Biden, Lula to put focus on democracy, climate during visit

President Joe Biden is welcoming Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the White House for wide-ranging talks

David Biller,Aamer Madhani
Friday 10 February 2023 10:31 GMT
Lula in the US: Visit to focus on support for democracy and environment

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meet in Washington Friday, the leaders will share some awareness of what it’s like to walk in one another's shoes.

Biden, a centrist Democrat, defeated incumbent Donald Trump in a fraught race, securing victory with thin margins in several battleground states. In Brazil’s tightest election since its return to democracy over three decades ago, Lula, the leftist leader of the Workers' Party, squeaked out a win against right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who earned the nickname “Trump of the Tropics” and was an outspoken admirer of the former U.S. president.

Both Trump and Bolsonaro sowed doubts about the vote, without ever presenting evidence, but their claims nevertheless resonated with their most die-hard supporters. In the U.S. Capitol, Trump supporters staged the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection seeking to prevent Biden's win from being certified. Last month, thousands of rioters stormed the Brazilian capital aiming to oust the newly-inaugurated Lula.

Friday's Oval Office talks, just over a month after Lula’s swearing-in and the failed attempt to topple his presidency, are meant to spotlight that Brazil's democracy remains resilient and that relations between the Americas’ two biggest democracies are back on track.

“Lula, he has everything on the table right now to be a democratic champion, given what happened in Brazil over the past month and a half,” said Thiago de Aragão, a senior associate of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So, having seen Biden in a similar situation during January 6th, this is something that they can together focus on.”

The leaders are expected to discuss efforts to safeguard democracy, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, insecurity in Haiti, migration and climate change, including efforts to stem deforestation of the Amazon, according to a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters about the meeting on the condition of anonymity.

During his 2020 run for the White House, Biden proposed working with global partners to create a $20 billion fund that would encourage Brazil to change its approach to the Amazon. Analysts say Friday's meeting marks an ideal opportunity for Biden to announce a follow-up on the campaign pledge.

The senior Biden administration official declined to comment on whether Biden would announce a U.S. contribution to a multilateral climate effort known as the Amazon Fund. The official noted that Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry, is expected to soon travel to Brazil.

The two leaders previously met face-to-face in 2009 when Biden was vice president during Lula's first go-round as Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010. Lula later spent 580 days in prison on corruption charges but the conviction was annulled in 2021 on procedural grounds and the Supreme Court later ruled the judge had been biased. Climate was a prominent topic in two recent phone calls between the leaders since Lula's October victory, according to the White House.

But Lula’s biggest objective is securing ringing support for the legitimacy of his presidency amid continued unease at home. It remains unclear how the animus Bolsonaro generated will be channeled going forward, and some opposition lawmakers allied with the former president are already calling for Lula’s impeachment. Lula sacked the army’s commander, with the defense minister citing “a fracture in the level of trust” in the force’s top levels.

“You have the environment and other stuff, but Lula sitting down with Biden is an exercise in coup-proofing Brazil’s democracy. It basically comes down to that,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank. “There is still genuine concern in the Brazilian government about the armed forces, and the biggest partner in containing the armed forces is the United States.”

Bolsonaro, who is facing several investigations in Brazil, traveled to Florida during the final days of his presidency and has remained there since. He applied late last month for a six-month tourist visa to extend his U.S. stay. A group of Democratic lawmakers have urged Biden to expel the former president on the grounds that the U.S. shouldn’t provide safe harbor to would-be authoritarians.

The White House and State Department have declined to comment on Bolsonaro’s visa status, citing privacy concerns. Valentina Sader, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Center, said that both Biden and Lula want to tread carefully on the visa issue.

“Lula is walking a fine line with the Bolsonaro visa situation and is looking to avoid being seen as persecuting Bolsonaro,” Sader said. “And for Biden, in any way he can avoid this becoming a bigger thing than it needs to be, I think that that will be his choice.”

Biden stands ready to discuss Bolsonaro’s presence in the United States should Lula raise it, according to the Biden administration official. Analysts have said Lula is unlikely to do so, in part because for him Bolsonaro’s absence from Brazil is a welcome change.

Lula was scheduled to meet with Democratic lawmakers and union officials ahead of his meeting with Biden.

Even as Lula has been lauded for his democratic bona fides, he declines to criticize authoritarianism in Venezuela and Cuba, saying the nations are entitled to self-determination, and he often sides with their left-wing leaders.

That marks something of a departure from Biden’s pro-democracy agenda, said Bruna Santos, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. But the Brazilian leader is aware of the risks of leaning too close and will measure his words in Washington, she added.

Ukraine could make for a somewhat awkward divergence between the two leaders. Lula previously said the country was as much to blame for the war as Russia, though he more recently clarified that he thought Russia was wrong to invade.

Lula has declined to provide Ukraine with munitions.


Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro

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