Biden and Lula Meet at White House, Vowing to Guard Democracy

Biden and Lula Meet at White House, Vowing to Guard Democracy

WASHINGTON — When he hosts world leaders, President Biden typically exchanges thoughts on trade policy or national security and maybe swaps old election stories. But on 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.

Mr. Biden’s meeting at the White House with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil came barely a month after a mob supporting Mr. 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,” Mr. Biden said as he sat with Mr. 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 J. Trump broke into the Capitol seeking to stop the counting of electoral votes confirming Mr. Biden’s victory. The Brazilian mob, supporting former President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who befriended Mr. Trump and was called the Trump of the Tropics, marauded through government buildings, hoping to prod the military to topple the leftist Mr. Lula.

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

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

Mr. Biden smiled. “Sounds familiar,” he replied.

The meeting between the two leaders, just 40 days into Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Biden and Mr. 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 in the future.

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 American climate envoy, has already met with Lula adm inistration 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 Mr. Lula repeated his country’s commitment to completely halt deforestation by 2030, Mr. 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,” Mr. Lula said.


After four years of increasing deforestation under Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. 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.

The pledge is the first American commitment to the Amazon Fund, which had been primarily underwritten by Norway’s contributions of $1.2 billion since 2008. Germany, another large donor, has given more than $68 million. Those countries and other donors stopped contributing in 2019 as deforestation soared under the Bolsonaro administration, and the former president then suspended the fund.

During Friday’s meetings, there were areas of disagreement, most notably the Russian war on Ukraine. While Mr. Lula has condemned Russia’s invasion, he has also suggested in the past that President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 a quarter of its fertilizer imports, which are crucial to its enormous agriculture industry.

Mr. Lula wants to try to help mediate peace in the conflict, while Mr. Biden has been more skeptical of talks in the short term since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has shown no interest in ending hostilities. Moreover, Mr. 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 Mr. Biden, Mr. 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.”

In an interview with CNN earlier in the day, Mr. Lula said that he would not sell weapons or ammunition to Ukraine to avoid getting involved. “I don’t want to join the war,” he said. “I want to end the war.” He added that in his meeting with Mr. Biden, “I don’t know what he’s going to say to me, but what I’m going to say to him: It is necessary to build a set of countries to negotiate peace.”

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said in a separate interview with CNN that the U.S. government believes Mr. Lula’s view does not reflect the current state of the war. “We don’t see any impetus right now to get to the negotiating table,” he said, “so that’s why we are focused on making sure Ukraine has everything they need to be successful on the battlefield, so if and when President Zelensky says, ‘I’m ready to sit down,’ he can do so with some wind at his back.”

Mr. Kirby said that the White House would continue to push for support for Ukraine, but that it respects sovereign nations like Brazil to make their own decisions. “The whole issue at stake in Ukraine, when you get right down to it, is about sovereignty,” he said. “How hypocritical would it be for the United States, in that sort of frame, to be browbeating or tussling with other countries to give more, do more, say more?”

Another flash point was the fate of two Iranian warships in the region. Mr. Lula’s government reversed a decision allowing the ships to dock in Rio de Janeiro ahead of his trip to Washington, but simply delayed the ships’ visit until later this month or early next month. Republicans argued that Mr. 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 Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

For Mr. Lula, Mr. Biden was the third American president he has dealt with now that he has been returned to office following a corruption investigation that landed him in prison in 2018. Mr. Lula has long maintained his innocence, saying political enemies framed him to eliminate his leftist Workers’ Party from Brazilian politics.

One unknown left unaddressed in the public portion of their meeting was the fate of his predecessor and defeated rival, Mr. Bolsonaro, who was one of the last world leaders to recognize Mr. Biden’s victory over Mr. Trump. Mr. Bolsonaro remains so close to the former American president that he gave him a framed likeness of Mr. Trump made out of bullet casings that has been shown off to visitors at Mar-a-Lago.

Mr. Bolsonaro has been in Florida since Dec. 30 while facing investigations in Brazil for his actions as president, inquiries that he calls politically motivated. The situation could get tricky if Brazilian authorities bring charges against him while he is on U.S. territory, although it seems unlikely American officials would be interested in protecting him. U.S. officials said they would handle any request through appropriate processes.

Michael D. Shear, André Spigariol and Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.


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