Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Obama-Lulathon

Reading Time: 4 minutes

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and President Barack Obama met in the Oval Office on Saturday morning.

The White House said Larry Summers, head of the White House’s National Economic Council, General Jim Jones, head of the National Security Council (NSC), Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Dan Restrepo, the NSC’s director for Western Hemisphere affairs attended the meeting. Among those attending on the Brazilian side, Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim, Chief of Staff Dilma Rouseff and Finance Minister Guido Mantega.

On the menu: the upcoming G-20 summit, the Summit of the Americas, the global financial crisis, biofuels and, privately, the custody case of David Goldman.

A 34-minute photo-op, including a brief Q&A, with the two presidents followed the meeting.

Obama called the discussion a “wonderful meeting of the minds” and praised the “progressive, forward-looking leadership” of Lula da Silva. At the top of the presser, Lula said he has prayed for Obama more than he has prayed for himself lately. “Because with just 40 days in office—to suffer and to face such a terrible crisis the U.S. is facing today, I don’t want to be in his position,” Lula said through a translator. Quick on the uptake, Obama said: “You sound like you’ve been talking to my wife.” 

Both leaders were very focused on the global economic crisis, though Lula—who wants Brazil to have a greater voice on the international stage—sounded most upbeat and constructive. 

“On April 2 in London, the main leaders of the world will gather, and we cannot afford going to such a meeting just to discuss whom we should put the blame on.  We have to sit in the roundtable and find a resolution to the crisis…We have to have a special credit supply for the poorest countries and the developed countries,” the charismatic former labor union leader said. 

Lula also called for improving international trade, warning against protectionist measures: “[P]rotectionism now, in my opinion, would aggravate the economic crisis if we stop tapping the water in international trade.  It’s like taking out a fish out of water…and then you’ll lack water.”

A Brazilian reporter asked Obama about U.S. duties on Brazilian biofuels.  Obama acknowledged that the issue had been a source of tension between the two countries.  He said over time the debate would get resolved, but not overnight. Lula agreed: “I never expect an immediate answer. This is a process. As time goes by, Brazil is proving that biofuel is an extraordinary alternative…And slowly, other countries will join the biofuel effort.”

Prior to this “meeting of the minds,” Lula—who became the first Latin American leader to meet with Obama in the White House—said he wanted to convince Obama to become more of a partner of Latin America, and focus more on development and aid.

“We are a democratic and pacific (peaceful) continent and the U.S. should look at us with a more development minded attitude and not only think about drug trafficking and organized crime,” he told Brazzil Magazine on March 11.  

Brazil also appears to be taking a leadership role vis-à-vis U.S. relations with other countries in the hemisphere. Lula said he would urge the U.S. to begin talks with Venezuela’s loquacious leader, Hugo Chávez, in which Brazil would act as a mediator, and to drop its embargo on Cuba. 

Indeed, there are high hopes—and expectations—for strengthening relations between Brazil and the U.S.—in part because of the similarities between the two leaders. 

Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told the BBC: “[I]t is not an insignificant factor that someone with [Obama’s] background gets elected, in the same way it was not an insignificant factor that someone with Lula’s background got elected in Brazil. So I think he is prepared to have a better understanding of the needs of the region, of the kind of dialogue that you have to have with people that don’t think necessarily the same things as you think, but still want to come to an agreement. I think Lula and Obama will have a lot in common in that respect.”

Yet, there were some diplomatic hiccups—or slights?—in preparation for the meeting. 

Frst, the meeting was originally scheduled for March 17, but was rescheduled because of the St. Patrick’s holiday.  Now, St. Paddy’s day is on the calendar every year, it’s not like it’s a surprise. Apparently, a scheduling glitch. Nothing more to read into, and it probably speaks more about the understaffing at the White House, said one observer close to the parties.

Second, when the White House announced the rescheduled meet and greet, they misspelled Lula’s name—putting Lula in quotes and spelled his first name as “Luis” and last name as “Ignacio.” Sorry guys, no “s” or “g” in the Brazilian’s name. Nothing more to read into, and it probably speaks more about the understaffing at the White House, said one observer close to the parties.

On Saturday, Obama said he was looking forward to visiting Brazil, but no date had been set for a trip. Obama even cracked a joke when asked if he also planned to visit the Amazon: “I would love a trip to the Amazon.  I suspect that the Republican Party here would love to see me travel through the Amazon and maybe get lost.”

There’s been some speculation that he might stop in Brazil immediately before or immediately after the Summit of the Americas.

But there’s also word going around that the President may go to Mexico before the Summit, following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip there on March 25 and 26. 

But, on Saturday—as Obama escorted Silva to his waiting limousine just outside the Oval Office—Obama said: “I’ll see you in London.”


Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.

Tags: Brazil, energy, Financial Crisis, Lula, Obama
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