The Biden administration says its meeting with Lula seeks to “strengthen democracy” in Brazil. But neither the corrupt Lula, nor his corrupt communist allies in Havana, have any interest in real democracy.
Lula’s D.C. Visit Could Get Awkward
He’s a utopian socialist, not the democratic champion of Biden’s imagination.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva will be a guest at the White House later this week. President Biden proposed the visit on Jan. 9, the day after thousands of vandals stormed federal buildings in Brasília. The incident seemed a weird imitation of the January 2021 riot in Washington, though its more likely precursors are the extreme-left rampages that have become all too common in the region.
The timing of the Biden outreach suggests that the 46th U.S. president isn’t about to let this latest unhappy Latin drama go to waste. A cynic might say that Mr. Biden is worried that the trumpista violence in Washington two years ago is fading from view and a visit from Lula is an opportunity to refresh people’s memories. Lula doesn’t seem to mind being used in this way, perhaps because climate change, a subject which has leaders in the developing world seeing dollar signs, is on the agenda.
The assault in Brasília is still under investigation. But it appears that the perpetrators were mostly supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who ran for re-election in October and lost. They claimed that the election, which put Lula in office for a third (nonconsecutive) term on Jan. 1, was stolen.
The White House says the meeting will reinforce U.S. support for Brazilian democracy. But that’s doubtful. It will be easy to denounce the violence of Jan. 8. It will be much more difficult to confront serious threats to Brazil’s rule of law that start with Lula.
The State Department claims to be worried about corruption in Latin America. But it could be tough to broach that subject with a guest who was convicted in 2017 for bribery and money-laundering. Mr. da Silva’s conviction was vacated by the Supreme Court on a technicality but he was never exonerated. His Workers’ Party and his government were at the center of the findings of the famous Operation Carwash, which unearthed billions in padded contracts, kickbacks and money laundering starting around 2007, when Lula was president.
Another democratic principle at risk in Brazil is free speech. Mr. Biden may have to avoid that topic too. During the presidential campaign last year Mr. da Silva benefited from an electoral tribunal that censored his critics. His new government will use speech police to shut down what it judges to be fake news and misinformation. This is an obvious violation of civil liberties and no way to run a democracy. But it’s also an idea that Mr. Biden tried last year and had to withdraw when it was widely mocked by Americans as a ministry of truth.
Remaining diplomatic is good manners. But Mr. Biden might find it hard to sustain credibility on the democracy front while ignoring Lula’s ideological links to the 800-pound guerrilla in the hemisphere, a radical left that uses violence and drug trafficking to reach political ends.
In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lula and his Workers’ Party co-founded the São Paulo Forum, alongside Fidel Castro, to reinvigorate the communist, revolutionary agenda in Latin America. Three decades later the forum’s raison d’être remains the same.
Having successfully reached Brazil’s highest office three times via the ballot box, Lula has distanced himself from support for armed struggle. But his socialist allies have not. Cuba, a corrupt military dictatorship in its 65th year, is the ringleader of antidemocratic violence around the region. Havana operatives and related co-conspirators in the dictatorships of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua are notorious for their efforts to undermine elected governments. The upheaval in Peru today is an example of the cost of this subversive activity. This hard-left also networks outside the region. The local Workers’ Party in São Paulo is proud of its alliance with anti-Israel Palestinian activists operating in Latin America. These are Lula’s comrades. Are Americans supposed to cheer him as a champion of democracy?
Mr. da Silva won election on a promise to make poor Brazilians better off. But if he cares about making a dent in poverty, he has to care about growth, which he won’t get if he automatically reverses the constructive policies that worked for his predecessor. Mr. Bolsonaro had a recovery going earlier than other developing countries thanks to some deregulation and a partial pension reform that reduced fiscal pressure. Turning those gains back merely for revenge or to show his ideological chops would be a slap in the face of Brazilians. Yet he’s already signaling that reckless spending and an end to privatization will be at the heart of his economic agenda.
Investors are important to Brazil, whether foreign or domestic. But they’re not likely to bet on a country that is making utopian socialism its highest priority. Mr. Biden also might have trouble making that case to Lula.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com