This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s 24/7 coverage of the US election results as they come in, with brief dispatches from correspondents and analysts from around the world. The America Votes page is free to all readers.
After electoral college math became clear on Saturday, congratulations came from across Latin America for US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. The two largest countries in the region – Brazil and Mexico – remain noticeable, however. Refusing to recognize Biden’s victory, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are in the dubious company of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In many ways, Bolsonaro and López Obrador were the most at stake among Latin American leaders in the re-election of President Donald Trump. Bolsonaro has adopted the nickname “Trump of the Tropics”, while López Obrador has found a modus vivendi with Trump’s foreign transaction policy. Trump provided cover for the region’s two best-known populists, bringing them in during some of their darkest hours from the diplomatic cold. For example, when Bolsonaro was criticized by critics around the world for a series of devastating fires in the Amazon region, Trump offered his “full and complete support” for Bolsonaro’s environmental record.
Bolsonaro, who is committed to Trump, has avoided any mention of the US elections for the past few days. On the other hand, three of his sons, all of whom are politicians who play a prominent role in his administration, tweeted confabulations about electoral fraud and questioned the legitimacy of Brazil’s electronic voting system. Recently, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s third son, complained of a left-wing conspiracy when news organizations refused to believe Trump’s false claims that victory was stolen from him.
In the meantime, López Obrador has explicitly stated that he will wait for all legal issues to be resolved before congratulating the winner. Although some observers on both sides of the border portrayed his move as a profile of caution and restraint, the Mexican president exercised neither caution nor restraint when he quickly congratulated Evo Morales of Bolivia with (highly credible) claims from after last year’s presidential election Scam. After all, this is a man who, when he lost in the 2006 election, accused winner Felipe Calderón of manipulating the vote. He even held an artificial inauguration in Mexico City, attended by around 100,000 people, to herald the beginning of his “parallel government”. The politician’s profile grew to the point where he became a consistent presidential candidate until he finally won in 2018.
Of course, both heads of state and government will have to come to terms with the Biden presidency at some point. The risk of being orphaned on the American continent is too great. Bolsonaro may find it necessary to recalibrate his policies, particularly on the environment, if he is to continue Brazil’s foreign policy realignment towards the United States. On the other hand, the enduring appeal of Trump’s brand, coupled with what Trump has called Biden’s narrow margin of victory, could encourage Bolsonaro to prepare for his own re-election in 2022.
The longer López Obrador holds out, the more he risks damaging the cross-party goodwill of US-Mexican relations. Unnecessary tension is not why he wants to start Mexico’s relationship with the Biden administration, especially if so much for his anti-corruption plan and the continued implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement to replace NAFTA with the Trump administration is at stake.
It may be too early to give definitive answers on what this means for the future of US-Brazil-US-Mexico relations, but the silence from Brasília and Mexico City is deafening.