Lula Needs a Bro Hug From Biden, Not Demands : Business


This is not an everyday thought among the polished diplomats at the foreign ministry in Itamaraty, where diplomacy is mostly understood as the art of projecting Brazil’s greatness and defending a narrow self-interest. 

But in the wake of the right-wing insurrection in Brasilia on Jan. 8, with revelations about the involvement of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies in a plot to overturn the presidential election and efforts to frame and arrest the head of the electoral court, Brazilian democracy needs all the support it can get from the liberal, democratic world.

When President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva arrives in the White House on Friday, President Joe Biden must provide that support, no strings attached. And Lula must overcome his bureaucracy’s suspicions of the US and take it. With the political stability of the hemisphere at stake, the behemoths of North and South America must build a more solid bond. 

“The reason Lula wanted to come and come now is because he does see that his standing is weak,” said Monica de Bolle of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “Lula wants some clear show of support. That’s all it is.” 

It would be a mistake for Biden to entangle US solidarity with any demands that the Brazilian leader will find impossible to accept. 

As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz discovered last week, Brazil sees little upside in helping to arm Ukraine and antagonizing Russia, a key supplier of essential fertilizer for its agricultural interests (which, as fierce supporters of Bolsonaro, are already pretty antagonistic to Lula). 

There’s also little point in Biden asking Lula for support in the US’s budding conflict with China, which, like Brazil and Russia, is part of the BRICS group of large developing countries, with India and South Africa. 

“It will want to maintain a degree of leverage and independence from both sides,” said Thomas Shannon, who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013. “They don’t want to be the ham in the sandwich.” 

It is critical for the Biden administration to understand just how weak Lula’s government is,  dependent on a large coalition of parties that are not necessarily aligned with the objectives of his Workers’ Party, also known as the PT. “Lula may be popular but the PT isn’t,” Shannon noted. 

Even Lula’s popularity is hardly universal. While the Brazilian president is a skilled political operator who has proven able to cut deals across party lines, the opposition is uncompromising. The armed forces did not join the insurrection, but cadres in the military, the police and the intelligence services are happy to undermine the regime. 

Hamilton Mourão, a former general and vice president under Bolsonaro, is now in the senate, fulminating against the government for mistreating the insurrectionists and standing in the way of Lula’s attempts to reform the security forces. “The government can’t trust its own security,” de Bolle added. “Things are just looking really weird.”

The US can really help with this. To begin with, Shannon notes, Lula sees the US as a  “tranquilizing force” not only for the political opposition but, most importantly, for the armed forces and the military, which have forged close ties with their US counterparts. 

American help could also prove extremely valuable for other priorities in Lula’s playbook. Consider the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, which tops Lula’s list. Ending deforestation, protecting indigenous rights and developing viable development strategies to serve communities reliant on the forest will be tough. 

For starters, those goals will require squelching a burgeoning illegal economy — land theft and deforestation, illegal grazing, mining, logging, drug dealing — a difficult task without the full-fledged support of the security forces. “Lula can’t do that now,” de Bolle asserted. “He needs Europe. He needs the US. He needs all the big democracies.”

Just as it helped develop the system that has proven essential to monitoring the Amazon’s health, the US — and other rich countries — could provide diplomatic, financial and technological backing to build a new economic, social and environmental strategy that ropes in Brazil and the other Amazon nations, from Peru to Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Addressing world hunger is another potentially fruitful area of cooperation. The US and Brazil are among the world’s biggest producers and exporters of food. Even if they can’t agree on the war in Ukraine, they might collaborate in dealing with one of its devastating consequences.

Come what may, Biden’s advisors should not become too frustrated if there are no obvious wins to chalk up; no deals to announce; no points to put on the board. An unequivocal, muscular show of support for Brazil’s democracy would, on its own, count as a clear win for the US too. 

The US shares responsibility for the attack on democracy in Brasilia last month. Americans offered blueprints on how to undermine elections, guides to storming seats of power. That alone justifies deploying American leverage to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. 

But there’s more. In the end, Brazil and the US share an imperative: Lula must do what he can to ensure that Bolsonaro fades into insignificance. Biden must do the same with Donald Trump. If they succeed, they will have sent a powerful message to a hemisphere in which democracy is only barely hanging in there: that democracy can, indeed, recover and endure.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Lula Can’t Tell Vladimir from Volodymyr: Andreas Kluth

Social Media Firms Failed Once Again in Brazil: Parmy Olson

South America’s Make-Believe Money Is Either Dangerous or Irrelevant: Eduardo Porter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”

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