US President Joe Biden hosts his counterpart Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the White House Friday in a show of support for Brazilian democracy, shaken last month by a right-wing insurrection akin to the invasion of the US Capitol in 2021.
Washington and Brasília organised the meeting with unusual urgency, scheduling it just six weeks after Lula’s inauguration. Yet there has been no solution to the elephant in the room: former Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro, who's been vacationing in Florida since December 30, two days before his mandate ended.
Not only has Lula’s predecessor failed to properly concede defeat after last year's vote, his supporters back home staged a failed attempt on January 8 to overturn the result of the election. Former US president Donald Trump, a Bolsonaro ally who inspired the Capitol riot, has also based himself in the Sunshine State as he seeks a rematch with Biden.
Bolsonaro’s self-imposed exile is unlikely to be a topic of conversation during Friday’s sit-down, at least if that’s up to Lula, according to Brazilian officials. The left-wing leader has more pressing issues to address, and is particularly comfortable with having his bitter rival enjoying a tourist life near Orlando, where he’s become an odd attraction for Brazilians who sympathise with his Trump-like political style.
“Bolsonaro is a problem for the US migration,” Ambassador Michel Arslanian, secretary for Latin America at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters this week.
Yet US officials have indicated they’re unlikely to revoke or alter Bolsonaro’s legal ability to remain in the country absent a request from the Brazilian government, which thus far has not made one. The situation presents challenges as Biden and Lula attempt to get the US-Brazil relationship back on track.
“Far-right extremists became a concern for the governability of both countries as they upend the rules of the game, weakening democracy,'’ said Carolina Botelho, a political scientist with the Institute of Advanced Studies at São Paulo University.
So far, Bolsonaro has attended a couple of rallies organised by conservative US political groups that have had little impact at home. The former president is seeking a six-month visitor visa to stay in the United States after arriving on a diplomatic passport in late December.
Back in Brazil, where he faces multiple court probes including into his alleged role in the riots, Bolsonaro could more easily mobilise supporters with public appearances and his famous motorcycle rallies and possibly influencing congress, where his candidate failed to be elected head of the senate last week, the officials said, asking not to be named discussing political strategy.
For Biden, Bolsonaro’s unexpected Florida stay has caused something of a headache as Democrats in the US Congress pressure him to expel the Brazilian leader. Last month, 46 Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden saying the US “must not provide shelter for him, or any authoritarian who has inspired such violence against democratic institutions.”
“It’s no secret to say that Bolsonaro’s presence in Florida has become a nuisance for the United States as it seeks to move forward with its relationship with Brazil,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
While the Biden administration has stuck with a wait-and-see approach, hoping Bolsonaro leaves the country eventually after his visas expires, its belief is that his presence is seen as little more than a sideshow.
Democracy and the environment will be the common ground designed to help both leaders to reset their countries’ relations. Talks on those issues fizzled out when Biden was elected and initially avoided returning a call from Bolsonaro — who had publicly backed Trump in the 2020 election.
The White House eventually invited Bolsonaro to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last year, when both presidents held their first and only meeting. Biden also moved decisively to recognise Lula’s victory in October minutes after the electoral authority called the election for the leftist leader.
Biden plans to discuss with Lula ways to reject political extremism and strengthen democracy in Brazil and worldwide, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview his agenda. The US president is also expected to discuss actions they can take together to combat global warning, including by leveraging the landmark climate and health law Biden signed into law last year, the official said. Other items on their agenda include economic development, Brazil's participation in multilateral institutions and irregular migration.
Lula landed in Washington Thursday afternoon. He is expected to meet with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an icon of the US left, as well as other Democratic lawmakers and labour union officials at the Blair House on Friday, before sitting down with Biden. He's accompanied by the ministers of finance, environment, foreign relations and racial equality, as well as other advisers.
Ukraine, Venezuela, Cuba
Other topics likely to be addressed during the conversation, scheduled for 3.30pm in Washington, are likely to expose disagreements. Among them, Lula is pushing for the creation of a group of countries, possibly including India, China and Indonesia, to offer to mediate peace between Russia and Ukraine. He has already unsuccessfully pitched the idea to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Biden is his next target, and then China’s Xi Jinping during a trip to Beijing in March.
Biden has said he plans to maintain an allied coalition supplying weapons to Ukraine as long as it takes for Kyiv’s forces to win back territory and improve their leverage over Moscow.
Visiting Brasília last month, Scholz not only reiterated his nation’s support of Ukraine but also invited Brazil to join the war effort.
“I don’t believe President Biden will ask me to join the war effort,” Lula said. “He knows my opinion about it.”
Lula, who at 77-years-old returns for a third mandate after governing Brazil between 2003 and 2010, also plans to raise the issues of Cuba and Venezuela, even as chances of convincing Biden to remove sanctions and embargos against both countries are extremely slim.
The environment is perhaps an area where concrete commitments can be made. After Biden mentioned during his election campaign that he could lead efforts to rally wealthy nations to protect the tropical rainforest, Lula expects him to come up with a generous financial contribution to join the Amazon fund, which finances efforts to combat deforestation.
Finally, bilateral trade will also be a focus after the US lost the title of Brazil’s main trading partner to China years ago. Two-way trade in goods and services was over US$98 billion in 2021, according to the US Department of State.
by Simone Preissler Iglesias & Jordan Fabian, Bloomberg