Brazil: What Washington most fears in president-elect Lula


First published at Consortium News on November 3.

President Biden kept a promise to Lula da Silva by congratulating him minutes after Sunday’s electoral results were announced. The idea was that calling Brazil’s presidential elections “free, fair and credible” would deter incumbent Jair Bolsonaro from crying fraud and refusing to step down from office. Pundits have interpreted the Biden administration’s words on the Brazilian election as a demonstration that it was rooting for Lula over his opponent, known as “Tropical Trump.” This reasoning is at best misleading, if not completely faulty. 

What has Washington most worried is the reemergence of a powerful non-aligned movement and the prospect that a progressive like Lula be situated at its helm. During his previous two presidencies from 2003 to 2010, Lula cast himself as a spokesperson for the Global South. Times have changed since then. There is a growing number of ideologically heterogeneous governments that were formerly subservient to the US and are now boldly defying Washington’s dictates, thus creating a fertile ground for a bloc of non-aligned nations. 

Furthermore, the total inability of the world’s major powers, specifically the US and Western Europe, to broker an agreement to end the Ukraine conflict, opens space for a leader like Lula who throughout his career has excelled at negotiating with politicians of distinct political orientations. 

Foreign policy in the forefront 

Lula’s victory on Sunday was razor-thin with 50.9 percent of the vote. Furthermore, just as during his past presidencies, the center and right, including Bolsonaro’s allied parties, will control congress. This unfavorable balance of power will undoubtedly force Lula into making concessions on the domestic front, such as possibly softening his campaign pledge to tax the rich. 

But on foreign policy he will be under less domestic pressure and is poised to keep his campaign promise to play a key role in regional and world affairs. In his victory speech in Sao Paulo on Sunday he pledged to reverse Brazil’s “pariah” international status, the result of Bolsonaro’s contempt for diplomacy and his outrageous statements, such as blaming China for COVID and Leonardo DiCaprio for the Amazonian fires in 2019. 

Shortly after coming to power in 2003, the Washington establishment viewed Lula as reliable and moderate, and a counter to firebrands such as Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Néstor Kirchner. Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, in his famous book Leftovers: Tales of the Two Latin American Lefts, praised Lula as levelheaded and contrasted him with the “bad left” of Chávez and company who he characterized as “populist,” and “anti-American.” 

But the favorable characterization of Lula changed in 2010. And it changed not as a result of Lula’s domestic policies, but rather his foreign policy, specifically his recognition of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 borders, after which half a dozen other Latin American governments followed suit. The same year Lula, in the words of Reuters, “angered Washington” over his talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his defense of Iran’s nuclear program.

After that, Lula was no longer the pragmatic leftist answer to irresponsible populism, but was rather himself a populist. The Wall Street Journal titled an article on the first round of the presidential elections held on October 2 which favored Lula over Bolsonaro, “Populism Wins Brazil’s Election” by editor Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who wrote: “Now candidate Lula is again promising moderation. His greatest political advantage is his image as a benevolent populist.”  

Rhetoric is an important element of populism, but in Lula’s case, what has the US worried is the concrete actions that as president he may undertake that would shake US hegemony. The threat stems largely from the bloc of five powerhouse nations which form BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Skeptical Washington actors and pundits had called the group’s summits “talk shops” by governments that had little or nothing in common. That was the gist of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Remember BRICS?” tweet upon leaving office in which he insinuated that India’s and Brazil’s fear of Russia and China made the organization useless. Now, two years later, and with Lula as president-elect, the skepticism appears completely unfounded. 

In an interview from prison in 2019 Lula declared “BRICS was not created to be an instrument of defense, but to be an instrument of attack.” His references on the campaign trail to BRICS, as well as regional organizations such as CELAC (which Bolsonaro withdrew from) and UNASUR, reinforced this message. After meeting with Lula on Monday, the day after his triumph, Argentine president Alberto Fernández stated “‘with Lula, we will now have an activist for our bid to join BRICS.”   

Washington views BRICS’ expansion as a threat, exacerbated by Russia’s and China’s membership in the organization. In the closing weeks of Brazil’s presidential campaign, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), wrote “With the BRICS…set to expand to include Argentina, Iran, and possibly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Russia may acquire even more partners, ones that together represent a significant percentage of global GDP and a large percentage of the world’s population.” 

