When Inacio Lula da Silva assumed the presidency of Brazil 12 years after his first two terms, he comes onto a stage greatly changed but one in which he sees an opening for Brazilian engagement, a tangible realm of influence, and a decisive role in shaping the future of the region.
China's emergence as a global superpower and as the world's second-largest economy is a resurgence of a bipolar world that shatters the status of the United States as the only major global power in the aftermath of the Cold War.
As Lula sees it, the opening for Brazil comes as a bridge and player between the collective West and the Global South.
Despite its location, China's economic and geopolitical status sets it apart. Its economic and political influence is now extending beyond the traditional boundaries of the Global South.
This changing landscape necessitates a recalibration of strategies and alliances for the region to cope with the evolving dynamics as the entire world is seeking to one degree or another a position in this transformed world and its unfolding narrative.
So, the Lula-driven role for Brazil in a BRICS he reinvigorated provides an opportunity to claim a place in this changed geopolitical gameboard that he hopes will lead to a place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
To do that Lula has been breathing new life into various organisations that reinforce Brazil's role as a force in Latin America and to take the helm of the subcontinent.
Since his return to power, Lula has promoted this view of Brazil as a resurgent regional power, Latin American powerhouse, and natural leader of South America on multiple fronts.
Paralleling first-Pink Tide behaviours, he has been promising to return Brazil to leadership in South American integration and a resumption of global ambition.
His instant role as the regional elder statesman upon his inauguration on January 1 was thought to be his greatest asset and the guarantor of Brazil's return to geopolitical relevance as much in Latin America as globally. One of his first moves was a rapprochement with Argentina and its president, Alberto Fernandez, a trade accord with its southern neighbour, and articulating visions of regional integration and cooperation.
Together, the two leaders whose countries represent 60% of the landmass of South America crafted a renewed era of collaboration, economic growth, and shared prosperity, not only between Brazil and Argentina but also among their neighbouring countries.
From Lula’s point, this strategic partnership aims to strengthen their collective voice on the global stage and solidify Brazil's position as a key player in shaping the future of Latin America and the world.
Given Brazil's outsize geographical dominance — Half of the geography of the subcontinent, one-half of its population, and half of its economy, its influence in the region and Lula's reinvigorated style set up a de facto scenario of Brazilian leadership in creating what Lula has described as a European Union of South America, UNASUR.
This, combined with a push for BRICS leadership, placing former Brazilian president and political ally Dilma Rousseff as president of the BRICS New Development Bank in Shanghai along with renewed relevance for and in the bloc, puts Brazil in a position to project its image and gain influence not just regionally but globally.
Naturally then, Lula took one more step in renewing the push for regional integration and invited the leaders of all countries in South America to Brasilia to participate in a landmark summit aimed at discussing regional integration, fostering unity, collaboration, and shared goals.
The meeting counted with presidents Alberto Fernández of Argentina, Luís Arce of Bolivia, Gabriel Boric of Chile, Gustavo Petro of Colombia, Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador, Irfaan Ali of Guyana, Mário Abdo Benítez of Paraguay, Chan Santokhi of Suriname, Luís Lacalle Pou of Uruguay, and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela for a meeting at Brazil's Foreign Relations Itamaraty Palace in Brasília. Peru's president Dina Boluarte is constitutionally barred from leaving Lima due to pending charges, and so was represented by the president of the Council of Ministers, Alberto Otárola.
When Lula called, they all came.
With a grand vision of a truly integrated South America, Lula sought to strengthen bonds, promote economic cooperation, and identify and work on shared challenges. For the 77-year Lula, it was certainly a moment of regional statesmanship and news of global relevance.
But then Lula singled out Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro for special state honours, a full-scale welcome flanked by the majestic, red-plumed Brazilian Presidential Honor Guard and all the pomp, respect and diplomatic protocol granted to distinguished friends and guests of the country.
Lula's vision of UNASUR is fundamentally important to bringing Brazil closer to its goals of a seat among the world players and bringing the subcontinent under its sway.
Instead, however, the effusive welcome to Maduro, the repercussion of Lula’s speech defending the characterization of Venezuela not as a problem of dictatorship and human rights abuses but as a "problem of not controlling its own narrative," has undermined the very narrative that Lula and Brazil wanted to come out of the encounter, diminishing the impact of the first time all 12 Latin American leaders have come together in nearly two decades to kickstart South American integration.
It is a significant development, but its significance was lost in the hullaballoo of criticism created by Lula's attitude toward Maduro and his apparent dismissal of questions about his country's democracy, charges of authoritarian dictatorship, and the sufferings of the Venezuelans that have left the country by the millions.
