“Brazil is Back” is the slogan of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva after returning with a very narrow majority to the Planalto Palace in Brasilia for his third presidential term. The presidential palace was badly damaged by the mob of pro-Bolsonaro rioters on January 8, 2023. Jair Bolsonaro the former right-wing populist president had left for Florida two days before Lula’s inauguration. He claimed, like his friend Donald J. Trump, that the election had been rigged.
President Lula visited Joe Biden at the White House on February 10, 2023. The two presidents discussed “democracy and environmental commitments.”
Many international observers welcomed Lula’s return to office as a beacon of hope for the rainforests of the Amazon and for the global environment. In addition to his meeting with President Biden, Lula met with Senator Bernie Sanders, and Democratic Party law makers. Lula then went to the environmental summit in Egypt where he was received as a hero.
Last week Lula was in China on a official state visit where he attended the formal installation of former (and impeached) Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, as the president of the BRICS development bank in Shanghai. Lula also visited the factory of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
In Beijing Lula met with president Xi. On his way on back to Brazil he visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he was received by the president, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
After arriving back in Brasilia he received Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who is on an official visit to Latin American visiting in addition to Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Latin America is according to the Russians “one of the centres of the formation of the multipolar world.”
The question is what precisely does “Brazil is Back” mean for Brazil’s position in the emerging international system, and what role does Lula see for himself now in his third incarnation as Brazilian president on the international stage?
Last week Thomas A. Shannon Jr. said in an interview with the Rio de Janeiro based newspaper, “O Globo”, when asked about Lula’s proposal in Beijing that the Chinese currency, the renminbi, replace the dollar in international trading: “Good Luck! with that! ”
When asked about Lula’s peace plans for the Ukraine, and Lula’s suggestion that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy give up Ukrainian claims to the Crimea, Shannon responded that perhaps Lula might suggest that Brazil give up the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul to Argentina!
Shannon was the United States ambassador to Brazil between 2010 and 2013, which coincided with the last year of Lula’s second administration and the first of Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, is no mean observer of things Brazilian. Shannon was the special assistant and senior director for western hemisphere affairs on the national security council between 2003 and 2005 under President George W. Bush.
Andrew Hill Card, better know as Andy Card, was Bush’s White House chief of staff between 2001 and 2006. On September ll, 2001, it was Andy Card who whispered in George Bush’s ear as he was visiting the Emma E. Booker elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Thomas Shannon, together with Andy Card, had coordinated a week-long series of private briefings for Brazilian officials at the request of José Dirceu after Lula’s inauguration in January 2003. José Dirceu was Lula’s principal political adviser. Shannon also served for twelve days as Secretary of State until President Donald J. Trump’s nominee, the former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Wayne Tillerson, was approved by the US Senate.
Lula has refused the request from the German chancellor, Olaf Schulz, to supply arms to Ukrainian forces. Like much of the “global south” Lula is neutral on the war in the Ukraine. He seeks the role of a peace maker. It is a large part of his post-Bolsonaro foreign policy agenda to assert that “Brazil is back,”
During his state visit to China last week Lula attended in Shanghai the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as the head of the BRICS development bank. Dilma Rousseff was his chosen successor as the President of Brazil. She was impeached and removed from office in 2016. Lula himself had spent 580 days in prison at the Brazilian Federal Police headquarters in the city of Curitiba. He had been sentenced to 12 years for corruption and money laundering in April 2018 as part of the “car-wash” investigation by Federal Judge Sérgio Moro.
Lula was released by the Supreme Court after the website “intercept” revealed that Judge Moro had collaborated with the prosecutors. However “Operation car-wash” had revealed widespread corruption and kick backs involving the state petroleum company Petrobras, business leaders, middle man, and leading politicians. José Dirceu, Lula’s chief of staff, had also been imprisoned. The scandals also had major international consequences.
Dilma Rousseff’s appointment to the BRICS bank was Lula’s response to her impeachment which he claims was politically motivated (it was). He also claims that his own imprisonment on corruption charges was politically motivated which is also in part true. The Chinese press quoted the statement of General George S. Patten, that success for you only begins when you hit the bottom. Dilma Rousseff appeared to have hit the bottom after her impeachment and removal from office.
Lula also appeared to have hit the bottom when he was imprisoned.
