Brazil’s Lula Heads to the White House

It took 505 days for President Biden to even talk to former President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, a far-right leader who had questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s election.

It will take Mr. Biden just more than a month to welcome to the White House Mr. Bolsonaro’s successor, Brazil’s new leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Mr. Lula is scheduled to meet with Mr. Biden in the Oval Office on Friday for a wide-ranging conversation that both sides have framed as a renewal of the relationship between the two largest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The summit, 40 days into Mr. Lula’s presidency, also illustrates the warm embrace that Brazil’s new leader is receiving from foreign leaders across the world after four years of sometimes erratic foreign policy under Mr. Bolsonaro.

Just four years apart in age, Mr. Biden and Mr. Lula are both seasoned politicians with similar straight-talking, backslapping political styles, and both defeated right-wing presidents who resembled each other politically.

In their talks, Mr. Biden and Mr. Lula are likely to find plenty of common ground, including on climate change, protecting the Amazon rainforest and threats to democracy, a topic both men understand better than most.

They each faced far-right mobs storming their countries’ halls of power to challenge their elections, in scenes that were eerily similar, and they are likely to harp on that shared experience in public comments on Friday, urging the safeguarding of democracies against disinformation and against authoritarian leaders.

The aftermath of the attack on the presidential offices by demonstrators supporting former president Jair Bolsonaro last month in Brasilia.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

“In a sense, this visit resumes bilateral relations,” Michel Arslanian Neto, the ambassador who oversees the Americas region in Brazil’s foreign ministry, told reporters Tuesday. “A relationship that has been a little bit on the back burner since Biden’s victory.”

But U.S. officials conceded that there could likely be some areas of disagreement, with one subject in particular having the potential for sparks: Ukraine.

Understand the Riots in Brazil’s Capital

Thousands of rioters supporting Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former president of Brazil, stormed the nation’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices on Jan. 8.

  • Anatomy of a Mass Attack: After Mr. Bolsonaro lost the presidential election in October, many believed that the threat of violence from his supporters would recede. Here is what went wrong.
  • Defender of Democracy?: Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice, has become Brazilian democracy’s chief guardian. But do his aggressive tactics go too far to fight the far right?
  • The Role of the Police: Their early inaction in the riot shows how security forces can help empower violence and deepen the threat to democracy.

While Mr. Lula has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has also suggested in the past that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and NATO share some blame, and he has hesitated to sell weapons to Ukraine in an effort to maintain neutrality.Mr. Lula wants to try to help mediate peace in the conflict, while Mr. Biden is far more supportive of Ukraine, with little expectation that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has any interest in peace.

One senior Biden administration official said the two will have a candid discussion about the subject. Mr. Arslanian said Mr. Lula would avoid the topic of arms deals, and instead push his strategy to broker peace by convening a coalition of neutral countries, led by Brazil. Mr. Lula told reporters in Brazil this week that he did not expect Mr. Biden to try to pull Brazil into any war effort — and that Brazil would not entertain it anyway.

Brazil’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war is complicated by its reliance on Russia for about a quarter of its fertilizer imports, which are crucial to its enormous agriculture industry.

Political analysts have said that if disagreement over Ukraine becomes a major part of the talks, it has the potential to spoil a summit that should be an easy foreign-policy win for both countries.

Emergency workers sifting through rubble as they search for a possible survivors after a Russian missile strike this month in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“Even though these are two leaders with a lot in common, their underlying world views and national interests are quite different, and Ukraine is a big one,” said Brian Winter, a writer and analyst who tracks Latin America for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, a group that pushes free trade in the Americas. “Primarily because of that issue, I do think there’s potential for both sides to walk away from this meeting with a somewhat sour taste.”

But there is also plenty to agree on. Ahead of the meeting, both sides stressed the countries’ shared desire and increasing cooperation to combat climate change. Brazil’s new environment minister, Marina Silva, is also in Washington on Friday. John Kerry, the American climate envoy, has already met with Lula administration officials twice and is planning to visit Brazil this year.

After four years of increasing deforestation under Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Lula has made protecting the Amazon a central priority, including a recent push to eject illegal miners from one of Brazil’s largest Indigenous territories. Mr. Arslanian said Mr. Lula will seek cooperation and funds from the United States in that mission.

An illegal mine on what is supposed to be protected land of the Yanomami people in the Brazilian Amazon.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

The U.S. official said that protecting the Amazon was vital.

Both countries established a working group for joint discussions on illegal deforestation, but under Mr. Bolsonaro only three meetings were held.

Mr. Lula is also eager to make right-wing extremism part of the agenda, Mr. Arslanian said, particularly with a focus on how social media fuels misinformation and hate speech. In Brazil, Mr. Lula has said his administration would push for legislation to curb online extremism and misinformation. Such national laws can be effective in regulating tech companies in that specific jurisdiction, but they often do not have a global effect.

The two men are also set to discuss economic ties, including boosting Brazil’s manufacturing industry as the United States seeks to reduce its reliance on China.

Mr. Lula would like Brazil to receive funds from the CHIPS and Science Act, a law Mr. Biden signed last year to boost the United States’ capabilities in producing computer chips, a critical industry dominated by Asia. Brazilian companies believe they can handle certain phases of chip production, and Mr. Lula wants U.S. funds to help make Brazil part of a regional chip supply chain, Mr. Arslanian said.

There are also some potential awkward topics. Mr. Bolsonaro has been in Florida since Dec. 30, while he is facing investigations in Brazil for his activity as president, probes that he sees as politically motivated. Mr. Bolsonaro increased Brazil’s ties with the United States as part of his friendship with former President Donald J. Trump, which was built on their similar world views.

Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Biden met in Los Angeles last year. Mr. Bolsonaro had questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s election.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

But Mr. Biden’s election quickly led to a frosty relationship between the two governments. Mr. Bolsonaro was one of the last world leaders to recognize Mr. Biden’s victory, and then the men did not speak until they met on the sidelines of a conference last year.

The situation could get tricky if Brazilian authorities bring charges against the former president and he is on U.S. territory, though it seems unlikely American officials would be interested in protecting him. American officials said they would handle any request through appropriate processes.

The administration official said that it was not clear whether Mr. Lula would raise the issue of Mr. Bolsonaro with Mr. Biden, but that the president would be ready to discuss any subject that comes up on Friday.

Another potential source of conflict is Mr. Lula’s history of harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy, including accusations that the Justice Department helped drive the corruption investigation that landed Mr. Lula in prison in 2018. Mr. Lula has long maintained his innocence, saying political enemies framed him to eliminate his leftist Workers’ Party from Brazilian politics.

Brazilian prosecutors “were servants of the U.S. Justice Department,” he told Al Jazeera in 2020. The U.S. government wanted to destroy Brazilian engineering companies and Brazil’s state-owned oil company because they were winning contracts around the world, he said. “The Americans never accepted that,” he said.

The U.S. government did aid Brazilian authorities in their investigation, according to leaked messages, though the extent of their collaboration is unclear. The State Department has declined to comment on the subject.

André Spigariol contributed reporting.

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