Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Lula’s Unforced Errors Are Taking a Toll on the World’s Goodwill

Brazil’s president has restored his country’s international reputation, but his provocative gestures are bedeviling progress on his top goals.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva attends the CELAC Summit in Buccament Bay, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, in March.Randy Brooks/AFP via Getty Images
Reading Time: 5 minutes

SÃO PAULO — In early 2022, with little more than eight months to go before Brazil’s presidential elections, Jair Bolsonaro made a rather unusual request to his foreign minister, Carlos França.

Bolsonaro’s opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was being fêted across European capitals and received a statesman-like reception in Madrid and Paris, promising Brazilian voters he would overcome the country’s diplomatic isolation under Bolsonaro. Eager not to let Lula’s argument stand, Bolsonaro asked França to organize bilateral meetings with international leaders, preferably in the West—quite a challenge, given that governments across Europe and North America did little to hide their preference for Lula, seen as a far more reliable partner than Bolsonaro.

In the end, only two leaders were willing to host Bolsonaro: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who agreed to a brief photo-op while on the campaign trail for reelection, and Vladimir Putin, who, five days after the visit, would initiate Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

More than a year into Lula’s third term, the West’s hopes have been largely fulfilled. Brazil is yet again fully committed to strengthening multilateralism, it has made more progress in fighting deforestation than many experts expected, and it has normalized ties to countries from around the world. Brazil’s priorities during its G20 presidency—combating hunger, promoting sustainable development and reforming international institutions—are widely considered sensible, and both Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira and G20 sherpa Maurício Lyrio are seen as competent in the leadup to the leaders’ summit in Rio de Janeiro in November. Brazil’s decision to host the COP30 in Belém in 2025 symbolizes the laudable willingness to take on a greater role in the fight against climate change.

As my colleague Matias Spektor recently wrote about Lula, “few leaders could claim, on taking office, to have induced sighs of relief from both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden”—and along with them, probably most leaders in Europe, Latin America and across the Global South.

Said relief has produced tangible outcomes: Lula was invited to join last year’s G7 Leaders Summit in Japan, showing Brazil regained, with Bolsonaro’s departure, an enormous agenda-setting capacity on the international stage. Along with India’s Narendra Modi, Lula is today the most visible political leader of the Global South.

Lula’s reputation has also benefited from a better-than-expected growth rate of 2.9% and from a historic tax reform, which explains why many international investors are willing to turn a blind eye to the president’s recurring populist rhetoric against “the markets,” and his criticism of the Central Bank president and spending limits (a response to somewhat lower approval ratings).

Observers have also taken note of Lula’s capacity to reduce political tensions after the violent insurrection of Bolsonaro supporters in January 2023. His amicable relationship to São Paulo governor Tarcísio de Freitas, a Bolsonaro protégé who may challenge him in 2026, symbolizes a remarkable return to normality in Brazilian politics, which helps calm investors.

Missed opportunities

Yet given the massive global goodwill Lula encountered upon returning to the presidential palace in Brasília, one cannot help but lament the many missed opportunities of his foreign policy. An effort to relaunch UNASUR during a presidential summit in Brasília last year—a sensible enterprise, given the lack of more meaningful regional cooperation—will be remembered by Lula’s emphatic defense of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s “democratic legitimacy,” which forced several presidents to publicly disagree and cast a shadow over the entire meeting. While Lula’s soft spot for Maduro is well known, his decision to host the Venezuelan president with much fanfare prior to the regional summit, rather than more discreetly after the gathering, was an unnecessary mistake, as several government officials recognize in private.

In the same way, Lula’s rather unsettling habit of taunting persecuted opposition leaders in autocracies such as Venezuela—he recently said María Corina Machado, banned from running in Venezuela, should “stop crying” and even compared Venezuela’s opposition to bolsonarismo—may play well with a subset of the president’s left-wing base, but ends up weakening pro-Lula voices in many capitals around the world, especially in the United States, Europe and Latin America.

All this is all the more remarkable because Maduro does not act as a Lula ally. Quite to the contrary: His threatening rhetoric against neighboring Guyana is a slap in the face to Brazil’s leadership ambitions, threatens to undermine South America’s geopolitical stability—a key asset to attract investors in an increasingly unstable global context—and served as evidence of Brazil’s very small influence over Venezuela’s president. It took the Brazilian government until yesterday to finally express “concern,” adding that excluding Corina Yoris “is not compatible with the Barbados agreements,” even though it has been obvious for months that Maduro has no inclination to allow for genuinely competitive elections.

When it comes to Russia, Lula’s unwillingness to impose sanctions against Moscow is understandable—Russia is a key provider of fertilizers which Brazil’s agribusiness depends on, and Lula’s overall foreign policy is guided by non-alignment—but his frequent pro-Putin rhetoric has a reputation cost without generating much benefit. In a press conference during a trip to Africa, the president cynically argued that it is necessary to wait for an “investigation” by the Russian government into the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, fully aware an independent investigation into Navalny’s death was as unlikely as one into the Embraer plane crash that killed mercenary leader and Putin opponent Yevgeny Prigozhin last year.

In the same way, Lula’s controversial comparison between Israel’s war in Gaza and the Holocaust may have produced some temporary benefit among his die-hard supporters at home, but was largely seen negatively abroad, while also undermining the president’s attempt to reach out to evangelical voters.

All this limits Lula’s capacity as a bridge-builder and mediator in an environment shaped by increased geopolitical turbulence. Whether in Venezuela, Gaza or Ukraine, where Brazil’s president hopes to be seen as a legitimate negotiator by both sides of a crisis, his rhetoric is not helping him. Finally, when it comes to Haiti’s crisis, an issue where Lula once took the lead twenty years ago, Brazil has taken a back seat, even though its armed forces could contribute to the debate, including on how to avoid the mistakes it made in the past.

Looking forward, Lula’s greatest challenge is to assure that his non-alignment strategy is understood by the West on one side and the Russia-China axis on the other. Lula’s initial intention to invite Putin to the G20 summit in Rio in November is not only seen as pro-Russian move—Lula would have to pressure the Brazilian judiciary to not follow an active ICC arrest warrant and detain Russia’s president—but also risks spilling over onto the other issues Brazil would like to achieve during its G20 presidency.

When it comes to the newly expanded BRICS group, Brazil, which in the past has always sought to tone down the summit declarations, may struggle to avoid the bloc from positioning itself as an explicitly anti-Western club—particularly considering that the upcoming October summit will take place in Russia. There can be little doubt that Putin will use the encounter to show the world that he is not isolated and claim he is winning the war against Ukraine. It doesn’t help that Lula’s most controversial comments are often made during long international trips.


Reading Time: 5 minutesStuenkel is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly and teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order and Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order.

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Tags: Brazil, Brazil Foreign Policy, President Lula Da Silva
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