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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden and Lula swap insurrection stories and vow to guard democracy

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and U.S. President Joe Biden meet in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

By Peter Baker and Jack Nicas

When he hosts world leaders, President Joe Biden typically exchanges thoughts on trade policy or national security and maybe swaps old election stories. But last Friday, for the first time, he welcomed a leader with whom he could trade notes about being on the receiving end of a violent insurrection.

Biden’s meeting at the White House with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil came barely a month after a mob supporting Lula’s defeated predecessor ransacked the country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices in an attack eerily similar to the storming of the U.S. Capitol two years earlier.

“Both our nations’ strong democracies have been tested of late, very much tested, and our institutions are put in jeopardy,” Biden said as he sat with Lula in the Oval Office. “But in both the United States and Brazil, democracy prevailed.” He added: “Brazil, the United States, stand together, we reject political violence and we put great value in our democratic institutions.”

The rampage in Brazil on Jan. 8 felt like a South American repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack in Washington when hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol seeking to stop the counting of electoral votes confirming Biden’s victory. The Brazilian mob, supporting former President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who befriended Trump and was called the Trump of the Tropics, marauded through government buildings, hoping to prod the military to topple the leftist Lula.

Sitting in the Oval Office on Friday, Lula thanked Biden “for your solidarity” during the crisis last month and described his predecessor in scathing terms.

“His world started and ended with fake news,” Lula said through a translator. “In the morning, afternoon and at night.”

Biden smiled. “Sounds familiar,” he replied.

The meeting between the two leaders, just 40 days into Lula’s presidency, was framed as a renewal of the relationship between the two largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and illustrated the warm embrace that Brazil’s new leader is receiving from leaders across the world after four years of sometimes erratic foreign policy under Bolsonaro.

“In a sense, this visit resumes bilateral relations,” Michel Arslanian Neto, the ambassador who oversees the Americas region in Brazil’s foreign ministry, told reporters Tuesday. “A relationship that has been a little bit on the back burner since Biden’s victory.”

Just a few years apart in age, Biden and Lula are both seasoned politicians with similar straight-talking, backslapping political styles, and the American president accepted an invitation to visit Brazil at an undetermined time.

Both sides stressed their shared desire and increasing cooperation to combat climate change. Brazil’s new environment minister, Marina Silva, was also in Washington on Friday. John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, has already met with Lula administration officials twice and plans to visit Brazil this year.

Beyond their shared experiences and views about the threats to democracy, the most pressing item on the agenda for their talks was protecting the Amazon rainforest. When Lula repeated his country’s commitment to completely halt deforestation by 2030, Biden crossed his fingers.

“I can reassure you, Mr. President, that the U.S. and the rest of the world can count on Brazil in the fight for democracy and the fight for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest,” Lula said.

After four years of increasing deforestation under Bolsonaro, Lula has made protecting the Amazon a central priority, including a recent push to eject illegal miners from one of Brazil’s largest Indigenous territories. In a joint statement after the meeting between the two leaders, the Biden administration announced that it would “work with Congress” to contribute money to the Amazon Fund established to preserve the rainforest, but did not say how much.

There were areas of disagreement, most notably the Russian war on Ukraine. While Lula has condemned Russia’s invasion, he has also suggested in the past that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and NATO share some blame, and he has hesitated to sell weapons to Ukraine in an effort to maintain neutrality. Brazil’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war is complicated by its reliance on Russia for about one-quarter of its fertilizer imports, which are crucial to its enormous agriculture industry.

Lula wants to try to help mediate peace in the conflict, while Biden has been more skeptical of talks in the short term since President Vladimir Putin of Russia has shown no interest in ending hostilities. Moreover, Biden has repeatedly insisted that he would not support a settlement unless it were acceptable to Ukraine.

Speaking with reporters outside the White House after his meeting with Biden, Lula said they discussed “the need to create a group of countries that are not involved directly or indirectly in the war with Russia in order to find a way to make peace.”

“I’m convinced we have to find a way to end this war,” he said. “You need to have partners able to build a group of negotiators with credibility on both sides who can end the war.”

Another flashpoint was the fate of two Iranian warships in the region. Lula’s government reversed a decision allowing the ships to dock in Rio de Janeiro before his trip to Washington, but simply delayed the ships’ visit until later this month or early next month. Republicans argued that Lula should bar them altogether.

“It is completely unacceptable for President Lula da Silva to simply postpone, instead of forbidding, the visit of two Iranian warships to Brazil to appease the White House ahead of Lula’s meeting with Biden today,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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