Who will be Brazil’s Foreign Minister next month?



Cabinet post horse-trading is in full swing in Brasília, and President Temer is said to plan on substituting around 17 of his 28 ministers in a major reshuffle -- a last-ditch effort to please parties whose support the embattled president desperately needs to push through even a modest version of pension reform. The issue does not only determine Brazil's economic outlook, it will also define the legacy of Temer's tumultuous interim presidency. The party set to lose most or all of its cabinet posts are the Social Democrats (PSDB), crippled by infighting and a hamletian uncertainty about whether to continue its support of the deeply unpopular government. There were four PSDB cabinet ministers until November 13, when Bruno Araújo, Minister of Cities, anticipated his ouster by handing in his letter of resignation. Loyal parties to the government will certainly ask for the remaining three cabinet posts, including Human Rights, Secretary of Government and Foreign Affairs, the latter of which is currently occupied by 72-year old Aloysio Nunes, former Senator and vice presidential candidate in 2014. 

Predicting who will be Brazil's Foreign Minister after Temer's cabinet reshuffle is tricky, largely because the decision will depend on many other, mutually independent negotiations that are still very much up in the air.

First of all, the Foreign Ministry, despite being one of the most prestigious cabinet posts -- indeed, Brazil's top diplomat holds one of the most attractive jobs in the foreign policy world -- it confers only limited budgetary power (the Ministry's total budget is less than US$1 billion, less than a fifth of the Ministry of Cities) and thus does not help much in Brasília's intricate backroom negotiations. This means that, paradoxically, someone may end up as Foreign Minister who initially aimed for another job. A similar dynamic occurs in Brazil's legislature, where the presidency of the Foreign Relations and National Defense Committee is at times (though not always) a consolation prize for those who lost the battle for more powerful commissions.

Second, being Foreign Minister implies enjoying the so-called "privileged forum," a special legal protection from prosecution in common courts, which entitles those accused to hearings by the Supreme Court, a much slower procedure. In the context of the ongoing Lava Jato prosecution, many of Temer's allies are currently in need of such extra protection, a fact that may influence the decision-making process.

Third, contrary to most other ministries, Itamaraty has a long tradition of being led by career diplomats. That increases the candidate pool further than is the case with the other cabinet posts, which will almost certainly be occupied by career politicians. Whatsapp groups of Brazil's foreign policy community are teeming with a relatively long list of potential candidates. The most frequently mentioned is that of Marcos Galvão, Itamaraty's second highest ranking diplomat since 2016. Galvão is seen as highly competent and -- useful nowadays -- a trade expert (he served as Brazil's Permanent Representative to the WTO in Geneva), who is credited with coordinating Brazil's diplomatic strategy in the early days of the Temer presidency, when several Latin American countries expressed ambiguity about the legality of Dilma Rousseff's impeachment. However, seen as close to Aloysio Nunes and Aécio Neves, Galvão would add little political weight and would not help Temer satisfy his numerous power-hungry coalition partners, such as PP, PR, PTB, PSD e PRB, which are part of the so-called 'Centrão' (literally, 'big center'), and whose main raison d'être is obtaining pork barrel funds (the appropriation of government spending). Other names include 73-year old Ambassador Sérgio Amaral, the government's spokesperson under President Cardoso, who was called back from retirement after Rousseff's impeachment to head Brazil's Embassy in Washington D.C., 79-year old Rubens Barbosa, Brazil's former Ambassador in Washington D.C. and London, and, as a long shot, Fred Arruda, President Temer's foreign policy advisor, among several other high-ranking diplomats.

Finally, there is still a reasonable chance that Aloysio Nunes may stay on, though that would have to be on Temer's "personal quota". Nunes has done a far better job than his predecessor, 75-year old José Serra, whose stint as Foreign Minister includes a few successes which were largely overshadowed by a series of misogynist gaffes and a remarkable lack of  knowledge of foreign policy (he famously failed to remember the member countries of the BRICS countries during an interview). Nunes is more agile and genuinely interested in foreign policy, and he has traveled a lot beyond the beaten path, including ten African countries this year. By writing op-eds both in Brazil and abroad, he has also promoted a broader public debate about foreign policy, often neglected by mainstream commentators. Another argument in favor of Nunes, who has been on good terms with Temer for years, is that the Foreign Minister is currently overseeing the organization of a longer trip by Temer to Asia in January -- a region is that is increasingly important for Brazil's economy.

This, of course, does not fundamentally change the fact that the Foreign Minister's legitimacy to represent Brazil in the world is badly damaged by corruption allegations (Brazil's chief public prosecutor recently said there was “no doubt” that he received undeclared Odebrecht money to finance one of his campaigns; Nunes has denied participating in any corruption).

No Foreign Minister will be able to fully revive Brazil's foreign policy during Temer's remaining 13 months in office. Below the radar of the public eye, Brazil's diplomats have quietly and efficiently advanced in numerous areas, but their impact has at times been limited and overshadowed by instability at the top (Rousseff had three foreign ministers, and Nunes is Temer's second foreign minister). Neither Nunes or any successor can change the fact that the Temer government has been bad news for Brazil's international role, largely due to its incapacity to quell the domestic political crisis in the face of a constant struggle against corruption allegations.

That does not, in any way, reduce the importance of who will head the Foreign Ministry next month. Indeed, irrespective of the broader political situation, Brazil's Foreign Minister will face tremendous challenges and opportunities during the next year, ranging from Mercosur's ongoing trade negotiations with the EU, OECD accession negotiations, preparing the 11th BRICS Summit which will take place in Brazil in 2019, addressing the refugee crisis at Brazil's northern border, fighting ever more sophisticated international criminal organizations in Latin America, and navigating and managing the profound geopolitical changes that await Latin America as Colombians, Paraguayans, Mexicans, Venezuelans and Brazilians head to the polls to choose new leaders during the course of 2018. The probability that at least one of these elections will be won by a Trump-like radical projecting instability and uncertainty across the neighborhood is, sadly, quite significant. 

Read also:

Brazil’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Dead. It’s Just Hibernating. (Americas Quarterly)

Why does Brazil’s Workers’ Party still support the Maduro regime in Venezuela?

South American Inaction on Venezuela Comes at Great Cost for the Continent