Dilma Rousseff had been a long term member of Lula’s Workers Party (PT) and was a former left-wing militant who had been imprisoned by the Brazilian military regime. The New Development Bank (NDB) is headquartered in Shanghai. The idea for the bank was first proposed by India at the BRICS summit in Delhi in 2012.
Dilma Rousseff hosted the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, while she was the Brazilian President in 2014. The BRICS bank was established in 2015. The BRICS are Brazil, Russia, Indian, China, and South Africa. The next BRICS summit, the fifteenth, will be held in Durban, South Africa, in late August of this year. According to Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the next BRICS summit will be a “manifestation of global multi-polarity.”
Dilma Rousseff in her inauguration speech in Shanghai with Lula present, thanked Lula for “introducing her candidacy” for the bank’s presidency, and said that the BRICS bank was “committed to multilateralism and south-south cooperation” as well as to “a world undergoing profound transformation.”
Lula also visited the factories of Huawei while in Shanghai and said that “no one will prohibit Brazil from prioritising its link with China.” Huawei is a multinational technology leader, headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, and is the maker of telecommunications equipment, consumer electronics, smart phones and small electronic devises, and roof top solar panels.
Huawei has been heavily invested in Brazil. It is seen, however, by many western governments as a security risk because of its intimate links to the Chinese government and the Chinese security services a connection which the U.S. government has warned Brazil about.
The BRICS bank is part of an alternative to the World Bank, the IMF, and the Breton Woods institutions which made the US dollar the global settlement currency. Dilma Rousseff in her inaugural speech as the new BRICS bank president specifically mentioned “the renminbi, the dollar, and the euro” and in that order.
Lula was very “multi-polarity” in Beijing. After a stellar reception at the palace of the people in Beijing, and inspecting the serried ranks of a resplendent Chinese people’s liberation army guard-of-honor, and a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping,
Lula reiterated his attack on the dollar, said that the U.S. should stop “encouraging war in the Ukraine and start talking about peace.” Above all it was “necessary to convince the countries that supply weapons, encouraging war to stop.” Brazil’s relations with China was “non-negotiable,” and that the Ukraine should formally cede the Crimea to Russia as part of any peace deal.
On the way back to Brazil, Lula made a one day official visit to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he was received by the president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahuan. Lula said he had signed deals worth US$10 billion in China.
Lula said he had discussed with the UAE and China joint mediation for Russia’s war in the Ukraine. He again accused the U.S. and Europe of prolonging the war. And he said he has proposed “a political G-20 to try to end the war.” He also lashed out at the dollar’s domination of global trade calling for a new currency for transactions between the BRICS.
On the Middle East, China had just brokered in Beijing a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has already produced a positive outcome in negotiations between the Saudi backed and Iranian backed forces in the civil war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Russia have recently agreed to rise the price of petroleum, despite entreaties from Washington not to do so.
On his arrival back in Brasilia Lula will meet with the Russian foreign minister, Sérgio Lavrov, who is on Latin American tour, visiting Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba. Latin America is considered by the Kremlin to be “one of the center’s of the multipolar world.”
Brazil’s repositioning is not surprising. But Lula 3 seems much more aggressively anti-American than Lula 1 or Lula 2. He was it seems profoundly marked by his imprisonment. Before he was an eminently pragmatic leader, a tough labor union negotiator, with strong links to the U.S. Labor movement, especially United Auto Workers, and he was never an ideological Marxist.
José Dirceu was also in practice a pragmatic politician and he was very willing to reach out to the U.S. before and after Lula’s first presidency. The U.S. ambassador in Brazil at the time, Donne J. Hrinak, was also extremely skillful in her dealings with the new Lula government.
Dirceu had been a communist student activist in 1965-1968, but he broke with the Brazilian communist party and joined more radical groups. He had been imprisoned and in 1969 was among the 14 leftist prisoners exchanged in return for the release of the kidnapped American ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick. José Dirceu was flown into exile in Mexico and later spent time in Cuba. He returned clandestinely with a new identity and a changed appearance with plastic surgery living in São Paulo and the northeast of Brazil.
Dirceu was later caught up in the scandals of Lula’s first term and was imprisoned by Judge Moro”s car-wash operation. During the early Lula administration as Lula’s chief-of-staff, however, he was extremely sensitive to the U.S. and acted to mitigate possible tensions and misunderstandings and in this he was aided by Andy Card and Thomas Shannon in Bush’s White House
Lula’s (and Dilma Rousseff’s) long term long term foreign policy adviser in the Planalto, however, was the late professor Marco Aurelio Garcia (1941-2017), as well as less directly, Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira (1935-2017). Bandeira who was a descendent of one of the oldest families in Bahia was a prolific author who had been a socialist militant as a young man in Rio de Janeiro. Exiled after the military coup of 1964 he had lived in Uruguay before returning to Brazil clandestinely.
