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Biden and Brazil's Lula find common ground against violent extremism

President Joe Biden and Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Oval Office of the White House.
Anna Moneymaker
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President Joe Biden and Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Oval Office of the White House.

Updated February 10, 2023 at 6:30 PM ET

RIO DE JANEIRO — President Joe Biden and Brazil's new leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have a lot in common these days. "Both our democracies have been tested of late," said Biden during a sit-down in the Oval Office.

It was just over a month ago that hundreds of extremists stormed Brazil's capital. Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro ransacked the Congress, Supreme Court and the presidential offices.

The comparison with the attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 are often made. Both Trump and Bolsonaro, close allies, continue to spread false claims of electoral fraud.

Supporters of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro hold a demonstration at the Esplanada dos Ministerios in Brasilia last month.
Evaristo Sa / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro hold a demonstration at the Esplanada dos Ministerios in Brasilia last month.

Friday's afternoon meeting between the two leaders was a quick one meant to reset the U.S.-Brazil relationship.

"The United States and the rest of the world can count on Brazil in the fight for democracy and the fight for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest," Lula told Biden through an interpreter.

This is the second time Biden and Lula have met in person. The first time was when Biden, then vice president, traveled to Brazil during the end of Lula's last presidency in 2009. This is their first meeting as presidents.

US President Joe Biden  welcomes Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to the White House in Washington DC
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden welcomes Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the White House in Washington, D.C.

Lula told Biden that Brazil had been in a self-imposed isolation under Bolsonaro, who he said lived "fake news in the morning, afternoon and night," referring to his predecessor. Biden chuckled and added, "sounds familiar," apparently also referring to his predecessor.

Former President Bolsonaro is currently in Florida. He came to the U.S. just before Lula's inauguration on New Year's Day. It's unclear how long he will stay away from Brazil, where he is under investigation for his alleged role in the attacks by his followers in Brasília last month. Lula has said he isn't planning to bring up the former president's stay in the U.S.

President Biden has shown his support for Lula as he deals with Bolsonaro and extremist supporters. Immediately after the attacks of Jan. 8, Biden called Lula and invited him to the White House. He also was one of the first leaders in the world to congratulate Lula on his close electoral victory last October. Relations between Brazil and the U.S. had been strained during the last two years of Bolsonaro's far-right administration.

The visit is an important "milestone" in restarting U.S.-Brazil ties, says Thiago de Aragāo, a political risk consultant in Brasilia and Washington. A photo with Biden in the White House is what Lula is looking for at this early point in his administration says Aragão, especially when it comes to his role tackling climate change. "Biden will legitimize Lula as one of the most important opinion makers among world leaders in the environmental agenda," he said.

Earlier in the day Lula met Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, where they discussed how to increase international cooperation to protect the Amazon and preserve the environment for future generations. Lula also had talks with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a staunch voice against the U.S. granting refuge to Bolsonaro

Lula has promised to reverse Bolsonaro's catastrophic environmental record, in which much of Brazil's deforestation enforcement was dismantled. Lula has launched a massive operation to rid the country's largest indigenous reserve of illegal miners.

Brazil has sent hundreds of federal agents to the Yanomami reserve in the northern Amazon to root out the illegal operations that have polluted the local rivers and land.

Biden had pledged to create a global fund for Amazon protection. Lula wants the U.S. to contribute to the existing Amazon Fund, which he has restarted after its demise under Bolsonaro. The $1.3 billion fund is supported mainly by Norway and Germany and provides money to deforestation prevention and sustainable development projects in the rainforest.

The heart of the Brazilian Amazon forest.
Florence Goisnard / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The heart of the Brazilian Amazon forest.

The two leaders don't see eye to eye on everything, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Lula backs away from condemning Russia in the current war in Ukraine. In an interview with CNN's Christine Amanpour, he said, "I don't want to join the war, I want to end the war."

In fact, the Brazilian leader has proposed leading a so-called "Peace Club" of non-aligned states, including India, to help mediate an end to the conflict.

He also doesn't take sides in recent tensions between the U.S. and China. China is Brazil's top trading partner. The South American country does nearly double the amount of trade with China than with its second-largest partner, the United States. Lula has a trip planned to China next month.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.