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After Trump and Bolsonaro, are Biden and Brazil’s Lula ideological allies?


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President Biden hosts his Brazilian counterpart at the White House on Friday. The visit of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Washington marks a meeting of the leaders of the Western hemisphere’s two biggest economies and democracies. And it’s being framed as a chance for a fresh start after the chaos left behind by both of these presidents’ predecessors — tenures marked by polarization, political tumult and the ideological convergence of hard-right nationalists in both countries.

Lula arrived in Washington a month after supporters of defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed key institutions of the federal state in the capital Brasília in a failed bid to oust the leftist leader and his new administration. In the weeks since, Brazilian officials have stressed that Biden’s swift and strong backing of both Lula and Brazil’s democratic institutions, as well as the solidarity of many other countries elsewhere, proved crucial during a fraught moment for Brazil’s still-young democracy.

Lula’s visit also comes a week after Bolsonaro, who has yet to formally accept his defeat in last year’s election and is in the middle of an extended sojourn in Florida, spoke at an event hosted at a hotel owned by former president Donald Trump. “Brazil was doing very well,” Bolsonaro lamented before a sympathetic crowd. “I cannot understand the reasons why [the election] decided to go to the left.”

Bolsonaro supporters in the audience chanted “fraud” repeatedly. Before Brazil’s elections, the far-right president had spent months casting the integrity of his own nation’s voting systems into doubt, even though his claims were not substantiated by meaningful evidence. According to the Associated Press’s account of the Miami event, Charlie Kirk — head of Turning Point USA, the far-right group that gave Bolsonaro the platform — smirked as the shouts of “fraud” subsided. “All I can say is, that sounds very familiar,” said Kirk, who spent months pushing misinformation about Trump’s electoral defeat.

The undeniable U.S. hand in Brazil’s anti-democratic riot

The enduring connection between Trump and Bolsonaro, both stewing in grievance out of office, will loom over Biden’s sit-down with Lula. Bolsonaro’s movement seemed to take many of its cues from Trumpism — Bolsonaro himself was one of the last major world leaders to congratulate Biden on his election victory, while his son appeared to back the U.S. rioters who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. That extremist revolt saw its Brazilian redux this year on Jan. 8. For good reason, Biden and Lula are expected to jointly decry the influence and threat posed by violent far-right politics in both of their countries.

“The Trump and Bolsonaro bromance brought the two countries closer together during those years, but they are both gone now and replaced by these two leaders who also have a lot in common,” Brian Winter, veteran Brazil analyst and editor of Americas Quarterly, told me. “These are two aging statesmen who managed to defeat a threat from the authoritarian right at the ballot box and survive insurrections at their capitals.”

For all the division in Washington, Lula presides over an arguably more delicate situation. Bolsonaro is a longtime admirer of the era of Brazi’s right-wing military dictatorship; after suffering defeat at the ballot box, some of his supporters clamored for weeks for the armed forces to somehow overturn the results of the election. Brazilian civic institutions held the line and that outcome did not come to pass. Analysts reckon that the Biden administration’s emphatic support for Lula played a role in restraining elements of the military that may have contemplated some kind of intervention.

“There is a profoundly asymmetric nature to this — what happens in Brazil is not of much consequence to the United States, but the Biden administration was crucial in checking the Brazilian armed forces,” Oliver Stuenkel, professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, told me, pointing to signals U.S. military officials sent to their Brazilian counterparts that existing security cooperation and ties would be jeopardized if the military chose to undermine Brazilian democracy.

Brazil insurrection probe increases Bolsonaro’s legal jeopardy

Lula’s trip to the White House, Stuenkel said, is about “coup-proofing” Brazil and “strengthening his hand over the armed forces.” Given the American shadow over recent chaotic events in Brazil, some argue it’s only right that Biden double-down on his embrace of Lula’s defense of democracy.

“The U.S. shares responsibility for the attack on democracy in Brasília last month,” wrote Bloomberg Opinion columnist Eduardo Porter. “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.”

Given how early it is in Lula’s term, it’s likely the visit to the White House will be high on symbolism and light on substance. Still, there’s a prospect of a new sort of presidential bromance to emerge. “I think this is an opportunity for the leaders to establish or reestablish a personal rapport between them,” said Filipe Nasser, senior adviser to the Brazilian foreign minister, at a recent Washington think tank panel.

Other big issues are on the agenda, chiefly discussions about climate action, with Brazilian officials hoping to come away with concrete U.S. commitments to boost efforts to curtail deforestation in the Amazon and reverse some of the damage wrought during Bol