President Biden on Friday hosts the new leader of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and each man is hoping for a boost from the other as they try to put their countries’ previous administrations behind them.
Biden and Lula, as the Brazilian is known, defeated populists with authoritarian tendencies in their presidential elections, with both losing candidates — Donald Trump here and Jair Bolsonaro there — refusing to recognize their rival’s victory.
Supporters of the defeated incumbents attacked government institutions in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and in Brasilia on Jan. 8 of this year, in a shocking and violent challenge to the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies.
“It’s about solidarity for our respective democracies and really being able to demonstrate that democracy can deliver,” a senior Biden administration official said ahead of the Friday afternoon meeting in the describing the presidents’ agendas. He requested anonymity to discuss the encounter before it happened.
Trump had a friendly relationship with Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who praised military dictatorships, attacked LGBTQ and women’s rights, and oversaw massive destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Biden has been keen to reset the relationship with Brazil from the moment of Lula’s victory, telephoning him promptly to congratulate him and again to offer support when the attacks on Brazilian government institutions broke out last month.
As Trump did with Biden in 2021, Bolsonaro refused to attend Lula’s inauguration on Jan. 1, and instead fled to southern Florida where he has been staying near Disney World while attempting to obtain a U.S. visa. U.S. officials say they have not received a request from Brazil for Bolsonaro’s extradition. Bolsonaro denies he instigated the attacks on Brazil’s Supreme Court, Congress and presidential office.
“The primary importance of this trip for Lula is the symbolism of it,” said Bruna Santos of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “It is his opportunity to demonstrate his leadership and commitment to democracy and [attract] international cooperation towards fighting the extreme right.”
Lula is a veteran leftist, and his other engagements on his short trip to the U.S. include meetings with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and officials at the AFL-CIO. But unlike earlier in his career, Lula is a much more pragmatic politician now and wants Biden’s support as much as he does the Cuban leadership or others along the political spectrum, which has shifted left in much of Latin America.
Santos said she believed the relationship between Biden and Lula, who have known each other for years, is one of empathy.
“I don’t think Biden is looking at the region with the lens of the past, right versus left,” she said. “His agenda now is defending democracy in a world of competition democracy versus autocracy.”
The other major issue for the two presidents is “wrestling back the Amazon from organized crime,” said Cecilia Tornaghi, senior policy advisor at the Americas Society in New York. Biden can make a big statement about one of his principal policy goals, working on the environment, without much opposition since saving the Amazon is a much more broadly accepted aim in the climate movement.
“It’s low-hanging fruit for Biden while Lula needs all the help he can get,” she said from Brazil.
The senior Biden administration official said racial justice is also dominating the presidents’ agenda as they look at “how we can really advance shared priorities on ethnic and racial inclusion in both our countries.”
Lula’s delegation includes his minister for racial equality, a post that Bolsonaro eliminated but the new president is reviving. Anielle Franco is a Black Brazilian in a country where Black people are routinely marginalized. Her sister, well-known human rights activist Marielle Franco, was assassinated in 2018, a political murder that remains unsolved.
But there are also areas in which Biden and Lula certainly will not agree. Lula has refused to support Ukraine militarily in its war with Russia, instead offering to speak to both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate peace.