Why is he so admired?

By Mariana Taubemblatt

On the night of the Brazilian election, several State leaders lined up to congratulate Lula on his third presidential election victory. The warm welcoming that Lula received from the international community contrasts heavily with the cold relationship many leaders and international institutions had with Jair Bolsonaro during his four years of government. Naturally, the questions arise: why are the international community’s responses so different this time?

Beginning with the response from international leaders, it is possible to see that Lula’s re-election pleased politicians from all sides of the political spectrum. On the same night Lula was praised by Joe Biden, Volodymir Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Besides that, several leaders from South America expressed their support towards him, such as Argentina ’s president, Alberto Fernandez, Chile’ s president Gabriel Boric and Luis Arce, Bolívia’ s head of State. Such a reaction can be explained by Jair Bolsonaro’s ideological position being radically different from many of the leaders in South America, which caused a lot of tension between the heads of State. The man frequently antagonized long-time Brazilian allies due to his political disagreements with their leaders, including Argentina and Bolivia. Not only that but he was one of the last heads of State to recognize Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. election, contributing to his status as an autocratic pariah in the international stage. Bolsonaro’s antagonistic position towards liberal and relevant leaders caused Brazil to have an increasingly tense relationship with many States, while provoking a sense of uncertainty internationally. 

Lula, on the other hand, not only got congratulatory messages, but his reelection alone was enough to change the position of certain countries towards Brazil.  The “Amazon Fund”, a State program designed to help to preserve the Amazon, created during Lula’s government had long received monetary aid for both Norway and Germany. However due to Bolsonaro’s poor environmental record and increasing deforestation rates in the Amazon, both of these countries stopped contributing to the fund. Not surprisingly, after Lula was confirmed as the winner, both States offered to reinstate the environmental aid. This highlighted how much the perception of Brazil deteriorated during Bolsonaro’s presidency, at the same time that it showed how highly respected Lula is among international leaders. 

While it is clear Bolsonaro is ill regarded internationally when Lula is beloved, it is not so evident what Lula did during his eight years as president to earn such a prestigious reputation. Well, there were several aspects of his foreign policy that aligned with the principle of the liberal world order, for example his focus on diplomacy, regionalism and multilateralism. Lula traveled abroad more than any other Brazilian president before, meeting with several heads of State and he also hosted foreigners in Brazil as well. By organizing summits in the country, this approach paid off, since during his government Brazil opened 35 new embassies. His diplomatic relationships culminated with Brazil hosting two of the most important cultural and commercial events in the world, The World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. A lot of Lula’s efforts were concentrated in South America as evidenced by the strengthening and expansion of the Mercosur (a commercial trade block comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), which led to trade within the block to reach a record of more than 21 billion dollars in 2005. Lula also expanded Brazil’s role in the region through humanitarian aid, exemplified in the fact that Brazil took over the UN mission in Haiti. Such an effort helped Brazil to strengthen its relationships to its neighbors, as well as consolidate itself as a regional power. Lula also focused on multilateral agreements with other countries in the Global South, and on sending humanitarian and financial aid to said countries. Lula focused on coalition politics, meaning that he aligned himself with other emerging powers, in order to counter the hegemonic power of the Global North. One example is BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South-Africa), which was meant to generate increased bilateral trade among its member countries. Lula was also successful in strengthening Brazil’s relationship with several African countries, through his diplomatic leadership as well as through his financial aid. Lula has visited Africa more than any other Brazilian president, he also signed framework agreements for technical cooperation (TC) with the African Union, forgave debts of several countries in the region and provided them with new loans. 

    With all of that said, it is important to notice that Lula’s domestic policies also help with his international reputation. During his government deforestation of the Amazon decreased dramatically, while millions were lifted out of poverty, turning into more likely consumers for important goods and hunger also decreased significantly. These accomplishments led to Lula being perceived as both a competent and admirable leader, but most importantly an ally in the fight against climate change, one of the most prevalent international concerns. 

Lastly, it is important to consider what Lula’s foreign policy will look like in the future, considering he will soon be sitting at the president’s chair once again. In his victory speech he declared

What I hear the most is that the world misses Brazil. They miss that sovereign Brazil that talks to the richest and most powerful countries like an equal and at the same time contributes to the development of poorer ones.

This suggests Lula intends to expand Brazil’s role in the international sphere, aiming towards a more prominent and influential role. Such a strategy would break with Bolsonaro’s rejection of the international liberal order, going back to Lula’s original strategy. Lula, so far, has emphasized a strong climate agenda. In his speech he promised to reach zero deforestation in the Amazon and is reportedly in talks with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia to create an alliance for forest protection. Lula also seems likely to look for a trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU, as his foreign policy advisor Celso Amorin implied by saying that Europe is “very important in the multipolar game”. Lula will also probably seek a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, since this has been sought after for years, and is seen as one of the country’s major goals in terms of foreign policy.

Image by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash