Eduardo Bolsonaro, Caligula and the Brazilian embassy

Roman emperor Caligula once appointed his horse to the Roman Senate but Jair Bolsonaro’s nomination of his son as Ambassador to the US has a potential to cause more damage. 

In “The Life of the Twelve Caesars” the Roman historian Suetonius says that Emperor Caligula, known for his balance and temperance, had a deep, paternal love for his horse Incitatus.

According to Suetonius, Incitatus had a marble stable and an ivory coach house. He slept in purple robes, the color of Roman royalty, and wore a necklace of precious stones. Incitatus also had his own house and dozens of slaves at his disposal. Such was Caligula’s love for Incitatus he tried to make him Consul: head of the Roman Senate.

Suetonius does not clarify the qualifications of Incitatus to assume such an honorable office. But since Incitatus had come from ancient Hispania, he was supposed to be “fluent in some barbaric language”.

Nowadays, this story is seen as an extreme example of the misuse of power for private purposes, which touches the realm of madness. In all fairness to Caligula, however, in this case he can not be accused of nepotism.

The same can not be said of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to nominate his son as US ambassador in Washington. In addition to it being a clear act of nepotism, prohibited by the norms, this absurd decision is reminiscent of Caligula.

Not that the captain’s son should be equated with the impetuous horse. He is a biped, a member of the Homo Sapiens species, although he may not, like many, do full justice to this biological name. Nevertheless, Eduardo Bolsonaro is as unprepared to assume this position as Incitatus was for the position of Consul. In fact, even more so.

Consul was one of the highest positions in the Roman Republic. During the Empire, however, it was transformed into an honorary position that did not come with any real power. So the nice quadruped would not have been able to, for example, order anyone to eat grass or neigh.

The same can not be said of the position of ambassador to the United States.

This is the chief position in our foreign diplomacy, which carries great responsibility and power. For this reason, it is typically reserved for very experienced ambassadors who have had great prominence in their diplomatic careers.

To be US Ambassador, it is not necessary to know how to fry a hamburger, which Eduardo Bolsonaro brags about doing while working at a fast food restaurant during his time abroad in the US. It does, however, require extensive knowledge of foreign policy and international relations, world economy, public international law, Brazil-US bilateral relations, the history of both countries etc., and, of course, extensive experience in diplomacy, something that is not taught in the kind of student exchange program taken by the young Bolsonaro.

Beyond vast knowledge and extensive experience, the job demands something even more important: Republican commitment. Indeed, a country’s foreign policy is, by definition, a State policy and not that of a specific government. Therefore, the occupant of the position of ambassador in Washington represents the greater interests of Brazil; not the political and ideological idiosyncrasies of a specific government, let alone the personal interests of his father.

For that reason all chiefs of diplomatic missions, being responsible for operating State policy, have to be approved by the Brazilian senate. It should be noted that during the Lula administration the practice of naming career ambassadors to head diplomatic missions was adopted, a practice that was subsequently respected until now. Moreover, the few previous exceptions of political nominations for these positions which have taken place have not been for prominent posts or involved relatives of any president.

One suspects, with reason, that Bolsonaro’s son is not just going to Washington to fry hamburgers and practice his high-school (at best) level English, but that he will defend the interests of his family and its political group.

Eduardo Bolsonaro is a personal friend of Steve Bannon, the far-right champion and master of fake news. This is his main qualification for the post, in addition to allegedly knowing how to fry a hamburger. Thus, if nominated and approved, he could certainly re-arrange the Brazilian embassy in Washington and transform it into a bunker of Bolsonaro’s interests in alliance with geostrategic submission to Trumpism.

Therefore, unlike poor Incitatus, who could do no harm, the damage that Captain Bolsonaro’s son could do would be enormous. Surely, he would place Brazil / US bilateral relations at the service of his political group and the interests of his father. In this case, our foreign policy would be similar to the foreign policy of countries such as Saudi Arabia, which serves only the interests of that country’s absolutist royal family.

Some people believe that the Bolsonaro family are specialists in cronyism, who treat public things as if they were private. It is one thing to exert this cronyism at the micro-political level of its members former positions. Another, very different thing, would be to place such cronyism at the center of our foreign policy.

Who knows what informal cooperation agendas he could establish with US intelligence and security agencies, with the undemocratic intent of focusing on Brazilian domestic affairs, for the benefit of his political group. The so-called Vaza Jato scandal based on the leaked social media conversations published by the Intercept is already proving how Brazilian institutions can be captured by outside interests. Imagine what Washington will do with an ambassador in its pocket.

Then there is the question of whether Captain Bolsonaro’s son would be Brazil’s ambassador to Washington or Trumpism’s ambassador to Brazil. Judging by the MAGA cap he wore on his way to Washington, the most likely hypothesis is the second.

Brazil’s foreign policy and its competent diplomacy have been sufficiently battered by the Bolsonaro government’s messy festival, which, in its eagerness to please Trump, fatally wounds our true national interests.

The probable appointment of the captain’s son to our principal diplomatic post adds scorn to this tragedy that has already turned Brazil into a diplomatic pariah.

More than frying hamburgers, Eduardo Bolsonaro could end up frying Brazil.



By Marcelo Zero

Marcelo Zero is a sociologist, international relations specialist and technical adviser to the PT Senatorial leadership.