Biden, Lula focus on democracy, climate during visit

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met at the White House on Friday and reflected on how their nations were tested in their respective battles to preserve democracy, with the U.S. president declaring that democracy ultimately “prevailed” over the far-right mobs that stormed their governments’ halls of power in an attempt to overturn election victories.

Biden defeated incumbent Donald Trump in a fraught 2020 race, securing victory with thin margins in several battleground states. In Brazil’s recent election, its tightest 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 presenting evidence, but their claims nevertheless 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.

“Both our nations’ strong democracies have been tested of late ... very much tested,” Biden said at the start of their Oval Office meeting. “But both in the United States and Brazil, democracy prevailed.”

Lula said that he was moving to restore Brazil on the world stage after Bolsonaro's term.

“Brazil marginalized itself for four years,” Lula said. “His world started and ended with fake news.”

Biden joked that Lula’s complaint “sounds familiar,” an apparent knock on Trump.

Both Biden and Lula sought to spotlight that Brazil’s democracy remains resilient and that relations between the Americas’ two biggest democracies are back on track.

The leaders also discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, insecurity in Haiti, migration and climate change, including efforts to stem deforestation of the Amazon, according to the White House.

During his 2020 run for the White House, Biden proposed working with global partners to create a $20 billion fund that would encourage Brazil to change its approach to the Amazon, and there was speculation that the U.S. administration would use the visit to announce a major contribution. But following the meeting, the leaders said in joint statement that the Biden administration only “announced its intent to work with Congress to provide funds for programs to protect and conserve the Brazilian Amazon, including initial support for the Amazon Fund.”

The Amazon Fund is the most important international cooperation effort to preserve the rainforest, raising donations for efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation and promote sustainability.

The fund has mostly been financed by Norway, and has received a total $1.29 billion. In 2019, Bolsonaro dissolved the steering committee that selects sustainable projects to finance. He argued the rainforest is a domestic affair. In response, Germany and Norway froze their donations. After Lula took office, Germany’s government announced a fresh donation.

Climate was a prominent topic in two recent phone calls between the leaders since Lula's October victory, according to the White House.

After their meeting Friday, reporters asked Lula whether the U.S. would join the initiative. Lula responded that he believes so and that its participation is necessary.

“I didn’t specifically discuss an Amazon Fund. I discussed the need for rich countries to assume the responsibility of financing all the countries that have forests,” he said, specifically noting Brazil then listing its South American neighbors.

But Lula’s biggest objective going into the visit was 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. Lula sacked the army’s commander, with the defense minister citing “a fracture in the level of trust” in the force’s top levels.

“You have the environment and other stuff, but Lula sitting down with Biden is an exercise in coup-proofing Brazil’s democracy,” 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.

The White House and State Department have declined to comment on Bolsonaro’s visa status, citing privacy concerns.

Analysts have noted that Bolsonaro’s absence from Brazil is a welcome change for Lula, and he told CNN earlier Friday that he didn't plan to discuss the former president with Biden.

Lula also met with several lawmakers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and union officials before his meeting with Biden.

“It is enormously important for the future of this planet that we stop the deforestation of the Amazon," Sanders said after his meeting. "Bolsonaro encouraged that in a terrible way. Lula has turned that around, but Brazil is going to need help globally. The issue of the Amazon is not just a Brazilian issue. It’s a global issue.”

Ukraine marked a divergence between the Lula and Biden. 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, and he told reporters Friday night that he had proposed to Biden the creation of a group of nations to negotiate peace.

“I am convinced that we need to find a way out to put an end to this war,” he said. "The first thing is ending the war, then negotiating what will happen."

Asked about Lula's proposal, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it is up to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to determine “if and when negotiations are appropriate, and certainly under what circumstances.”


Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro