RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has so far shown little concern about defying consensus in the West on foreign policy — even when it comes to dealing with authoritarian governments.
In recent weeks, Lula’s Brazil sent a delegation to Venezuela, refused to sign a UN resolution condemning Nicaragua’s human rights abuses, allowed Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro and flatly refused to send weapons to Ukraine, at war with Russia.
These decisions have raised eyebrows in the U.S. and Europe, but experts said Lula is reactivating Brazil’s decades-old principle of non-alignment to carve out a policy that best safeguards its interests in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Brazil’s foreign policy is based on its 1988 constitution, which establishes non-intervention, self-determination, international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of conflicts as guiding principles.
That involves “talking to all states at all times without making moral judgements, while respecting certain red lines,” said Feliciano Guimarães, a political scientist at the think tank Brazilian Center for International Relations. Lula’s red lines are not yet clear, he added.
Last week a delegation from Brazil headed by Celso Amorim, a special advisor to the presidency and former foreign minister, went to Venezuela in the first high-level official visit in years. Diplomatic relations with the neighboring nation were severed under Lula's predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Venezuela's leftist president Nicolás Maduro is accused of trampling freedom of speech and persecuting political opponents.
Amorim’s team met with both Maduro and the opposition. Maduro posted pictures of the meeting with Amorim on Twitter and praised the “pleasant encounter.”
Brazil intends to promote democracy in Venezuela and push for greater transparency in elections, which is why the delegation met with both sides, according to an official at the foreign ministry who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Brazil’s representatives at the United Nations in early March declined to sign a Human Rights Council declaration condemning Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua. Ortega’s government has cracked down hard on dissent, and last month deported and moved to strip Nicaraguan nationality from more than 200 dissidents — drawing international rebuke over what was deemed a throwback and a form of banishment.
In an interview with Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo, published March 10, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira said the declaration was not signed due to “differences in language and approach.” Vieira pointed to Brazil’s historical position of seeking dialogue first.
But the controversy prompted the Brazilian government to later highlight that it was “extremely concerned” about reported human rights violations in Nicaragua and offer to welcome political refugees who have had their nationality stripped.
Lula made diplomacy a priority during his previous presidency from 2003 to 2010, and Brazil was widely respected on the international stage. The BRICS group composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa was established in 2006.
Lula and Amorim held talks with U.S. presidents and senior Iranian officials in an attempt to build peace, negotiating alongside Turkey to slow Iran’s uranium enrichment. The efforts ultimately failed, and Iran continued enriching uranium.
Lula is seeking to reinsert Brazil on the global stage after Bolsonaro, who showed little interest in international affairs beyond asserting his affinity for other right-wing nationalists such as Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. He reserved special adulation for former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro’s trips abroad were few and far between. Lula quickly showed a different tack, heading to Argentina in the first month of his presidency to meet with his counterpart, Alberto Fernández.
The returning president also wants to create of a group of countries, possibly including India, China and Indonesia, to mediate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin said Moscow was studying Lula’s proposal, according to Russia’s Tass news agency in February. He also shared that proposal with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a March 2 video call.
But Lula’s refusal to send weapons to the invaded country has aggravated the West.
“Lula’s government is applying the same principle of autonomy as during his first terms, but the global scenario has changed,” said political scientist Leonardo Paz from the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank.
The West’s tensions with Russia and China are sharper. But Russia is a key supplier of fertilizer to Brazil’s soybean plantations, and its exports have become dependent on China.
China surpassed the U.S. as Brazil’s main trading partner in 2009. Their economic relationship has since only strengthened. Between 2007 and 2020, China invested US$66.1 billion in Brazil, according to the Brazil-China Business Council.
“Brazil needs a strategy that allows it to maneuver. The principle of non-alignment allows it to have channels open with all states to protect itself,” Guimarães said.
Brazil showed its will to pursue a foreign policy independent of the US and European countries when it allowed two Iranian warships to dock, Guimarães added.
The move prompted rebukes from the US and Israel. “Hosting Iranian naval vessels sends the wrong message,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing on March 9.
She added: “But Brazil is a sovereign country and they are allowed to make their decision on how they’re going to engage with another country.”
Another sign of Lula's budding foreign policy came this week with the announcement that as of Oct. 1 Brazil will reinstitute the requirement that citizens of the U.S. and three other nations obtain tourist visas, which Bolsonaro had scrapped even as the four countries continued demanding visas from Brazilians.
Bolsonaro's decision had represented “a break with the pattern of Brazilian migration policy, historically based on the principles of reciprocity and equal treatment,” the foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.
Bridi reported from Brasilia.