Lula’s Tightrope-Balancing Act

[Lula] faces major domestic challenges: a grim economic outlook following Brazil’s lost decade, a congress dominated by conservatives and agribusiness interests, and polarization that threatens the country’s very social fabric.


Source: Bloomberg/Maira Erlich.

Four years after his imprisonment on corruption charges that were later overturned, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has come far. Flanked by indigenous leaders, foreign dignitaries, and even his dog, Lula had a record-setting third inauguration on the first of January. However, he is dealing with a vastly different Brazil than the one he left in 2010. He faces major domestic challenges: a grim economic outlook following Brazil’s lost decade, a congress dominated by conservatives and agribusiness interests, and polarization that threatens the country’s very social fabric. Given these domestic constraints, the veteran statesman is likely to be active in reasserting Brazil’s presence abroad.

Lula is pulling from an old political playbook here and doing so for two key reasons. First, even his critics concede that Lula shines on the international stage—after all, he’s notably the man that befriended everyone from Barack Obama to Hugo Chávez. Second, his return is expected to be welcomed globally following the nationalist and ideological path set by his predecessor, former President Jair Bolsonaro. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s famously strong diplomacy was subject to consistent turbulence, as the ex-president insulted heads-of-state—and their wives—and echoed conspiracy claims that infuriated leaders from Beijing to Washington. The Bolsonaro government became an international pariah in the West due to its defense of deforestation and picked unnecessary fights with China—Brazil’s largest trade partner since 2009.

While Lula’s diplomatic credentials are famous, the world has changed since he left office in 2010. At both the global and regional level, Brazil’s president will find the world stage far more divided this time around—leaving him perched on a tightrope with far less room for mistakes.

Consensus in an Era of Strategic Rivalry

To start, the ongoing geopolitical competition between China and the United States is bound to pose problems for a consensus-builder like Lula. Where once engagement with China was merely a pragmatic question of commerce, today the relationship is viewed with much more suspicion from Washington. Entire multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization have been paralyzed by the U.S.–China rivalry, while tensions over Taiwan and semiconductor supply chains have raised the geopolitical temperature.

Lula appears to understand this. His administration has wasted no time in announcing early visits to both China and the United States. He has also indicated his eagerness to pursue a free trade agreement with one while working on addressing climate concerns with the other. Meanwhile, Brazilian diplomats have pressed on with strategic allies in trying to reform multilateral bodies, demonstrating a return to Brazil’s more traditional role in the global order.

Nonetheless, U.S.–China competition is far from the only international crisis demanding Lula’s attention. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited South America last week, ostensibly to thank Brazil and other Latin American countries for condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the two leaders’ agreements on trade talks and protecting the Amazon did not extend to the war in Eastern Europe. In fact, Lula refused to consider sending munitions to Ukraine and continued a trend of blaming both sides for the ongoing conflict—an issue where he notably aligns with his predecessor.

Whether in dealing with the United States and China or the Europeans and Russians, Lula’s first tightrope lies between the West and major non-Western powers. Tightening economic conditions and external factors—such as fertilizer prices—will guide much of his policymaking as the Brazilian president attempts to return his country to its former position of respected neutrality. In this landscape of high engagement costs—where even BRICS or OECD membership come with political implications—Lula will need to tread carefully, as geopolitical winds tend to change course abruptly.

Guiding the Troubled Family

While Lula may find regional politics to be less tumultuous, they come with their own challenges.

Since leaving office, much of Latin America has experienced another lost decade of economic stagnation. Many of his ideological allies across the region were replaced by conservative governments throughout the 2010s—many of whom were subsequently defeated by left-wing candidates in recent years. However, far from being a “pink tide” like the one Lula enjoyed in the 2000s, today’s Latin America is instead marked by an anti-establishment wave that has seen incumbents lose in the last fifteen free and fair regional elections.

With this in mind, Lula is making up for lost time. Prior to either the United States or China, his first foreign visit as president was to Buenos Aires to meet with his embattled Argentine counterpart Alberto Fernández. While there, he touted brotherhood and even the possibility of a common currency. The two leaders also attended the seventh summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), one of two regional organizations from which Bolsonaro withdrew—making the Buenos Aires summit a return for both Lula and Brazil. The president’s mission: keep unity and common development on the agenda.

Yet while many convened leaders found common ground when criticizing the Peruvian government, the summit provided a forum for unmasking some of the stark divisions within the region today. Numerous presidents called for stripping the regional body of the ideological undercurrents that plague it. This critique was on full display as criticism of leftist autocratic regimes came from leftist leaders such as Chilean President Gabriel Boric.

This regional tightrope is one that Lula will likely need to walk for much of his term. Conditions in the hemisphere’s major dictatorships—particularly Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela—have worsened in recent years with the tacit acceptance of his traditional leftist allies in Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico. In the face of widespread democratic backsliding, Lula will need to balance these partnerships with more democratic allies such as the governments in Chile and Uruguay. He will also need to consider the probability of ideological fluctuation throughout the hemisphere, as today’s leaders could be removed from power.

Brazil has historically been characterized as a ‘reluctant hegemon’ within the Americas, owing to a lack of defined leadership towards the country’s neighbors. Indeed, the Bolsonaro years saw regional disengagement as the former president prioritized other continents. However, with his return to the presidency Lula is reentering a broken family, one with little overarching purpose. With the aim of strengthening Latin American sovereignty and integration, he will need to brush aside the mosaic of regional blocs that have carried over since the 2000s and prioritize addressing the hemisphere’s most pressing challenges. The tough part will be doing it with neighbors with diverse policy objectives and in an economic order where extra-regional actors are indisputably more powerful.

The Delicate Balance

The international challenges facing Lula da Silva are not necessarily insurmountable and he has a strong track record when it comes to guiding the foreign policy of Latin America’s largest country. However, the commodities boom that powered Brazil’s growth in the 2000s has ended and the Chinese appetite for major loans to the region has dried up—even if investments have not. While the will may be there, Lula will have to manage a more cash-strapped country in a far tenser world.

On the world stage, Lula has already indicated that he is prioritizing trade talks with the European Union and China and staying out of security matters. His foreign agenda includes strengthening and revitalizing BRICS as well as cooperating with German and American partners on protecting the Amazon. Closer to home, he will need to help chart a course for a region that has become increasingly dependent on foreign actors despite local leaders’ affinities for creating regional organizations.

Lula will need to balance old friends and new regional faces as well as relationships with superpowers which have grown ever closer to conflict in recent years. All this balancing comes amidst a country with over 30 million people lacking food and a military with a questionable status regarding democracy. Lula da Silva’s tightropes have never been quite so high.

Gabriel Cohen is a doctoral candidate at Pompeu Fabra University who specializes in the international political economy of Latin America. He has written regional analyses for Americas Quarterly and The Diplomat, and is a contributing columnist at Latinometrics.

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