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What a Lula presidency would mean for US-Brazil relations

As long as it stays away from great power politics, Washington has a lot to gain if the leftist ex-president sends Bolsonaro packing.

Analysis | Reporting | Washington Politics

In October, incumbent Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro will face off against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — better known simply as Lula — in what is shaping up to be an exceedingly high-stakes election year. 

Lula’s supporters are united by nostalgia for the 2000s, when the leftist leader presided over a period of relative growth and stability that saw tens of millions lifted out of poverty through the expansion of social programs. Lula’s refrain throughout his campaign has been a return to normalcy after a decade of disruption: “This country needs to go back to growth, it has to return to being happy, it has to return to creating jobs…the people have to return to having barbecues, eating steak, and drinking beer.” 

Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 by harnessing nostalgia too — a nostalgia borne out of a romanticized account of the U.S.-supported military dictatorship that lasted well into the 1980s. Positioning himself as an anti-corruption crusader, Bolsonaro was soon met with expectations of governance that, unlike the era of military dictatorship, was subject to real public scrutiny. Today, voters have experienced what it’s like to live four years under Bolsonaro, a period that saw a brutal COVID-19 wave, the dismantling of labor protections, accelerated deforestation, tripled inflation, and rising food insecurity

Bolsonaro and Lula faced off for the first time on Sunday night during a live debate, with predictably chaotic results. Bolsonaro stole the headlines by calling a woman journalist a “disgrace to Brazilian journalism,” leading other candidates to accuse him of misogyny. If there was ever any doubt over their feverish differences, Lula and Bolsonaro allies nearly broke into a fistfight offstage.

Lula was the only major candidate to bring up foreign policy, once again pointing to his record: “It was my government that gave citizenship to Brazil in the realm of international relations. Never before in the history of Brazil was Brazil so respected in the world.” 

Lula hopes to rekindle Latin American cooperation, a distinct possibility given the so-called “pink tide” sweeping across Latin America. Some, such as Gabriel Boric of Chile and Gustavo Petro in Colombia, have gone so far as to publicly voice support for Lula. Lula has also proposed a South American currency, a proposal that is sure to ruffle some feathers in Washington. The last time Lula proposed a new currency, Obama gave him a call; “the US was very much afraid when I discussed a new currency.” 

This would mark a sharp departure from Brazil’s current status as something of an international pariah. Chile even recalled its ambassador to Brazil after the debate because Bolsonaro said their new president “sets fire to trains.” Dr. Andre Pagliarini, an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College and a faculty fellow at the newly-created Washington Brazil Office, told Responsible Statecraft that this “sense of diminished international standing goes beyond elite commentators…It is a real concern given the history of Brazilians craving international respect and admiration.”

However, a Lula victory will present its own challenges for Biden. Celso Amorim, the former foreign minister who is expected to go back into government should Lula win, has warned that a “problem might arise if the United States doesn’t understand that Latin America wants to be independent…It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” The U.S. has long viewed Latin America as part of its backyard, often conceived of in hard power terms. According to a new study by the Military Intervention Project, 34 percent of all U.S. interventions since 1776 have been in Latin America and the Caribbean, far more than any other region.

With the Biden Administration embracing great power competition with China, the U.S. may resort to familiar tactics in pulling Lula away from China. According to Pagliarini, “the U.S. wants Brazil to see China as an antagonist.” This strategy could lead to a wall in U.S.-Brazil relations, considering China has been Brazil’s top export partner since 2009. Rather than pressuring Brazil to make a binary choice between the U.S. and China, it would be wiser for the U.S. to abandon competition with China as the driving force behind policymaking in the region and build a more constructive relationship based on mutual interests. 

Working to address climate change could be one such area. The Amazon, known as the “lungs of the earth,” is an important carbon sink and temperature regulator. In recent years, unsurprisingly, there has been little movement on this front in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. During a presidential debate in 2020, Biden threatened unspecified “economic consequences” against Brazil if Bolsonaro didn’t accept a $20 billion donation for protecting the Amazon. This heavy-handed flex of U.S. power — made more dubious now by the fact that climate spending makes up only 3 percent of Biden’s 2023 budget request — failed to move Bolsonaro. Deforestation in Brazil reached a 15-year high in 2021, as Bolsonaro rolled back environmental laws and funding.

A Lula presidency would be far more open to working on climate, though, as one policy paper admits, “this is not a high bar.” Lula helped engineer a historic fall in deforestation rates from 2003 to 2010, and during the debate he teed up criticism of the Bolsonaro administration’s anti-environment policies. This position also enjoys popular support, as eighty-one percent of Brazilians believe that “protecting the Amazon should be a priority” of the next president. 

In fact, polling across the board is favorable to Lula. Recent polls suggest Lula will win handily, with a double-digit lead over the incumbent. If neither candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote during the first round on October 2, there will be a run-off to determine the winner. But, with one candidate looking for ways to undermine the election, it may not be quite that straightforward. 

Ahead of the October elections, Bolsonaro has been ramping up attacks on the Brazilian electoral process. His central claim is that the electronic voting machines can be rigged by the Superior Electoral Court, a conspiracy theory that has been thoroughly debunked. “Either we have clean elections in Brazil or we don’t have elections,” Bolsonaro recently threatened.  

According to judges, diplomats, and government officials, Bolsonaro's odds of pulling off a coup are slim. An independent analysis by a consulting company came to a similar conclusion, arguing that the more probable outcome was for Bolsonaro to use the chaos to try and negotiate a deal to avoid the prosecution of his family.

Washington has taken notice, rejecting Bolsonaro’s claims by calling Brazil’s elections a “model for the world.” During a visit to Brasilia last year, CIA Director William Burns reportedly urged senior Brazilian officials to stop “casting doubt on the country’s voting system.”

Recently, though, Washington's concerns have taken a confusing turn over an arms sale. Reuters reported on August 8 that lawmakers, including Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), were holding up a Javelin missile sale to Brazil over concerns with his attacks on the electoral system. Then, a day later, the $74 million sale went through.

“It’s hard to know why the shift from a hold to a sale happened so abruptly,” says William Hartung, a Senior Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute. “It seems to come down to whether this is a time to reward the Bolsonaro government by making an arms deal, more than how the weapons might actually be used.” Meeks’ and Menendez’s offices did not respond to a request for comment.

Analysis | Reporting | Washington Politics
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