The US used to undermine democracy in Brazil. Now we’re trying to preserve it.

A common enemy — right-wing extremism — unites the two countries’ leaders.

Violent supporters of the losing candidate insisted that the presidency had been stolen from them. In a last-ditch effort to prevent democratic transition, they stormed the capitol. Police ultimately restored order. Still, it was a chilling reminder of how polarized the country has become and how fragile its democracy may be.

That was the United States on Jan. 6, 2020. It was also Brazil on Jan. 8, 2023. Both countries are now governed by presidents who took office amid frightening outbreaks of post-election violence. Their common experience has drawn them together.

As soon as President Biden learned that rioters had crashed into Brazil’s presidential palace, Supreme Court, and Congress, he denounced their action as “outrageous.” Later he tweeted: “I condemn the assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil. Brazil’s democratic institutions have our full support and the will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined.”

The United States did not always bolster democracy in Brazil. In 1964 the US government promoted a military coup that led to the destruction of Brazilian democracy. Since then, our support for that democracy has ranged from tepid to enthusiastic. Biden has made it stronger than ever.

The United States no longer has the near-absolute power over Latin America that it exercised for nearly a century after the Spanish-American War of 1898. During that time, we could and did overthrow presidents who refused to do our bidding. Now the balance of power is shifting. Some countries have been able to break away from the US orbit without incurring our wrath. American leaders tolerate affronts that would have brought swift punishment in a past era. Biden did that when he embraced Brazil’s newly elected leftist president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.

Lula opposes US military aid to Ukraine and wants to create a new “Global South” currency to replace trade in dollars. His government is friendly with China, which is Brazil’s largest trading partner. A Chinese company has even floated the mind-boggling possibility of building a rail line across Brazil and into Peru, uniting the continent from Atlantic to Pacific. As if that were not enough to disturb Washington, two Iranian warships docked at Rio de Janeiro last month.

Biden might have taken offense at this defiance. Instead, he has decided that the United States cannot afford to alienate Brazil, the largest country in Latin America. He chooses to overlook Lula’s provocative views and focus instead on what the two of them have in common. Both are eager to combat climate change. Both face large groups of voters who detest them. Both have ambitious social agendas. Biden wants to “go down as one of the most progressive presidents in history.” Lula said in his inaugural address that he wants to give every Brazilian “a dignified life, without hunger and with access to employment, health, and education.”

Once upon a time, the United States could send a top official to tell Brazil’s president what to do, and if he refused, have him overthrown. Some in Washington seem to long for those days. Senator Ted Cruz has called Lula “an anti-American leftist” and wondered why Biden is so “thrilled” to work with him. The answer is that he has no real choice. The 1964 option is no longer available.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were both spooked by Brazil’s leftward drift. They had been stunned by the emergence of Cuba as a Soviet ally in the Western Hemisphere and were terrified that Brazil, which is 80 times larger, might be next. Kennedy even mused that the United States might “find it desirable to intervene militarily ourselves.”

President João Goulart of Brazil was a social reformer who was sympathetic to Cuba. American leaders feared that he would lead his country toward Communism. In 1962 Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to Brazil with pointed advice for Goulart: He must support US efforts to isolate Cuba, dismiss advisors deemed “extreme leftists” or “ultra-nationalist,” and promote American programs like the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. Goulart demurred. In response, American diplomats began telling Brazilian generals that the United States would accept a coup. The generals struck on April 1, 1964. President Johnson recognized their government the next day.

“Well, Goulart got what was coming to him,” Robert Kennedy mused afterward. “Too bad he didn’t follow the advice we gave him when I was down there.” Brazil remained under military rule for 21 years.

The United States is no longer able to dispose of Latin American presidents that way. It’s a welcome change. Leaders we imposed on many countries were not only brutally repressive but also prevented their societies from developing. Today, freed of the Cold War paradigm and facing new alternative partners, those countries are shaping independent futures.

Biden is evidently not ready to accept reduced US power in Europe or Asia. In the Western Hemisphere, though, he is doing just that. He has kept our two longtime adversaries, Cuba and Venezuela, under tight sanctions. Yet by embracing Lula, he shows a welcome recognition of new geopolitical realities. The presidents will meet in Washington on Friday — and Lula is expected to visit China soon afterward.

The United States faces major security challenges from Russia and China. Biden does not want to open a third front by feuding with Latin American countries. They are taking advantage by striking out on paths that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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