During his visit to Washington, DC last week — his first trip to the northern hemisphere since being inaugurated on January 1 — Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva specifically requested meetings with two political leaders before sitting down with Joe Biden on Friday afternoon. Lula’s visit was short, so the way he budgeted his time was telling.
His first official engagement was with Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime ally of Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT). Sanders later tweeted that it was “a pleasure” to speak with Lula, adding that “we discussed the importance of defending democracy, advancing workers’ rights, and increasing environmental and climate cooperation around the world.” Lula also noted that he had “the pleasure of meeting [Bernie] in person” after having spoken in video calls before. “We discussed democracy, the trade union movement and better rights and jobs for workers,” Lula said.
Next, Lula met with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, during which “we talk[ed] about social programs that we developed in Brazil, the concern we share about the environment and the future of the world and the confrontation with the far right and fake news on social media,” Lula later tweeted. “It was a true honor meeting with you,” Ocasio-Cortez responded, “and discussing global solidarity for the planet and working people. Obrigada!”
Lula is as close as any current world leader to being an icon on the international left. While he has detractors on the Brazilian left and elsewhere, he is overwhelmingly seen as a model of working-class organizing and governance. He is the face of a political project that has blended electoral politics with working-class organization for more than forty years. His deliberate intention to meet with Bernie and AOC — these were the two figures explicitly cited by individuals close to Lula who planned his Washington trip — signals Lula’s support and ideological affinity with the pair.
Electoral politics in the United States and Brazil play out on vastly different landscapes. Lula’s PT is the largest, most influential, and most successful leftist party in Latin America, retaining an enduring core of support among poor and working-class Brazilians through scandals, defeats, and defections. By comparison, the Democratic Party is a hollow shell, devoid of ideological consistency thanks to its discordant mix of wealthy donors, upper-middle-class supporters, and working-class voters.
Still, it’s telling that Lula flagged Sanders and AOC — who detractors insist are Democratic lackeys and purveyors of a thin-gruel electoralism hostile to genuine working-class politics — as tribunes of the Left in the United States. This gesture is of a piece with Lula’s long-standing insistence that electoral politics are a crucial vehicle for social progress — and that building political power to deliver substantive improvements to poor and working-class people is more important than ideological purity plays.
To be clear, there is a difference between constructing a party from scratch rooted in working-class empowerment like Lula and his partners did with the PT, and attempting to seize the direction of a compromised party as figures like Bernie and members of the Squad have hoped to do. If the PT has tacked to the center from its origins as an explicitly socialist party, it boasts a working-class ballast that the capitalist-funded Democratic Party never has.
Yet Lula’s enthusiastic greeting of Sanders and AOC should be seen as an embrace of their political project, which seeks to build working-class organization through electoral politics in the enormously hostile environment of hyper-capitalist America. Coming from a famously perceptive working-class tribune like Lula, that has to mean something.
So the next time you see a Lula-phile denounce Bernie, remember who was at the top of the Brazilian president’s meeting list: the senior senator from Vermont.