Last Friday, two American leaders who faced would-be coup attempts, US president Joe Biden and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, met in Washington, DC. The pair of presidents traded the usual pleasantries of diplomatic visits, but it was the Latin American visitor who was trying to teach the US president how to deal with an insurrection.
This was not Lula’s first time visiting the US capital, but it was the first since he defeated Jair Bolsonaro in last year’s Brazilian elections. Lula met with progressive members of Congress, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the president of the AFL-CIO. The climate change and pro-worker rhetoric of Lula’s visit shined through in these meetings, with reporters asking him about Brazil’s plans to protect the Amazon and both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez praising his commitment to labor rights. With Lula, Brazil will again become a leader in these fields.
But the key reason for Lula’s visit was the January 8 insurrection in Brazil — Biden invited him to visit the United States the day after Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed the Brazilian capital. This was no typical meeting, and Lula knew it. It was an opportunity to show people in the United States how to deal with the far right.
Lula demonstrated this most clearly in his conversation with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the highest-profile interview he gave while on US soil. Amanpour asked about Lula’s political intentions, his stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Amazon, but the first half of their conversation focused on the state of democracy in Brazil. She presented her questions as a challenge to President Lula, arguing that “Brazil is divided. . . . half the country loves you and half the country hates you,” and suggested that “unifying Brazil is the key to protecting democracy.”
Framing Bolsonaro’s attacks on Lula and on Brazilian democracy as a potential failure of Lula to “unite” the country revealed her and the mainstream press’s shallow understanding of democratic politics when confronted with the extreme right. Lula’s response to Amanpour, on the other hand, demonstrated his deep awareness of the fight ahead and his dedication to defeating those who would undermine democratic rights. Lula countered her argument that Brazil is uniquely divided, noting that partisan divisions are part of any democratic process. The problem isn’t with Brazil or Brazilians, whom he said were mostly “peaceful,” but instead with the rise of an antidemocratic right wing.
He was also clear that the “extreme right wing,” in his words, was an international threat on the level of the loss of the Amazon — and therefore required international collaboration and solidarity. There is “an extreme right running around the world . . . in France, Hungary, Germany, with a Nazi attitude,” Lula said, interjecting before Amanpour could move to another topic.
He noted that his government has been prosecuting those who invaded the Brazilian capital and has even investigated and dealt with military collaboration in the coup, something the United States has entirely ignored out of fear of what it could reveal. He calmly stated that Bolsonaro would be convicted in his country, and possibly international courts as well, for his horrendous response to the COVID pandemic and treatment of indigenous people. This wasn’t the face of an uncertain president, afraid of rocking the boat, but instead of a practiced leader who knows that threats to his country’s democracy can only be vanquished if they’re confronted head-on.
Once again, this is Lula and his administration providing a vital example for those of us in the Global North about how to respond to attacks on democracy. Both-sides rhetoric blaming the Left for the rise of the Right, or claiming that unity is the linchpin of democracy — these are dead ends. We don’t need to transcend “partisanship.” We need to defeat the extreme right and its attacks on ordinary people’s democratic rights. And if we follow the advice of those well-schooled in confronting the far right, like Lula and his Brazilian allies, we can win.