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Analysis | Lula needs a hug from Biden, not demands


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

But in the aftermath of the right-wing uprising in Brasilia on January 8, with revelations of the involvement of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies in a plot to overturn the presidential election and efforts to impeach and arrest the head of the electoral tribunal, democracy needs all the support it can get from the liberal, democratic world.

When President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva arrives at the White House on Friday, President Joe Biden must provide that support without obligation. And Lula must overcome and accept his bureaucracy’s mistrust of the US. With the political stability of the hemisphere at stake, the giants of the Americas must bond more closely.

“The reason Lula wanted to come and is coming now is because he sees his position is weak,” said Monica de Bolle of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “Lula wants a clear statement of support. That’s all it is.”

It would be a mistake on Biden’s part to entwine American solidarity with demands that the Brazilian leader cannot possibly accept.

As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz found out last week, Brazil sees little benefit in helping to arm Ukraine and antagonize Russia, a major supplier of vital fertilizer to its agricultural interests (who, as fierce supporters of Bolsonaro, are already quite hostile). against Lula).

It also makes little sense for Biden to ask Lula for support in the US’s burgeoning conflict with China, which, like Brazil and Russia, is part of the BRICS group of major developing countries, with India and South Africa.

“It’s going to want to maintain some influence and independence from both sides,” said Thomas Shannon, who served as 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 how weak Lula’s government is, depending on a grand coalition of parties that are not necessarily aligned with the goals of his Labor Party, also known as the PT. “Lula may be popular, but the PT isn’t,” Shannon pointed out.

Even Lula’s popularity is hardly universal. While the Brazilian president is a skilled political operator who has proven his ability to negotiate deals across party lines, the opposition is unyielding. The armed forces did not join the uprising, but cadres in the army, police and intelligence services like to undermine the regime.

Hamilton Mourão, a former general and vice president under Bolsonaro, is now in the Senate protesting the government for mistreating the insurgents and hindering Lula’s efforts to reform the security forces. “The government cannot trust its own security,” De Bolle added. “It just looks really weird.”

The US can really help with this. For one thing, Shannon notes, Lula sees the US as a “soothing force” not just for the political opposition, but especially for the armed forces and military, which have forged close ties with their US counterparts.

US aid can also be extremely valuable for other priorities in Lula’s playbook. Consider preserving the Amazon rainforest, which is at the top of Lula’s list. Stopping deforestation, protecting indigenous rights and developing viable development strategies to serve forest-dependent communities will be difficult.

For one thing, those goals require suppressing a burgeoning illegal economy — land theft and deforestation, illegal grazing, mining, logging, drug trafficking — a difficult task without the full support of the security forces. “Lula can’t do that right now,” De Bolle claimed. “He needs Europe. He needs the US. He needs all the great democracies.”

Just as it helped develop the system that has proven essential for monitoring the Amazon’s health, the US – and other wealthy countries – could provide diplomatic, financial and technological support to help create a new economic, social and environmental strategy in Brazil and the other Amazon countries, from Peru to Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Tackling world hunger is another potentially fruitful area of ​​cooperation. The US and Brazil are among the world’s largest producers and exporters of food. Even if they can’t agree on the war in Ukraine, they could work together to deal with one of its devastating consequences.

Whatever happens, Biden’s advisers shouldn’t get too frustrated when there are no clear wins to be had; no deals to announce; no points to put on the board. An unequivocal, muscular show of support for Brazilian democracy would in itself also count as a clear victory for the US.

The US is partly responsible for the attack on democracy in Brasilia last month. Americans offered blueprints to undermine elections, guides to storming seats of power. That alone justifies using American influence to make sure something like this never happens again.

But there’s more. Ultimately, Brazil and the US share a need: Lula must do what he can to make sure 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 where democracy is barely holding: that democracy can indeed recover and endure.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

Lula cannot distinguish Vladimir from Volodymyr: Andreas Kluth

Social media companies failed again in Brazil: Parmy Olson

South America’s mock money is dangerous or irrelevant: Eduardo Porter

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on 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.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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