Bandeira was arrested by the Brazilian navy and spent two years in jail. His books included a history of “U.S. hegemony” and a book on “a perilous relationship: a history of US wars from the war against Spain to war against Iraque.” And a book on the “American Empire.” Bandeira died on 2017 at the age of 81 in Heidelberg, Germany.
Marco Aurélio Garcia from Rio Grande do Sul was a professor of Latin American History at UNICAMP in São Paulo. He had also been an exile in Chile and Paris where he taught at the university of Chile and in France at Paris-VIII and Paris-X. A long time PT militant on his return to Brazil he was the convener of the forum of the São Paulo which was a meeting (first suggested to Lula by Fidel Castro) of the leftist parties of Latin America.
Celso Amorim who was Lula’s Foreign and his defence minister in his previous presidential incarnations came late to the Lula fold, originally via José Dirceu at the time of Lula’s first election as president. Celso Amorim is now the dominant force in Brazil’s foreign policy as Lula’s special foreign policy advisor in the Planalto. He is extremely anti-American, and his wife is even more so. He visited Putin in Moscow prior to Lula’s visit to China.
Brazil’s closeness to China makes sense both economically and politically for Lula. Economically China is Brazil’s major trading partner. And it makes political sense because the powerful agro-business interests in the south and west of Brazil export most of their soya production to China. And China takes much of Brazil’s iron ore.
The strongest support for Bolsonaro is also concentrated in the west and the south. So it was very smart of Lula to include major figures from Brazilian agro-business as part of his delegation to China, and the deals which were stuck during Lula’s visit to China also involved Brazilian made aircraft and opened up Chinese collaboration with the Brazilian space agency’s base at Alcântara.
Not everyone in Brazil is enamored by Lula’s foreign excursions and love-in with president Xi. Duda Teixeira on the Brazilian website “Crusoe” quoted from Lula’s speech on Beijing where he urged “groups of countries disposed to find a jeito to make peace”. The “jeito” is an untranslatable Brazilian term for a “fix.”
But as Duda Teixeira point out to have any impact it will be necessary to convince the president of Russia, and that “the best thing that could happen for the war in Ukraine is to keep Lula as far a possible from any path to end the conflict.”
Other Brazilian commentators are equally skeptical. And in any case most Brazilians who have the money much prefer Florida to Shanghai. Larry Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary and Harvard president, said in an interview on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington .D.C., that the U.S. was getting “lonely” and that we are facing the “fragmentation of the global economy” and that the Bretton Woods settlement is under challenge. He said that he was told that “what we get from China is an airport, what we get for the U.S is words.”
Lavrov’s visit to Lula in Brasilia seems to have eventually got Washington’s attention. John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman said on Monday that Lula’s comment were “simply misguided” and that Lula was “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda.” Lavrov told journalists in Brasilia on Monday that “he was grateful to our Brazilian friends for their clear understanding of the situation.” The only European leader who has welcomed Lula’s initiative has been Emanuel Macron of France. But then Macron too has just returned from a state visit to China
One hopes the new U.S. ambassador to Brazil, who only arrived on February 3, 2023, Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, who was previously the successful U.S. Ambassador in Portugal, will have the skills displayed by her predecessor, Donna Hrinak, at the beginning of Lula’s first term. She will need them.
But the challenges for the U.S. are considerable. While Lula was in Beijing, the “leader of the free world”, the increasingly geriatric Joe Biden, who barely seems to know what direction he is facing, was busy wallowing in faux-Irish nostalgia (with his son, Hunter Biden no less) in Dublin, and at his “ancestral town” of Ballina in County Mayo. It is a great pity that there is not a French type of retirement age for the retirement of aging politicians in the U.S., which would also remove the New York county district attorney Alvin Bragg’s revitalized Donald J. Trump’s from his presidential contemplation.
The truth is that while the U.S. is consumed with domestic contention, Brazil is indeed “back.”
But much more significantly is the fact that “China is Back” and that Xi is busy orchestrating the “new world order” in China’s national interest, and that Brazil and Lula are willingly going along for the ride.