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Venezuela on agenda for Trump’s meeting with Brazil’s leader

UPDATED: Sat., March 7, 2020

President Donald Trump is seated before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, left, at Mar-a-Lago, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)
President Donald Trump is seated before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, left, at Mar-a-Lago, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)
By Darlene Superville and Diane Jeantet Associated Press

PALM BEACH, Fla. – President Donald Trump would not commit Saturday to continue holding off on hitting Brazil with tariffs on imports of its aluminum and steel, saying “I don’t make any promises.”

Trump commented in the presence of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who Trump was hosting for dinner at his resort home in southern Florida.

In a tweet in December, Trump accused Bolsonaro’s government of hurting American farmers by manipulating its currency. He pledged to slap tariffs on Brazilian aluminum and steel, but withdrew the threat days later.

“We have a very good relationship as to tariffs … we want to always help Brazil,” said Trump, who appeared with Bolsonaro at the front door of his Mar-a-Lago estate. U.S. and Brazilian flags fluttered in the breeze on either side of the doorway.

“The friendship is probably stronger now than it’s never been,” Trump said.

Asked whether his comments meant no new tariffs on Brazil, Trump declined to commit.

“I don’t make any promises,” he said, before he led Bolsonaro to a dinner table on the club’s bustling outdoor patio. U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers, were also at the table along with several Brazilian government officials.

Trump also praised Bolsonaro’s leadership.

“He’s doing a fantastic job. Great job. Brazil loves him and the USA loves him,“ Trump said.

Brazil is coping with a double-digit unemployment rate and economic growth that is half of what Bolsonaro promised as a candidate. He is also struggling to get legislation through congress.

White House officials said the crisis in Venezuela, a possible U.S.-Brazil trade deal and Chinese telecom company Huawei were discussion topics for the leaders. A statement the White House released after the meeting did not mention Huawei.

Bolsonaro is on a three-day trip to the United States that includes a visit to the Miami headquarters of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Bolsonaro also scheduled meetings with Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans. Trump is in Florida through Monday.

Trump’s administration has been the most important ally for Venezuela’s opposition since Juan Guaido leaped to the center of Venezuela’s tumultuous political landscape more than a year ago. He pledged to force President Nicolas Maduro from power and restore democracy.

Though Guaido has the backing of more than 60 nations, his popularity has faded, coupled with a failed military uprising.

The United States is continuing its “maximum pressure” campaign against Maduro and will continue to work on unspecified “bottlenecks” to a trade agreement with Brazil, said a senior Trump administration official who briefed reporters before the leaders met.

The U.S. has been pressuring governments worldwide to ban the Chinese tech giant Huawei from having any stake in their 5G networks. But Trump’s campaign was dealt a blow when U.S. ally Britain decided to grant Huawei a limited role in supplying new high-speed network equipment to wireless carriers. The U.S. sees Huawei as an intelligence threat.

Bolsonaro, called the “the Trump of the tropics,” has turned his relationship with the U.S. president into a cornerstone of his foreign diplomacy. The far-right Brazilian leader has used Trump to shore up his base, often praising him and posting videos of himself on social media simply watching Trump speeches on television.

Trump likes Bolsonaro and says they have a good relationship. He hosted Bolsonaro at the White House last March.

The U.S. trip comes as a welcome respite for Bolsonaro, who at home is dealing with a weak economy and a strained relationship with congress. Several opposition parties published a manifesto this week, encouraging Brazilians to demonstrate against the government.

Bolsonaro’s allies see the invitation to dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private, dues-paying club in Palm Beach, as another sign that Bolsonaro’s alignment with America is paying off.

Trump last year granted Brazil the status of privileged ally outside NATO and backed its bid for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But U.S. support can be fickle and government critics question whether Brazil’s seemingly unconditional embrace of Trump’s brand of politics will yield any real benefits. Trump’s refusal to commit to holding off on tariffs most likely would be viewed as an example.

Brazil also is struggling to combat growing illegal deforestation in the vast Amazon rainforest and was criticized for its poor handling of devastating fires in the region last summer.

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