In his victory speech last night, former president – and now president-elect –Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva asserted that the world missed Brazil as it sunk to a state of unprecedented international isolation in recent years. Lula, an impassioned orator used to speaking extemporaneously, calmly read prepared remarks that struck notes of harmony, healing and restoration. “It is time to put down the arms we never should have picked up,” he said at one point as his wife and future firstlady Rosângela da Silva became visibly emotional at his side. “Brazil is back,” Lula insisted, promising to “work tirelessly for a Brazil where love prevails over hate, truth over lies, and hope is bigger than fear”.
Lula’s unlikely ascent to another term in office in Latin America’s largest nation represents renewed opportunities for his country. Indeed, given the host of problems Brazil faces in the years to come, including reigning in deforestation, navigating the decline of US hegemony in the hemisphere, and reversing an alarming slide into deindustrialization, to cite just a few, it is hard to imagine someone better equipped than Lula to turn the page from Jair Bolsonaro, the outgoing far-right extremist who has governed the country since 2019.
For the Biden administration, Lula’s return to power is also fortuitous. For one thing, it offers a chance to reset relations between the most pivotal players of North and South America. As his first stint in office came to a close, Lula successfully ensured the election of Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff. Her term, however, would be rocked by widespread street demonstrations that shook the foundations of her popular support and an economic crisis driven, among other things, by fallout from the global 2008 crash.
But the most visible sign of a radical shift in Brazilian politics under Dilma was Operation Car Wash, the massive federal investigation into corruption that brought down several high-profile businessmen and politicians. Lula himself was ensnared in the fallout of this unyielding anti-corruption crusade, leading to his imprisonment for almost 600 days. The charges against Lula have since been dropped, and, as left-wing forces had asserted all along, the judge who sentenced him revealed to have been driven by political animus.
Now, Lula has completed the most astonishing political comeback since perhaps Nelson Mandela. Yet many on the left continue to believe that the United States played a critical role in the political turmoil that engulfed Brazil over the last decade, including in Lula’s arrest. Lula himself has frequently said the United States under President Barack Obama deliberately sought to hurt him politically because it favored the deference and promises of economic privatization made by his opponents. There is no smoking gun that the Obama administration orchestrated events that led to the lowest moment in Lula’s career, but there are lingering resentments that Lula can and should work to transcend as he has during this campaign with many of the key figures who supported Dilma’s impeachment on specious grounds in 2016.
Washington should welcome engagement with a new Lula administration since it too would benefit from resetting popular conceptions in Latin America of how the United States views progressive governments in the region generally and Brazil’s hemispheric aspirations in particular. Despite a history of democratic instability and ideological flux at the highest levels of power, Brazilian leaders have always been united in their desire for international recognition. Brazil is a massive country with a youthful population, bountiful resources, and technical proficiency in several key areas. Since the return of democracy in the late 1980s after two decades of military rule, successive administrations, particularly in the last 20 years, have passed social-democratic policies that would materially improve the lives of millions if applied in some form in the United States. A conditional cash-transfer program created during Lula’s first term, for example, lifted millions of families out of extreme poverty, and the largest public health system in any democracy is Brazil’s Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS). And yet, as Bolsonaro’s time in office demonstrated, international goodwill is a perishable asset.
With an extremist like Bolsonaro out of office, the United States and Brazil can draw closer together around shared progressive aims of economic justice, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and peace. To its great credit, the Biden administration very quickly issued a statement Sunday night congratulating Lula on his win. Later, the president tweeted his “congratulations to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on his election to be the next president of Brazil following free, fair, and credible elections. I look forward to working together to continue the cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead.”
Rapid recognition from the United States was the culmination of months-long efforts by Washington to dissuade Bolsonaro from pursuing anti-democratic means of staying in power. Indeed, as Bolsonaro spent months insinuating his country could not hold a free and fair election, Biden insisted through the CIA, state department, and defense department that support for a coup would not be forthcoming. Given Washington’s history of support for anti-communist military dictatorships in Latin America throughout the cold war, the Biden administration’s attitude was marked by a welcome restraint. Lula is sure to remember the respect for Brazilian democratic institutions demonstrated by the Biden administration’s refusal to indulge any talk of democratic abridgment in his country.
In fact, various figures associated with the Democratic party demonstrated how Washington can harness its attention to support activists, organizers and elected officials struggling to support democracy in Brazil. When the Washington Brazil Office organized a visit to Washington for several representatives of embattled Brazilian social movements, they met at length with Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Jamie Raskin to discuss strategy and hemispheric solidarity. These meetings garnered considerable media attention in Brazil, indicating that US political figures committed wholeheartedly to democracy – neither Sanders nor Raskin have any association, for example, with a hawkish foreign policy that could raise suspicions – were genuinely concerned about the fate of democracy in Brazil. These meetings did not receive too much attention in the United States but they illustrate a foreign policy approach that privileges the grassroots in the formulation of policy. The Biden administration would do well to build on this strategy, which can indicate to skeptical foreign audiences the government’s eagerness to support those doing the hard work on the ground of fastening the nuts and bolts of democracy. If the United States won’t apologize for its past crimes, it can at least do more to expand the range of voices to include those whose perspectives would have been crushed in a prior generation.
Lula, of course, comes from the grassroots. He emerged on the national political scene in the late 1970s after leading unprecedented factory strikes in the industrial heartland around São Paulo. Biden is not cut from the same cloth, but he does pride himself on his ability to connect with working people and to level with them. There is a basis for a strong connection between Lula and Biden, forged in the fire of the far-right extremism they both have faced and defeated at the polls. The foreign policy advisors closest to Lula may not quite trust the United States, but Biden has undoubtedly made a good first impression. The two hemispheric giants may be on the cusp of a new era of mutual collaboration rooted in the type of appreciation for democracy that can only come from having almost lost it.