Fernández v. Bolsonaro: Argentina-Brazil Trade Now At Risk

It's no secret that Brazil's ultra-conservative leader and the incoming president of Argentina have deeply divergent political leanings.

Containers in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Containers in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Silvia Naishtat

BUENOS AIRES — After some nasty verbal exchanges between Brazil's conservative leader, Jair Bolsonaro, and Argentina's socialist president-elect, Alberto Fernández, nobody doubts that our relations with Brazil are set to change.

It will be a novel scenario for Argentina given the strategic importance of its centuries-old relationship with Brazil. Former presidents like our Raúl Alfonsín and Brazil's José Sarney understood this when they took the first steps to form a regional trade bloc — today's MERCOSUR — and discard the conflict option, which allowed Argentina to drastically curb its defense budget.

That pact seems to have languished in recent years and yet, there is still a high level of economic cohesion between the two countries, which also recognize the value of revitalizing the regional bloc while, at the same time, opening their economies up to the world. Could Bolsonaro's hostility hamper this resolve?

Some have suggested listening to the Brazilian military instead, both to their public declarations and to the quieter suggestions they make inside the Brazilian presidential palace. The army, after all, occupies seven of the cabinet's 20 top ministry positions. It's also worth noting what the powerful General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro said about Argentina: that it cannot be excluded from MERCOSUR or from Brazilian society.

Bad relations between Bolsonaro and Fernández will cancel out the so-called presidential diplomacy.

Nevertheless, there definitely seems to be a political transition underway, as noted by foreign affairs analyst Marcelo Elizondo. For one thing, expect the tradition of Brazilian leaders attending Argentine presidential inaugurations to be broken when Alberto Fernández officially takes office next month. And it won't be Bolsonaro's first affront: He snubbed his friend Mauricio Macri, the outgoing president, when he made Chile, not Argentina, the first port of call after his own election.

One thing is sure, namely that bad relations between Bolsonaro and Fernández will cancel out the so-called presidential diplomacy that is always inclined to resolve problems. New avenues will probably emerge elsewhere, on the other hand.

Bolsonaro in Brasilia on Oct. 29 — Photo: Jorge William/GDA/ZUMA

In spite of its fragile and unpredictable economy, Brazilian firms have invested $16 billion in our country. They stand out in the meat export sector, led by the Brazilian companies Minerva and Marfrig. Gol is the main foreign airline here. Almundo, bought by Brazil's CVC, is a leader in travel, and Natura is a major player in online sales. The Itaú, Patagonia and Bradesco banks have grown, furthermore, through partnership, and Dasa, the Brazilian medical services firm, has made inroads in our health sector by buying Diagnóstico Maipú.

Brazil is Argentina's top export market.

Brazil is also Argentina's top market for exports. Of the $61 billion in total exports that Argentina produces, $11 billion worth go to Brazil. Besides vehicles, exports to our neighbor include added-value goods like chemical products, farming machinery, plastics, measuring instruments and processed foods. Many of these are produced by small and medium-sized industrial firms. Argentina is, in turn, Brazil's third export market, after China and the United States. We buy iron ore, oil and are the biggest market for industrial goods.

Marcelo​ Elizondo sees serious trouble ahead if Bolsonaro makes good on this threat to lower the common external tariff. Doing so would cost Argentina its position as a privileged trading partner.

The analyst believes this is part of Bolsonaro's program to open the Brazilian market, with the EU free-trade deal being "merely a step toward positioning itself as a continental leader." His agenda is backed by an industrial structure in Brazil that is already global and seeks greater presence abroad, Elizondo says.

What could happen specifically with the EU pact? Elizondo thinks Brazil could swiftly ratify and implement it. That would represent an enormous competitive disadvantage for Argentina as it loses its exclusive, preferential tariff regime with Brazil. The "risk is immense," he says.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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