How “neutral” is Lula?

Washington cannot be at all pleased by Lula’s position on the Ukrainian conflict. Lula has insisted that BRICS play a role in the search for a negotiated solution and that he is committed to attempting to broker an agreement.  In the words of Telesur, Lula stated that “peace could be reached at a bar table, which caused uneasiness in the diplomatic representation of Ukraine in Brazil.”

But it’s not just the fear that Lula is closer to Russia and China than Washington (which he is) that keeps US policymakers up at night. Unlike Washington, Lula has acknowledged the legitimacy of Venezuelan democracy and, in the words of Ben Norton, has told the local media that US-recognized president Juan Guaidó is a “warmongering criminal who should be in prison.” On the eve of the elections, Lula told the EconomistPeople only talk about Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. Nobody talks about Qatar. Nobody talks about the United States.”

Since Lula’s Workers’ Party lost power in 2016, Lula has insisted that the BRICS’ major shortcoming was its failure to launch a new currency that would rival the dollar. In an interview from prison, Lula recalled “when I discussed a new currency… Obama called me, telling me, ‘Are you trying to create a new currency, a new euro?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just trying to get rid of the US dollar’.” In 2022, the prospects for a BRICS reserve currency are much more promising and its five member countries are behind the idea. Indeed, this year the currencies of all five BRICS nations have outperformed the Euro. Washington’s political weaponization of the dollar goes beyond the superpower rivalry with Russia and China, as U.S.-imposed international sanctions have brought misery to people of the Global South including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua.

The “multipolar world” catchword frequently used by Lula envisions the emergence of diverse blocs including that of the non-aligned nations. An article in this summer’s issue of Foreign Policy by a national security expert reflects the thinking of many in Washington who are wary of non-alignment. “When the international system is failing or absent…, it is no surprise that leaders turn to nonalignment. The more the United States, Russia, China, or other powers pressure other countries to choose sides, the more those countries will be drawn to strategic autonomy, which could create a poorer and crueler world as countries reduce external dependence and consolidate their homefronts.”

Some on the left are also uneasy with the multipolar world slogan. Longtime political activist Greg Godels calls multipolarity “a notion first discussed by bourgeois academics looking for tools to understand the dynamics of global relations” and adds “there are no guarantees that the poles that emerge or challenge the post-Cold War super-pole are a step forward or a step back simply because they are alternative poles.” Godels is correct in the abstract, but so far in the twenty-first century multipolarity has been a progressive slogan and movement. True, the presence of the racist government of Narendra Modi and that of Saudi Arabia in BRICS casts doubts on the organization’s progressiveness. Saudi Arabia’s recent surprising decision to buck the US by rejecting Biden’s plea to pump more oil to help lower international prices and hurt Russia doesn’t make the nation any less reactionary. But that is precisely why the leadership of a progressive like Lula at the world level is of such importance. One has to recall that the original non-aligned movement was founded in the 1950s by leaders like Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah, who were hardly “neutral”, as all were left leaning and committed to socialism. The movement played a key role in favor of decolonization, disarmament, and opposition to racism and apartheid.

Similarly, Lula is hardly a neutral. Indeed, he has not hidden his suspicion that US investigators collaborated with Brazilian prosecutors in putting him behind bars, an accusation that has been well documented by the news outlet Brasilwire

The best demonstration that Lula’s pragmatism does not stand in the way of his defense of principled positions on foreign affairs is his recognition of the Palestinian state and the resultant overwhelming support he has received from Palestinians both home and abroad. In the first round of the presidential elections, Lula received 592 votes in the West Bank, as opposed to Bolsonaro’s 52. 

Once again, Latin America has become the one and only bright spot in the world for progressive politics and goals. Lula is poised to become the leader of the progressive tide that has swept Latin America, beginning with Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s electoral victory in 2018. But the real question mark is whether Lula will put his political savvy to the test by playing a leadership role in favor of a progressive brand of multipolarity in a growing movement worldwide that is challenging US hegemony and that cuts across the political spectrum. 

Steve Ellner is a retired professor from Venezuela’s Universidad de Oriente and currently an Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives. His latest book is his co-edited Latin American Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Creative Tensions between Resistance and Convergence (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022).