Britain’s dirty business in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

As Brazil goes to the polls, we look at Britain’s secret dealings with president Jair Bolsonaro and the Brazilian far right. UK officials have long had their eye on the country’s economic resources, including its oil and gas reserves.

29 September 2022

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro and his wife Michelle at the lying in state of Queen Elizabeth’s coffin. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

In September 2022, the BBC aired a documentary titled “The Boys from Brazil: Rise of the Bolsonaros”.

The three-part series, co-released with US outlet PBS, documents the rise of Brazil’s far right leader Jair Bolsonaro – who went from an obscure dictatorship-era military figure to the winner of the country’s 2018 presidential election.

“Jair Bolsonaro is one of the world’s most controversial leaders”, the documentary begins. “An ardent admirer of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Bolsonaro came to power determined to revive their policies to exploit the Amazon – whatever the cost”.

The documentary was released shortly before Brazilians go to the polls on 2 October, with former president and Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the frontrunner. Concerns are mounting over whether Bolsonaro would accept electoral defeat if he were to lose the vote.

While the documentary airs voices which are critical of the Bolsonaro regime, it omits a crucial detail of clear interest to the British public – the UK government’s secret dealings with the Bolsonaros.

Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act offer details of UK collaboration with Brazil’s far right, and show how Bolsonaro’s Brazil has represented an opportunity for British business. 


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Bolsonaro’s rise to power

Bolsonaro came to power in 2018 on a far-right ticket, advocating violence against political opponents, pledging to take away the land of indigenous people, romanticising Brazil’s military dictatorship and idolising its chief torturers, and promising a new Brazil based on “law and order”.

His election also came on the back of a series of anti-democratic manoeuvres. 

In 2016, president Dilma Rousseff was overthrown in a “soft coup” and replaced by Michel Temer, who imposed crushing austerity measures while opening the country up to foreign investment, particularly in the oil sector.

In April 2018, Lula, the clear favourite to win the 2018 presidential election, was jailed on unlawful grounds following a US-sponsored “anti-corruption” probe known as Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash).

With Lula in jail and the Workers’ Party in disarray, Bolsonaro won the 2018 presidency, immediately appointing the corrupt judge responsible for jailing Lula as his justice minister.

Over the next four years, Brazil would become a bonfire of human rights, with indigenous communities describing Bolsonaro’s decision to open up the Amazon to agribusiness, mining, and logging interests as a “declaration of extermination”.

Britain and the Bolsonaros

Documents reveal that British officials met with the Bolsonaros in the months running up to Brazil’s 2018 election.

On 10 April 2018, days after Lula’s jailing, UK ambassador in Brasília Vijay Rangarajan met with Bolsonaro, his son and congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, and an unnamed advisor. One name remains redacted.

It is unclear whether Jair Bolsonaro’s support for a military dictatorship, or decades-long discrimination against women, homosexuals, and indigenous people was discussed because the Foreign Office is refusing to release any further details about the meeting.

Notably, then chief secretary to the Treasury and current prime minister Liz Truss had arrived in Brazil on 9 April to promote “free trade, free markets and post-Brexit opportunities”.

“British officials met with the Bolsonaros in the months running up to Brazil’s 2018 election.”

Documents obtained by Declassified show that Truss met with Rangarajan in the UK embassy in Brasília on 10 April – the same day that Rangarajan was with the Bolsonaros.

It remains unclear, however, whether Truss also met Bolsonaro, or if her company with the same people on the same day was an unlikely coincidence. 

The Treasury did not respond to questions regarding Truss and the Bolsonaros.

The remainder of Truss’ visit to Brazil entailed meetings with ministers and officials on matters including “privatisation”. In one of Truss’ briefing notes, it is observed that there is a new “interest in the open market” in Brazil, which “has enormous reserves of oil and gas”.

Truss also visited the Instituto Millenium, a neoliberal think-tank co-founded in 2005 by “Chicago boy” Paulo Guedes, who would go on to become Bolsonaro’s finance minister.

At the time of Truss’ visit, Guedes was already Bolsonaro’s top economic adviser “and a proponent of privatizing government-owned companies and overhauling social security”.

A number of Truss’ discussion items with Instituto Millenium remain classified.


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‘Strategic partners’

Two months after Truss’ visit, ambassador Rangarajan sent a private letter to Bolsonaro, inviting the presidential candidate to his residence in Brasília to meet a number of “Strategic Partners”.

This term was a euphemism for the directors of Britain’s leading oil, mining, pharmaceutical, and construction corporations, including Anglo-American, BP, Shell, AstraZeneca, Unilever, and JCB.

“Deputy Bolsonaro”, the letter reads, “it was a great pleasure to meet you and initiate our conversation in April of this year. I would like to invite you for a morning coffee or lunch in my residency with the largest British investors in Brazil, at a time that best suits you”.

The meeting would be attended by “in total no more than 20 people, to allow for a fluid discussion”. Rangarajan concluded the letter by telling Bolsonaro: “I hope to meet you again”.

BP and Shell

Britain continued to collaborate with the Bolsonaros following the 2018 election.

On 14 November of that year, Rangarajan and Bolsonaro did meet again, alongside vice-president elect Hamilton Mourão, General Augusto Heleno (head of the cabinet for institutional security), two of Bolsonaro’s sons, and unnamed “others”.

“Rangarajan met with representatives of both companies no less than 20 times during 2018 and 2019.”

The Foreign Office has refused to disclose what was discussed at this meeting, though it would seem likely that investment prospects for Britain’s leading multinationals were once again raised.

Indeed, Britain had lobbied the Brazilian government on behalf of BP and Shell in 2017, and Rangarajan met with representatives of both companies no less than 20 times during 2018 and 2019. 

Truss’ visit also included a meeting with representatives of her old employer, Shell, which boasts of a “prolific… portfolio” of deep-water oil and gas production in Brazil.

‘Reminiscent of Thatcher’

In August 2019, UK trade minister Conor Burns travelled to Brazil. There, he met with Bolsonaro’s infrastructure minister Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, praising the Brazilian government’s “economic reform agenda”, which was “reminiscent of Thatcher’s”.

In Río de Janeiro, Burns met with state governor and former Bolsonaro ally Wilson Witzel, whose police had killed 881 people between January and July of that year – the highest number in nearly two decades. 

Alarmingly, Burns “stressed the breadth of UK interests” in Río, adding that the UK “stood ready to work together on a range of issues, including security” matters, citing “facial recognition” as an area of UK “expertise”.

British trade with Brazil improved considerably during Bolsonaro’s presidency. In a joint statement issued by then chancellor Rishi Sunak and Guedes, it was noted that total trade between the UK and Brazil was worth £6.5bn in 2019, a significant increase of 12.6% on 2018.

The statement continued that both governments had taken “the right measures at the right time to protect livelihoods and jobs from the adverse economic effects of the [Covid-19] pandemic”. 

At this time, over 181,000 Brazilians had died of Covid-19 – the second-highest number in the world. Bolsonaro was branded “homicidally negligent” by Brazil’s most widely-read newspaper for his handling of the pandemic. 

In September 2021, then prime minister Boris Johnson held an audience with Bolsonaro at the UN Security Council to talk “trade and security”, amongst other things, merely weeks after the Brazilian leader had provoked international concerns that he was preparing to launch a military coup.

Britain has also provided some military training to Brazil over the past four years, but the Ministry of Defence has refused to disclose the costs, stating that to do so “has the potential to adversely affect relations with our allies”.

More recently, Bolsonaro was the only South American political leader to attend the Queen’s funeral.