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Democracy on the agenda as Biden meets Brazil’s Lula at the White House

<i>CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
AFP via Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

By Kevin Liptak, CNN

When Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, met President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, the two hoped to reset relations after an era defined by right-wing populists and threats to democracy in both nations.

The talks, expected to center around efforts to combat climate change and tackle anti-democratic extremism, came roughly a month after protesters aligned with far-right former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed government institutions in Brasilia following Bolsonaro’s election loss.

“Both of our nations’ strong democracies have been tested of late, very much tested, and our institutions put in jeopardy,” Biden told Lula in the Oval Office on Friday. “But in both the United States and Brazil, democracy prevailed.”

The event carried troubling echoes of the US insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021, not least because Bolsonaro was closely aligned with former US President Donald Trump. After his election loss, Bolsonaro decamped for the United States; he has been living near Orlando, Florida, for more than a month.

“To defend democracy is an obligation of all democrats in the world,” Lula told CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour in an interview in Washington. “I (could never) have imagined that it could happen in US, in North America, the invasion of the Capitol. As I never could imagine that in Brazil, after a democratic procession with elections, we could have an invasion of the Congress, the supreme court and the presidential palace.”

“This means that you have an extreme right running around the world, an extreme right that is very nervous and that uses fake news as if it was a tool to develop politics and to talk to people, to communicate with people,” he went on. “And we have to destroy, you know, this narrative that they use against the democrats.”

For Biden, the episode was another sign that protecting democracy is a global imperative.

By extending an early invitation to Lula to visit the White House, Biden hoped to cultivate closer ties and demonstrate his support for one of the Western Hemisphere’s key players.

Biden quickly called Lula following his victory late last year, hoping to demonstrate support after Bolsonaro had laid the groundwork to question the election results. The move was received well among Lula’s officials, who saw it as a sign Biden was looking to restore US-Brazil ties.

Biden largely iced Bolsonaro out, engaging with him only sparingly. With the left-wing Lula, he finds more of an ideological ally.

They have met previously; when Biden was vice president, he met Lula on the sidelines of a gathering in Chile. But as counterparts, they will look to deepen what has traditionally been a key bilateral relationship in the Western Hemisphere, strained in recent years by the diametrically opposed Biden and Bolsonaro.

Rebuilding those bonds, and affirming a commitment to democracy, was key in their first face-to-face meeting.

“I affirm the United States’ unwavering support for Brazil’s democracy, and respect for the free will of the Brazilian people,” Biden said Friday. “We reject political violence.”

Hanging over the meeting was Bolsonaro’s continued presence in the United States. Bolsonaro is seeking a six-month tourist visa to remain in the US, the law firm representing Bolsonaro confirmed to CNN Brasil on January 30. The US State Department has refused to confirm Bolsonaro’s visa status due to confidentiality.

Bolsonaro has been in Florida since December 30, leaving Brazil days before the January 1 inauguration of his successor. His presence in Florida has drawn criticism by House Democrats, who in mid-January urged Biden not to “provide shelter” for Bolsonaro in the wake of his supporters storming Brazil’s democratic institutions in the capital Brasília.

Lula told Amanpour there was “no chance for (Bolsonaro) to come back to the presidency of the republic.”

Ahead of Friday’s visit, a US official said Biden was prepared to discuss “any issue” that Lula wanted, but suggested they did not expect Bolsonaro’s status in the United States to arise. The official said they were unaware of any formal extradition requests related to Bolsonaro.

“If and when we receive one, I know we will give it the deserving response,” the official said.

Instead, officials described an agenda focused mainly on areas of agreement, though on Ukraine there could be some dissension.

Atop the agenda was climate change, which has already been the primary focus of their two phone calls. When he was in office, Bolsonaro sped up deforestation of the Amazon. Lula has vowed to protect the forest and advance efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

They were also expected to discuss ways to bolster democracy and efforts inside both countries to advance human rights, social inclusion, gender equality and safeguarding LGBTQ rights, a senior US administration official said.

Other topics on the agenda included economic matters and an early conversation about Brazil’s 2024 presidency of the G20.

An area they may not be as closely aligned is on Ukraine. Lula has adopted a policy of non-intervention, rebuffing efforts led by Biden to united the global community in opposition to Russia’s invasion.

Lula was expected to propose a “peace club” meant to negotiate an end to the war, including countries like China and India that haven’t taken as firm a stance in opposition to the invasion.

Biden is “looking forward” to hearing out Lula’s proposals for Ukraine, the senior administration official said, and the US will “respect and support efforts by Lula to promote dialogue and peace.” Biden welcomes Lula’s readiness to to reengage on the global stage, the official said.

Still, the official acknowledged Biden and Lula “may not always agree on everything” but have a shared interest in ensuring peace.

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