(Corrects 4th paragraph of this March 14 to say Colombia a NATO partner, not member.)
By Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - The United States will strengthen military ties with Brazil to a level usually reserved for NATO allies during President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington next week, boosting growing cooperation between the Americas’ two largest militaries, two Brazilian government officials said on Thursday.
Bolsonaro will meet U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House on Tuesday during a visit aimed at strengthening economic, political and military ties between his right-wing government and Washington.
The status of “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) gives a country preferential access to the purchase of U.S. military equipment and technology, including free surplus material, expedited export processing and prioritized cooperation on training.
Currently 17 countries have MNNA status. Brazil would become just the second Latin American country to join their ranks after Argentina, which received the designation in 1998. Colombia last year became a NATO partner, allowing Colombian armed forces to take part in NATO exercises other NATO activities.
The Brazilian officials said they have been negotiating the designation since the beginning of this year. They requested anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss it publicly.
The White House declined comment.
The MNNA designation would ease the transfer of defense technology at a time when Brazil’s aerospace industry has forged new ties with the United States, including a planned tie-up between Boeing Co and Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA on both defense and commercial aircraft.
Last year the Trump administration embarked on an arms export policy to help American defense firms compete better against increasingly aggressive Russian and Chinese manufacturers.
Brazil may be the top South American consumer of equipment from the United States, but that number is still very small. In fiscal 2017 the U.S. delivered only $39 million in foreign military sales to Brazil.
The United States and Brazil have also reached an accord to safeguard U.S. space technology that the South American nation hopes will be used in commercial rockets using its launch center near the equator, officials said on Monday. They expect the deal to be sealed in Washington next week.
Brazil hopes to get a piece of the $300 billion-a-year space launch business by drawing U.S. companies interested in sending up small satellites at a lower cost from the Alcantara base run by the Brazilian Air Force on the Atlantic coast.
Irrespective of the designation of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally, the U.S. military has made deepening ties with Brazil a top priority.
“There’s tremendous opportunity for enhancing and strengthening our partnership with Brazil,” the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, told Reuters in an interview earlier this week, without addressing Brazil’s potential designation as a non-NATO ally.
Faller said he was looking for “pragmatic and practical” ways to deepen ties. Those could include greater sharing of intelligence and information, more robust participation in military exercises and more educational exchanges, he said.
The greater cooperation comes as the Trump administration is ramping up pressure on Venezuela’s leftist government to hold free elections and working closely with Colombia and Brazil to address their neighbor’s mounting political and economic crisis.
The Brazilian and U.S. military have cooperated since World War Two when Brazil was the only Latin American nation to send troops to fight with the allies in Europe. Ties cooled in 1977 when the administration of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter enforced a U.S. arms embargo over rights abuses by Brazil’s military government.
Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Phil Stewart and Mike Stone in Washignton; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker