London – When a right-wing politician with authoritarian leanings (think Donald Trump) courts a genocidal dictator like Vladimir Putin, we recoil in distaste but are not surprised. But when a former human-rights advocate and working-class hero backs dictators guilty of abominable butchery, shock is followed by abhorrence. That is how I feel watching Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, embrace Putin and Venezuelan tyrant Nicolás Maduro. Lula’s is a moral failure of appalling proportions.
Start with his love-in with Maduro, which is less well-known globally. At a regional summit in late May, progressive activists gasped when Lula claimed that human-rights violations and anti-democratic practices in Venezuela are just a “narrative construction.” This in a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, “police and military units have killed and tortured with impunity in low-income communities,” and “authorities harass and persecute journalists, human-rights defenders, and civil society organizations.”
When other Latin American leaders protested, Lula moved from the political to the personal. Recall that Lula was tried and convicted for corruption, and went to jail under a 12-year sentence until his conviction was annulled by the Supreme Court in a decision that, according to the Financial Times, “remains controversial.” The accusations against Maduro, Lula blurted out, were “like the lies against me, which no one managed to prove.”
At one time, Lula might have considered the report on Venezuela by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, which documented “grave rights violations,” as sufficient proof. Not anymore.
Having honed his skills at coddling one dictator, Lula moved on to Putin. Shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, then-candidate Lula told Time magazine that Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bore equal responsibility for the war. A year later, he is yet to change his mind.
Before the recent European Union-Latin America summit, Lula led a group of countries that first vetoed an invitation to Zelensky and then insisted that the communiqué contain no condemnation of Russian aggression. And that was after he had invited Russian’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to Brasília where, predictably, Lavrov thanked his Brazilian hosts for their “clear understanding” of the situation in Ukraine.
Lula behaves this way for the same reason that babies suck on their toes: because he can. In Latin America, several governments (Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay among them) object, but none of them is big or influential enough to push Lula off course. The United States and major European countries find his position indefensible (“Brazil is parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda without at all looking at the facts,” said the US National Security Council spokesman), but they have too much going on elsewhere to pick a fight with Brazil.
Some argue that Brazil is seeking to carve room for an “independent” foreign policy (read: independent from Washington, as evidenced not only by Lula’s coolness toward Ukraine, but also by his repeated criticism of the dollar’s role as a global reserve currency). An independent foreign policy sounds fine, but why does it have to include turning a blind eye to atrocities? France and the Scandinavian countries, among many others, would insist that they run their foreign affairs autonomously, but they do not mince words when it comes to condemning Russia for the carnage it has caused.
Others claim that Brazil is playing peacemaker by refusing to take sides and insisting that talks between the warring parties be held. But telling the Ukrainians they have to negotiate now is like telling a man who is being attacked by a knife-wielding maniac that he should engage in frank and fruitful dialogue with his assailant. And the idea that Brazil will mediate between two countries at the other side of the world is plainly absurd. When the time comes for talks, maybe India will help. Perhaps Turkey or China will send a representative who can sit at the table. But… Brazil? Really?
Yet another fanciful view is that Brazil is leading a Global South that will no longer tolerate Western colonialism. So far, so good. But what is Putin’s war if not an instance of colonialism, in which an imperial power is bent on subjugating a smaller neighbor and annexing its territory? Are some imperialists better than others?
Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, a tattooed 37-year-old former student activist and proud leftist, doesn’t think so. Boric has been outraged at Lula’s coddling of both Maduro and Putin. He publicly denied that abuses in Venezuela were just a “narrative” and denounced Russia’s “imperial aggression” at the EU-Latin America summit. “Today it is Ukraine” he warned, but “tomorrow it could be any of us.”
In response, Lula again made it personal, telling media that Boric had misspoken because it was his first EU summit and he was probably “a little anxious.” The spectacle of the 77-year-old Lula talking down to another head of state, 40 years his junior, made even some far-left friends of mine shudder.
Lula’s stance is rooted in vanity and domestic politics. The vanity springs from a vision of Brazil as a global player, strutting the world stage in the company of its fellow BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). But to behave as though Brazil could wield global power comparable to China’s, or even India’s, is pure folly. The summit pageantry is pleasant, but the substance remains scanty.
And the BRICS’ track record on defending peace and non-intervention is not exactly stellar. One of their summits took place just after Russia had illegally annexed Crimea. The world begged them to disinvite Putin. They declined.
The politics is even more mundane. Brazil’s economy is growing more this year than pundits had anticipated, but the global scenario of high interest rates and low growth (in addition to very high domestic public debt) does not bode well. Moreover, Lula’s party does not have a parliamentary majority, so it must negotiate legislation with the opposition. Given somber prospects at home, photo opportunities abroad look particularly appealing.
Lula has enjoyed much international goodwill since returning to the presidency, but only because his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, was so thuggish and anti-democratic. Sadly, now Lula is consorting with tyrants who make even the awful Bolsonaro look good.
*Article originally published in Project Syndicate.