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Biden and Brazil's Lula zero in on climate and democracy during visit

Fallout continues after protests in Brazil
Fallout continues after protests in Brazil 03:04

As President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met in Washington Friday, the leaders shared some awareness of what it's like to walk in one another's shoes.

Mr. Biden defeated incumbent Donald Trump in a fraught race, securing victory with thin margins in several battleground states. In Brazil's tightest election since its return to democracy over three decades ago, Lula, the leftist leader of the Workers' Party, squeaked out a win against right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who earned the nickname "Trump of the Tropics" and was an outspoken admirer of the former U.S. president.

Both Trump and Bolsonaro sowed doubts about the vote, without ever presenting evidence, but their claims still resonated with their most die-hard supporters. In the U.S. Capitol, Trump supporters staged the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection seeking to prevent Biden's win from being certified. Last month, thousands of rioters stormed the Brazilian capital aiming to oust the newly-inaugurated Lula.

The White House views Brazil as a key partner in the region and important ally as they look to work together to address human rights, managing migration, combatting climate change and more. After Mr. Biden reiterated the United States' "unwavering support" for Brazil's democracy and the values of the rule of law, freedom and equality, Lula spoke at length about his predecessor, challenges to democracy in Brazil, and deforestation and climate change in the Amazon rain forest. 

Friday's Oval Office talks, just over a month after Lula's swearing-in and the failed attempt to topple his presidency, are meant to spotlight that Brazil's democracy remains resilient and that relations between the Americas' two biggest democracies are back on track.

"Lula, he has everything on the table right now to be a democratic champion, given what happened in Brazil over the past month and a half," said Thiago de Aragão, a senior associate of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "So, having seen Biden in a similar situation during Jan. 6, this is something that they can together focus on."

Bolsonaro has been in Florida in recent weeks and underwent surgery for an old stabbing wound in January, close to the time that thousands of his supporters were storming Brazil's democratic institutions. 

The leaders were set to discuss efforts to safeguard democracy, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, insecurity in Haiti, migration and climate change, including efforts to stem deforestation of the Amazon, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters. 

The two leaders previously met face-to-face in 2009 when Mr. Biden was vice president during Lula's first go-round as Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010. Lula later spent 580 days in prison on corruption charges but the conviction was annulled in 2021 on procedural grounds and the Supreme Court later ruled the judge had been biased. Climate was a prominent topic in two recent phone calls between the leaders since Lula's October victory, according to the White House.

Lula's biggest objective is securing ringing support for the legitimacy of his presidency as unease continues at home. It remains unclear how the animus Bolsonaro generated will be channeled going forward, and some opposition lawmakers allied with the former president are already calling for Lula's impeachment.

"You have the environment and other stuff, but Lula sitting down with Biden is an exercise in coup-proofing Brazil's democracy. It basically comes down to that," said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank. "There is still genuine concern in the Brazilian government about the armed forces, and the biggest partner in containing the armed forces is the United States."

Bolsonaro, who is facing several investigations in Brazil, traveled to Florida during the final days of his presidency and has remained there since. He applied late last month for a six-month tourist visa to extend his U.S. stay. A group of Democratic lawmakers urged Biden to expel the former president on the grounds that the U.S. shouldn't provide safe harbor to would-be authoritarians.

Even as Lula has been lauded for his democratic bona fides, he declines to criticize authoritarianism in Venezuela and Cuba, saying the nations are entitled to self-determination, and he often sides with their left-wing leaders.

That marks something of a departure from Mr. Biden's pro-democracy agenda, said Bruna Santos, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. But the Brazilian leader is aware of the risks of leaning too close and will measure his words in Washington, she added.

Ukraine could make for a somewhat awkward divergence between the two leaders. Lula previously said the country was as much to blame for the war as Russia, though he more recently clarified that he thought Russia was wrong to invade. Lula has declined to provide Ukraine with munitions.

Gillian Morley and Bo Erickson contributed to this report. 

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