To avoid an act that would be seen as a criticism of President Jair Bolsonaro, the command of Itamaraty held this Wednesday (1st) the annual graduation ceremony for new diplomats in a virtually hidden way.
The event that marks the conclusion of the period of studies at Instituto Rio Branco, the school for training diplomats, is one of the most important on the calendar of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traditionally, it has the participation of the President of the Republic and various authorities, in addition to press coverage. Bolsonaro himself was present at the ceremonies of the last two years.
But this Wednesday’s event became a fair skirt for Chancellor Carlos França because, in an internal vote, the graduates chose to honor Ambassador José Jobim (1909-1979) as their patron. In 2018, the Brazilian state recognized that Jobim was killed by the military dictatorship. He had stated that he would denounce cases of overpricing in the construction of the Itaipu Hydroelectric Power Plant.
The opinion of the Itamaraty leadership is that it would be unfeasible to take Bolsonaro —an enthusiast of the military regime— as the main guest of the act. The tribute to Jobim would be understood as an indirect criticism of the president, who would be present.
To get around the situation, this year’s graduation took place without any spotlight. Bolsonaro did not attend, only sent a recorded speech. The event was closed to the press and there was no broadcast either. France’s speech was published hours after the ceremony.
The chancellor listed the priorities in the current foreign policy and classified Jobim as “a reference of diplomat and dedication to Brazil”. “Foreign policy is a public policy. As a public policy, it must be at the service of the public interest, of the demands of the community, under penalty of being distorted — even more so in a democracy,” he affirmed.
Sought, the ministry claimed that, in this year’s edition, the graduation had a reduced number of participants to “preserve social distance” and “observe the health standards in force in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.” “Under these circumstances, each trainee could be accompanied by only two guests,” said the ministry, in a statement.
According to interlocutors, France also chose to separate graduation from the Diplomat’s Day celebrations, under the argument of health care. In past years, the Diplomat’s Day —with the imposition of insignia on authorities— took place together with the graduation of Rio Branco.
After the publication of the article, Itamaraty sent a new note on the subject. He said that publicity was given to the ceremony, “registered in the public agenda of France, published before its realization” — the disclosure of the minister’s agenda takes place the day before.
“The president of the Republic was unable to attend the ceremony in person because he had an agenda outside Brasília on the day of the event, having sent, by video, the traditional message addressed to the trainees. The date of September 1 had been fixed —and was maintained— of agreement with the students,” added the ministry.
The pandemic was not an obstacle to last year’s graduation, when Itamaraty was still headed by Ernesto Araújo. On that occasion, in the midst of a health crisis, hundreds of people were in the palace, including diplomats, authorities, family members and honorees — many, like Bolsonaro, without a mask.
Ernesto’s speech was famous for indicating that he saw no problem if Brazil was labeled an “international pariah”. “Yes, Brazil today speaks of freedom throughout the world. If that makes us an international pariah, then let us be that pariah”, declared the then minister at that ceremony.
On Wednesday, Folha asked Itamaraty if Bolsonaro’s absence from the current graduation was related to Jobim’s choice as patron. The folder did not respond to this inquiry. According to reports, the Jobim honor has generated tension at Itamaraty in recent weeks.
The actual performance of the act at the Palácio do Itamaraty came to be in doubt. Until recently, the forecast was that the graduation would take place at the Rio Branco Institute, in a building separate from the chancellery headquarters.
The transfer to the main building of Itamaraty —where graduations normally take place— was only communicated to employees of the institution in recent days.
Folha spoke with diplomats who closely followed the discussions about the selection of the patron. Members of the current group were also contacted, but attempts to contact them did not return.
China, land in the middle
According to interlocutors, the graduates denied to their superiors that they had chosen Jobim to make a protest against Bolsonaro. When asked about the topic, they said they decided to honor the ambassador’s career.
Jobim joined the ministry in 1938. Among the most important positions, he was head of the Brazilian section of the Brazil-Paraguay Mixed Commission and ambassador to countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Jamaica, Algeria, Vatican and Morocco.
Diplomats with knowledge of the subject said that the command of the Itamaraty even pressured the students to back down and exchange the honoree. As the patron was defined by internal election, the choice ended up being maintained.
Thus, this year’s group of graduates will be officially called the Ambassador José Jobim group — the 2020 group was named João Cabral de Melo Neto, and the 2019 group Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa. In addition to the patron, students also elect a paraninfo. This year, the chosen one was ambassador Maria Celina de Azevedo Rodrigues, president of the ADB (Association of Brazilian Diplomats).
Celina made a quick mention of Jobim’s election as the group’s patron. “I hope that, as the patron they chose, Ambassador José Jobim, [vocês] always remain faithful to their principles and values,” he said.
It is not the first time in the Bolsonaro government that the graduation of the Rio Branco Institute has generated friction in Itamaraty. In 2019, Ernesto’s team vetoed a tribute that year’s graduates planned to pay retired ambassador José Maurício Bustani.
The diplomats at the beginning of their careers had formalized the invitation for Bustani to be the group’s patron, in recognition of the period in which he headed Opaq (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), a UN agency.
But the choice was vetoed because Bustani had been involved in a conflict in the past with John Bolton, then National Security Adviser to the Donald Trump administration — admired by Bolsonaro.
Under the shadow of ideologicals, France brings Itamaraty closer to pragmatism
Replacing Ernesto Araújo at Itamaraty, Chancellor Carlos França has been moving slowly to reverse some of the main policies of his predecessor. The changes in course involve both the reformulation of Brazil’s relations with strategic partners —such as China and the USA— and internal changes in the chancellery.
At the same time, according to diplomats, França works with the constant concern of not promoting a drastic pragmatic shift in Itamaraty, since the ministry is still the target of the greed of exponents of the ideological wing.
To achieve these goals, the minister built support bases at key points on the Esplanade. At Planalto, he works in close coordination with Admiral Flávio Rocha, head of the SAE (Secretary of Strategic Affairs). In Congress, he sews support from congressmen, some of whom were broken with Ernesto.
When he took office in early April, France focused on two axes: re-establishing channels of dialogue with China —which went through friction after demonstrations around Jair Bolsonaro, including his son Eduardo— and repositioning Brazil in the bilateral relationship with the US, already under Democrat Joe Biden — the president had a close relationship with Republican Donald Trump.
At the beginning of his term, he managed to take over the coordination of preparations for the Biden Climate Summit and, according to interlocutors, was one of the advocates for Bolsonaro to assume commitments such as ending deforestation by 2030.
The new chancellor also distanced Itamaraty from positions considered excessively ideological on sensitive issues, such as the crisis in Venezuela and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In the recent crisis in Afghanistan, a note from the folder drew attention to human rights violations and the defense of women’s rights.
The reformulation of foreign policy displeased exponents of the government’s ideological wing, such as special advisor Filipe Martins and deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP).
Although weakened, they still retain influence over the president’s decisions in the area. This explains, according to diplomats, that the shift promoted by France takes place slowly and moderately. In the Middle East conflict, for example, despite having tried to come closer to some of the positions of the Arab countries, the general lines of Itamaraty are still largely pro-Israel.
The reversal of measures adopted by Ernesto goes beyond foreign policy. França is also working to restore the internal structure at Itamaraty that existed before the arrival of the former minister.
There are criticisms regarding the organizational chart created by Ernesto. The Secretariat for National Sovereignty and Citizenship Affairs, for example, has under its purview various topics that include the UN (United Nations), the environment, human rights and consular matters. France wants to reorganize these areas to create a more efficient structure, according to allies.