WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Thursday, as the White House began preparing for the first state visit of Brazil’s newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former autoworkers union leader who is known affectionately simply as Lula in Brazil. Ground crews began hanging American flags next to Brazilian flags. In the past decade, the flags of both nations have undergone battles for what they mean.
Much like how the supporters co-opted the American flag, Brazil’s former President, Jair Bolsonaro, encouraged his supporters to wear Brazilian soccer jerseys and fly Brazilian flags to show their support for him. When I was covering the presidential election in Brazil, friends of mine, there would regularly gawk and ridicule Bolsonaro supporters who they saw wearing Brazilian soccer jerseys in the days before the presidential election this past October.
However, after Lula defeated Bolsonaro by a margin of 50.9% to 49.1%, Lula made a major push to reclaim the Brazilian flag. As the World Cup began this past November, many Lula supporters felt hesitant to wear Brazilian soccer shirts, lest they be confused with Bolsonaro supporters. At the time, Lula made a public push encouraging Brazilians to reclaim the flag for all Brazilians.
Now, as President Lula comes to visit the White House for his first U.S. visit since winning this past October, both countries flew their flags to celebrate the victory of the forces of democracy over right-wing populism. (Indeed, several Trump advisors like Steven Bannon and Stephen Miller worked for Bolsonaro, making the connection in the fight against fascism in the two countries even more direct).
However, beneath the fanfare and pageantry of the high-profile state visit lies deep tension between the countries on everything from Ukraine and Venezuela’s relations with China and even the Obama Administration’s attempts to falsely frame Lula and his allies on charges of wrongdoings.
The tension is being signaled by Lula’s refusal to spend an extended visit in the United States as French President Francois Macron did when he spent a week touring the U.S., making public appearances to promote dialogue between the two countries.
Lula, however, is spending just 48 hours in the United States with public events scheduled with the leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Senator Bernie Sanders. Some U.S. leftists even planned a rally outside the White House to show their support for Lula, a very unusual for a foreign head of state to the U.S.
“I think the shortness of the visit is telling in its way,” says Andre Pagliarini, a Brazilian-American professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and a research fellow at the Washington Brazil Office. “I think there are some lingering issues of trust between the United States government and members of the Workers Party.”
In a bombshell 2020 expose, it was revealed by the Intercept Brasil that the National Security Agency in 2013 had spied on Lula’s protege in the Workers’ party and his successor as President Dilma Rousseff. In 2016, the Brazilian left and many in the international community widely condemned the impeachment of Rousseff by right-wing members of Congress who installed right-wing politician Michel Temer as President.
However, while questions remained about the legality of the impeachment, Joe Biden, as Obama’s Vice President, decided to travel to Brazil in 2016 to personally congratulate Temer on becoming President and shore up support for him.
When President Lula was imprisoned in 2018 on charges that were later overturned, the nation learned that Obama’s Department of Justice had, since 2014, been involved in secret efforts to investigate and falsely frame Lula as part of “Operation Lavo Jato.”
“Obama spent 8 years waging war and espionage, serving the arms industry and his country’s establishment,” said current Workers Party chair and close Lula confidante Gleisi Hoffman in a 2020 interview. “He covered up [Temer], who was investigated for corruption and wants to give advice to Brazil. You have to explain your participation in the coup and Lava Jato.”
In what is seen as a sign of political priorities, Lula has decided to schedule public events with both Senator Bernie Sanders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus before holding any public events with President Joe Biden.
“Lula clearly wants to sort of signal an approximation of closeness with Bernie,” says Pagliarini. “Bernie has looked to Lula for a long time as a role model of what Bernie would like to see done in this country, which is a working class party, a working class leader and social democratic policies. So there’s a real kindred spirit.”
Lula is also hoping to rally support among leftists in the U.S. for a foreign policy that attempts to challenge the hegemony of the Biden Administration. As the leader of the fourth largest democracy in the world, Lula is trying once again to form an alternative foreign policy of non-alignment that challenges the foreign policy objectives of the U.S. establishment.
In his victory speech in October, Lula criticized the United States for its antagonistic relationship with China.
“We will not accept a new Cold War between the United States and China,” Lula said in his Oct. 30 victory speech. “We will have relations with everyone.”
Lula has normalized relations with Venezuela and sought to rebuild the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to counter the United States-dominated Organization of American States.
Lula’s most controversial decision so far has been not giving arms to Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in Brasilia in late January to meet President Lula. When asked if Lula would join Germany’s call to send arms to Ukraine, Lula denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine but warned that his country would not be sending arms.
“Brazil has no interest in handing over munitions that can be used in the war between Ukraine and Russia,” Lula said at a press conference in Brasilia. “We are a country committed to peace.”
As President of Brazil for two terms in the 2000s, Lula sought to be a peace broker between nations, even brokering peace deals between the U.S. and Iran. Now, Lula has pledged to get China, India, and other countries to put economic pressure on Russia to end the war.
“Lula has really taken the challenge seriously and vigorously and directly,” says Pagliarini, adding that Lula is showing his appreciation for the farthest left members of the U.S. Democratic Party.
Lula is hoping by courting the U.S. left and building support for his foreign policies that, he can change the way that democracies around the world fight the threat against fascism, not just by electing centrist parties but also by stopping wars, fighting for workers’ right, and challenging the hegemony of the most powerful nations in the world.
“What Lula is advocating or modeling perhaps, is a more aggressive pushback against the forces of the far right in Brazil and around the world,” says Pagilarini. “I think he’s at a stage of his life and career where he says, I know what I’m doing. I’m comfortable on the world stage”.