adolescent,” his mother, Sandra Regina Ramos, told reporters outside the hospital. “He reacted quickly.”
The assailants were trying to force their way inside a room at the back of the school where many students were hiding when police arrived. Instead of facing the officers, Monteiro shot de Castro in the head and then shot himself, authorities said.
Katia Sastre, a police officer who was elected to Congress after a video showed her gunning down an armed robber outside her daughter’s school went viral last year, called on authorities to provide better security at schools.
“This could have been prevented if upstanding citizens were able to defend themselves and bear arms,” said Sastre, who is a former student at the school attacked Wednesday.
The debate over whether to expand access to guns, a priority of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, was present in many of the public statements by politicians. Soon after his Jan. 1 inauguration, Bolsonaro issued a decree making it easier to buy a gun. His party plans to put forward legislation that would go even further, loosening restrictions on carrying and the number and types of firearms Brazilians can own.
Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. Anna Jean Kaiser contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.
US pulls diplomats from its embassy in Caracas, and tensions between Venezuela and Brazil escalate
March 12, 2019
Author: Robert Muggah, Associate Lecturer, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio)
Disclosure statement: As co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group, Robert Muggah receives funding from a range a international foundations and bilateral partners. Supporters include the Luminate Foundation, Porticus, Claro, Open Society Foundations and the Canadian government. Robert Muggah is also a fellow at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, affiliated with the World Economic Forum and is faculty at Singularity University.
The United States will withdraw all remaining staff from its embassy in Venezuela, according to a late-night March 11 announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter, who cited the “deterioriating situation” there.
Since March 7, a power outage has crippled much of Venezuela, including Caracas, the capital.
Venezuela has been in a severe economic and humanitarian crisis since 2016. Now, a tense showdown between President Nicolás Maduro and the head of the opposition-led National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, has created political chaos. In late January, following a presidential election criticized domestically and internationally for irregularities, Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela.
The United States supports Guaidó’s bid to unseat the Venezuelan president. Maduro blames the U.S. government for the blackout, saying it’s a ploy to debilitate his government.
Relations between Venezuela and neighboring countries are little better.
Colombia and Brazil – like most Latin American countries – have recognized Guaidó as the rightful president of Venezuela. Their governments have amassed hundreds of tons of medical and food supplies at their borders with Venezuela.
Maduro, who condemns the humanitarian convoys as the pretext for a U.S.-led military invasion, refuses to allow the aid through. Clashes between security forces and demonstrators trying to bring in supplies have killed an estimated seven protesters near the Colombian border and 25 demonstrators near the Brazilian border.
Though he has quietly welcomed planes bearing humanitarian assistance from Russia, an ally, Maduro closed Venezuela’s land borders with Brazil and Colombia, and severed diplomatic ties with Colombia.
Militarizing the border
The recent clashes over humanitarian aid have heightened the risk of conflict between Venezuela and Brazil, too.
As a researcher of crime and violence in Latin America, I have watched with concern as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro militarizes the country’s border in response to Venezuela’s crisis.
Bolsonaro, a right-wing former military captain, is an admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump and a fierce critic of all leftist governments – including Venezuela’s. He has promised to do “everything” necessary to help Guaidó restore democracy.
In February, Bolsonaro received Guaidó – then on an impromptu diplomatic tour of Latin America – at the presidential palace in Brasília with all the pomp of a state visit.
Guaidó is not the only Venezuelan to arrive in Brazil recently.
Every day, thousands of Venezuelans pour into neighboring countries, fleeing hunger, poverty and scarcity. There are over 3.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide, according to the United Nations.
Colombia has received the brunt of the mass exodus, receiving over 1.1 million refugees and migrants. But an estimated 96,000 Venezuelans have also come to Brazil since 2017, most arriving on foot to the northern Brazilian border state of Roraima. Roughly 65,000 of those Venezuelan migrants have applied for asylum in Brazil.
To manage the influx, Brazil plans to double its already significant military presence at the Venezuelan border, where at least 3,200 soldiers were sent in 2018 to “guarantee law and order.”
Meanwhile, Venezuelan security forces in tanks patrol the border with Brazil to enforce Maduro’s Feb. 21 order that nothing – not aid, not migrants – crosses between the two countries.
The Brazilian Ministry of Defense is negotiating with the Venezuelan army to prevent further violence over humanitarian aid delivery and remove some heavy artillery from both sides of the border. And Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a four-star general, says Brazil rejects taking any “extreme measures” in Venezuela.
But the potential for a military confrontation feel very real.
Bolsonaro has dispatched planes with 22 tons of rice, powdered milk and medical kits to Roraima to help the roughly 5,200 Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in shelters and on the streets there.
Efforts by Venezuelan opposition supporters to bring some of that aid into Venezuelan territory have been forcefully rebuffed. Venezuelan security forces set up barricades, fired tear gas and targeted demonstrators.
The Brazilian military intelligence website Defesa Net reports that Venezuela has moved anti-aircraft missiles to the border, spurring open speculation in Brazil about how a war with its heavily militarized northern neighbor might play out.
Violence at the borders
Officially, Brazil rejects military intervention in Venezuela.
It is part of the Lima Group, a coalition of 14 Latin American governments and Canada that recommends a managed exit by Maduro to resolve Venezuela’s crisis. The group is pushing Maduro to relinquish his power and leave the country, allowing Guaidó to lead a transitional government and call new elections.
But Bolsonaro considers Maduro’s government to be a “dictatorship,” and he has sparred with his Venezuelan counterpart on social media.
During Brazil’s 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro’s youngest son Eduardo – a hot-headed 34-year-old congressman and Steve Bannon booster – even called for the assassination of the Venezuelan leader. He still publicly supports “removing” Maduro.
Maduro, for his part, has labeled Bolsonaro a fascist and the “Hitler of modern times.” He accuses both Bolsonaro and Vice President Mourão of being U.S. puppets.
Battles over humanitarian aid
Bolsonaro has toned down his belligerent rhetoric as Venezuela’s political crisis has spiraled out of control, focusing on the need for democracy and humanitarian aid in Venezuela.
This is likely at the urging of Vice President Mourão and other generals who hold cabinet positions in his government. Brazil’s military, it’s clear, wants to avoid a messy and protracted conflict with its northern neighbor.
Mourão has disputed claims that the U.S. is establishing a military base in Brazil, saying that under no circumstances would Brazil allow U.S. troops to enter Venezuela through Brazil.
He says the only possibility of conflict with Venezuela is if Brazil is attacked first.
Still, Brazil’s official rejection of President Maduro represents a dramatic break from tradition. Virtually every Brazilian government since the end of military dictatorship in 1985, both left and right, has practiced a non-interventionist foreign policy and respected the national sovereignty of its neighbors.
Members of Venezuela’s National Guard who defected to Brazil show their military IDs near the border in Pacaraima, Brazil, on Feb. 24, 2019. Hundreds of Venezuelan military servicemen have fled to Colombia and Brazil in the past month. Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
But Venezuela is an unprecedented challenge – a political, humanitarian and migration crisis of a scale never before seen in Latin America.
All of South America hopes to avoid a civil war that could spill over into the region. As Bolsonaro is learning, humanitarian aid, migrants and political relations with Maduro must be handled with extreme caution.
The president’s influential youngest son doesn’t seem to have received the memo.
On Feb. 23, Eduardo Bolsonaro tweeted that Maduro will only be ousted “with gunshots.”
This story is an updated version of a story originally published on March 7.