Brasilia, Brazil—President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been in diplomatic hyperdrive since taking office, making Brazil a key global player again—but stoking controversy with some of his stances, including on Ukraine and Venezuela.
Less than six months into his term, the veteran leftist has already met more foreign leaders than his predecessor, far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, did in four years—33 to 32, according to a count by newspaper O Globo.
Lula, who previously led Brazil from 2003 to 2010—when he also played a starring role in international affairs —will be in diplomatic dynamo mode again this week when he travels to Europe for meetings with Pope Francis at the Vatican and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
Since taking office in January, Lula, 77, has incessantly repeated that “Brazil is back” on the world stage, vowing a clean break with Bolsonaro, who often appeared internationally isolated, apart from his tight relationship with his political role model, US ex-president Donald Trump.
A string of world leaders have traveled to Brasilia to meet with Lula, who has in turn crisscrossed the globe from the Americas to Asia to Europe, securing big-money backing for key initiatives such as his Amazon Fund to protect the world’s biggest rainforest.
“Simply not being Jair Bolsonaro provided Lula with considerable global goodwill,” international relations expert Oliver Stuenkel wrote recently in Brazilian Report.
Stumbling on Ukraine
But the charismatic ex-metalworker has also caused several diplomatic rows with his controversial, unfiltered statements.
Lula has made a high-profile bid to set up internationally mediated talks to end the war in Ukraine, but is seen by many in the West as overly cozy with Russia.
He has declined to join Western nations in sending arms to Ukraine or imposing sanctions on President Vladimir Putin’s government over its invasion.
On a trip to China in April, Lula accused the United States of “encouraging” the war.
The White House hit back, saying he was “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda.”
In May, a planned meeting between Lula and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Japan fell through, officially because of “conflicting agendas.”
Zelensky quipped he imagined Lula was “disappointed.” Lula replied he was rather “upset.”
Lula’s Ukraine stance is part of “the traditional anti-Americanism” of his left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), said former Brazilian diplomat Paulo Roberto de Almeida.
But he told AFP it also shows Lula’s close relationship with “the two big autocracies,” China and Russia— Brazil’s partners in the BRICS group of emerging countries.
Lula faces a tough balancing act on a global chessboard increasingly polarized between the United States and China.
Brazil needs both: China is its biggest trading partner, the US a natural ally on key issues such as the environment and strengthening democracy.
Lula was warmly welcomed by US President Joe Biden at the White House in February, but came away with no big deals or announcements.
His China trip, in contrast, yielded a flurry of economic cooperation agreements.
“Brazil’s biggest risk and fear is having to take sides” between Beijing and Washington, said international relations specialist Pedro Brites of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Lula is also keen to strengthen regional ties in South America.
But a key summit last month — the continent’s first in nearly a decade —practically did the opposite, as Lula provoked a squabble with his controversial comments on Venezuela.
Lula warmly welcomed Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolas Maduro, a pariah in some quarters for his government’s alleged rights violations and authoritarianism, painting him as the victim of a hostile “narrative.”
That drew criticism not only from center-right President Luis Lacalle Pou of Uruguay, but also from fellow leftist Gabriel Boric of Chile.
“Lula’s unfortunate statements erased any evidence of the summit’s success,” Almeida said.
At home, Lula meanwhile faces pressure to spend more time on domestic affairs, given the tricky, treacherous politics of navigating a virulent opposition and a Congress dominated by his conservative enemies. AFP