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LATIN AMERICA | 02-11-2022 15:28

Brazil President-elect Lula finds quick welcome and likely ally in Joe Biden

Lula and Biden – both septuagenarian political veterans who returned to the ballot on avowed missions to save democracy – stand to form a close partnership on issues, starting with climate change.

For the White House on a Sunday evening, the pace was extraordinary – 35 minutes after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was declared the winner of Brazil's election, US President Joe Biden issued a congratulatory statement.

Biden, who was joined by several other Western leaders, was seeking to preempt any anti-democratic moves by incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who himself took 38 days to recognise Biden's victory over the far-right Brazilian leader's ally and inspiration Donald Trump.

With the change in Brazil, the Western Hemisphere's two most populous countries will have leaders with similar narratives – septuagenarian political veterans who returned to the ballot on avowed missions to save democracy and who defeated, if just barely, right-wing populists.

Lula and Biden, who followed up Monday with a telephone conversation, stand to form a close partnership on issues dear to both of them, starting with climate change.

The Brazilian president-eleft in his victory speech turned the page from the climate sceptic Bolsonaro by vowing to strive for zero deforestation in the Amazon, which serves a crucial role for the planet in countering carbon emissions.

"I think there is a natural alignment in terms of climate and in terms of democracy, too," said Valentina Sader, associate director of the Atlantic Council's Latin America Center. "If the past is indicative, Lula will end up working with everyone but at the same time be pragmatic," she said.

 

Role on Haiti?

Liliana Ayalde, a former US ambassador to Brazil, said Biden could offer technological and other help on reducing deforestation, but warned that even with Lula, the United States needed to be mindful of Brazilian sensitivities about sovereignty. 

"Sometimes without even knowing it we come across, like, 'the Amazon is ours,'" she told a forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. But, she said, "The space is there to do a lot," with climate to figure much more prominently in the relationship.

Ayalde also pointed to the possibility of Lula's Brazil stepping up in stabilising violence-ravaged Haiti, where the Biden administration has backed the deployment of an international force to which it is loathe to commit US troops.

Other Western nations are also stepping up cooperation with Brazil, with Norway announcing a resumption of deforestation aid and the European Union indicating it may move forward on a trade deal.

Biden's margin for cooperation, however, could soon shrink if Republicans, some of whom have voiced support for Bolsonaro, win congressional elections next week.

 

'More moderate' Lula

Similarities only go so far between Biden, for 36 years a middle-of-the-road senator, and Lula, a trade unionist turned global leftist icon when he was first elected in 2002 and who later was jailed on controversial corruption charges.

During his first stint as president, Lula managed warm relations both with the United States and leftist allies such as Cuba and Venezuela, but also occasionally irked US officials with his ambitions for an international role, including his own diplomatic initiative on Iran's nuclear program.

In an interview this year with Time, Lula partly blamed the West for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and said Biden should have flown to Moscow to negotiate, saying, "This is the kind of attitude you expect from a leader."

But Lula faces a different world two decades later and Ayalde, the former ambassador, said she was struck by the lack of verbal sops to Cuba and Venezuela in his victory remarks.

"I think you will see a Lula who will be much more moderate. He has stated that he wants to distance himself from authoritarianism," she said.

With the United States backtracking from a goal of toppling Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolás Maduro, and Gustavo Petro newly elected as Colombia's first left-wing president, Sader said Lula's reputation could serve as an asset rather than impediment to Biden.

If there is a push to negotiate with Maduro, "Lula might be a way to make that happen," Sader said.

Bruna Santos, senior advisor at the Brazil Institute of the Wilson Center, said Lula saw his role as bringing countries together.

"He always tries to see himself as someone who can coordinate and be more diplomatic than anything, in a pragmatic way," she said.

Lula, she added, has explicitly embraced the Biden model of "Build Back Better" – targeted efforts to move on from a divisive leader.

Both nations face "this crisis of democracy, that goes beyond representation and goes to the state's capacity to deliver solutions to people," Santos said.

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by Shaun Tandon, AFP

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