January 3, 2019 / 9:23 PM / 4 months ago

Brazil's Bolsonaro says he is open to hosting a U.S. military base

SAO PAULO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro said on Thursday that he would be open to the possibility of the United States operating a military base on his country’s soil, a move that would form a sharp shift in direction for Brazilian foreign policy.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro is greeted by Augusto Heleno, Minister of Institutional Security, before meeting at the Secretariat of Security and Coordination Presidential Cabinet in Brasilia, Brazil January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Bolsonaro, who took power on Tuesday, said that Russia’s support of President Nicolas Maduro’s “dictatorship” in neighboring Venezuela had significantly ramped up tensions in the region and was a worrying development.

Asked by the SBT TV network in an interview taped on Thursday if that meant he would allow U.S. military presence in Brazil, Bolsonaro responded that he would certainly be willing to negotiate that possibility.

“Depending on what happens in the world, who knows if we would not need to discuss that question in the future,” Bolsonaro said.

He emphasized that what Brazil seeks is to have “supremacy here in South America.”

The far-right leader is upending foreign policy dating back over a decade, which saw the leftist Workers Party emphasizing South-South relations and sometimes tussling on the international stage with the United States.

Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former Army captain and admirer of both Brazil’s 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship and U.S. President Donald Trump, has quickly deepened ties with the Unites States and Israel.

Bolsonaro’s national security adviser, retired Army General Augusto Heleno, confirmed earlier on Thursday that the president wants to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but that logistical considerations were standing in the way.

Heleno did not elaborate. But the country’s powerful agriculture sector is opposed to moving the embassy from Tel Aviv and angering Arab nations that buy billions of dollars worth of Brazilian halal or “permissible” meat each year.

Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Brazil this week when he attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration. After a private meeting, Netanyahu said that Bolsonaro told him that moving the embassy was a matter of “when, not if.”

Heleno said on Thursday, “there is a clear desire that this happens, but there has been no decision on a date.”

He said he did not think exports would be threatened, arguing that Brazilian diplomats would work with Middle Eastern trading partners to ease concerns.

Bolsonaro and some state governors in Brazil are looking to purchase drones and lean on the United States and Israel for other technology and know-how as they seek to dismantle powerful and heavily armed drug cartels.

Separately, Bolsonaro met with the head of the World Trade Organization, Roberto Azevedo, who said the government’s sharp rebukes of globalism were shared by many other countries and that the trade body was making changes.

On Wednesday, Brazil’s new Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said that under his watch the country would fight for change at multilateral institutions like the WTO.

Araujo’s words were not a threat, Azevedo said.

“To the contrary, I think it was very propitious and compatible with what is happening,” he said after meeting Bolsonaro. “The World Trade Organization itself is beginning the process of reforms.”

PENSION PENDING

On the domestic front, Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, said after a first full meeting of the cabinet that the new administration was committed to an ambitious pension overhaul, and that a privatization program was still under evaluation.

By early next week each minister should announce their top priority, Lorenzoni said.

Bolsonaro’s economic team has promised to liberalize Brazil’s hidebound economy, rid the country of “socialism,” and enact conservative social measures in areas like education.

Slideshow (2 Images)

On Wednesday, Bolsonaro unveiled plans to step up privatizations, toughen prison sentencing guidelines and hand control over indigenous land claims to the powerful Agriculture Ministry. Brazilian markets soared on promises to shrink government.

Bolsonaro’s administration is made up of free market economists, statist former military generals, and religious ideologues, and it remains to be seen just how committed he is to liberalizing the economy.

Nonetheless, Bolsonaro tweeted on Thursday morning that privatization of 12 Brazilian airports and four ports should attract 7 billion reais ($1.85 billion) in initial investment. He did not give further details.

Reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito in Brasilia; Additional reporting by Tatiana Ramil in Sao Paulo; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter and Brad Brooks; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Rosalba O'Brien

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