In openly and wholeheartedly embracing Maduro, however, Lula may have also used substantial political capital at home and within the South American community. That, despite pointing out that the isolation of Venezuela had not worked and only served to reduce trade between the two nations from $ 6 billion per year to barely over $ 1 billion today.
Almost immediately Brazil's social media postings exploded with disapproval and criticism. Over 325,000 postings reaching some 5 million people juxtaposed the plight of the Venezuelans many Brazilians see in their streets with the rose-coloured vision of Maduro as an unfairly misunderstood leader painted by Lula.
The immediate backlash renewed Bolsonaro-campaign charges that Lula would turn Brazil into another Venezuela. "Lula is exactly what Bolsonaro told us he would be", said a widely circulated meme.
But the response also highlighted the significant problems that Maduro represents for Lula.
International commentators were soon talking about the 122 documented cases that, according to a report by the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, say that Maduro’s intelligence agencies are committing crimes against humanity as part of a plan orchestrated at the highest level of his government to repress dissent.
Seventy-seven of the victims detained at Venezuela's Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence of DGCIM were subjected to torture, sexual violence and/or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, says the UN mission's report. "President Nicolás Maduro and other high-level authorities stand out as the main architects in the design, implementation and maintenance of a machinery with the purpose of repressing dissent."
The high profile of the event served to reinforce the image of a Venezuela hostile to democracy and human rights, a case that was not helped when members of Maduros' extensive security detail attacked journalists in Brasilia as they attempted to interview Maduro.
Many saw Lula's words as an affront to democracy. Others say it projects him as anti-democratic.
"Miserable," said Venezuela's opposition leader Guaido in a CNN interview, saying later "Lula prefers to attack me than to defend democracy."
Uruguay's right-wing leader and former Bolsonaro ally Luis Lacalle Pou went directly to his social media from Brasilia on a live broadcast where he directly challenged Lula's characterisation of Maduro.
"I was surprised when you say that what happened in Venezuela is a narrative," he said, adding that Lula knows "what we think about Venezuela and the government of Venezuela."
But of more concern to Lula should be the response by Gabriel Boric, Chile's young progressive and one of a new crop of leftist Latin American leaders that came to power in the second Pink Tide. "It is not a narrative, it is reality," he said, adding passionately that he sees the reality "in the eyes and in the pain of the Venezuelans that are in our country."
No one is forced to agree, said Lula.
More than 7 million Venezuelans have left the country since the last time Maduro visited Brazil in 2015 for the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff.
That is because of an ongoing economic and political crisis where many Venezuelans lack access to clean, running water and electricity. According to the UN Refugee Agency, this has become the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world.
People leaving Venezuela say they are escaping violence, insecurity and threats as well as a lack of food, medicine, and essential services. There is extreme poverty in the country, and despair is the common thread of those crossing the borders to escape the situation into Brazil and neighbouring countries.
"I have a discrepancy with what President Lulas said yesterday," declared Boric while also welcoming the inclusion of Venezuela in multilateral talks. "Human rights have to be respected always and in every place."
While Brazilians understood the need for a rapprochement with Venezuela, across the spectrum, they questioned the prestige conferred upon Maduro, a man who —many pointed out online— has a $15 million reward on his head offered by the U.S. State Department for information leading to his arrest or conviction. Washington has made no bones that it aims to push out of power.
The U.S. Justice Department issued charges against Maduro for narco-terrorism in 2020. Realpolitik and the need for oil, however, have allowed for a US rapprochement with Venezuela.
On Tuesday, the Legislative Assembly of the State of Sergipe repudiated the reception given by Lula to the Venezuelan president. "Nicolás Maduro weakens the country's democratic institutions," said a deputy in a statement.
In the National Assembly, the opposition-dominated chamber and the Commission on Foreign Relations and National Defense also passed a motion repudiating Lula’s reception of Maduro.
It is Lula's approach to be pragmatic, but the loss of focus at the summit took away from its accomplishments because the leaders addressed some substantive matters that got lost in the noise.
Participants agreed that the mechanism for integration must be "de-ideologized" and focused on pragmatic cooperation that can survive changes in power.
Brazil's far right-wing former president Jair Bolsonaro had moved to dismantle UNASUR while in office, creating instead PROSUR, the Forum for the Progress of South America in 2019.
Lula's UNASUR Vision
Lula's vision is based on what he says is "envy" of the European Union, pointing out that this was an area destroyed by war, with millions dead from fighting each other, but they were able to form "a union, a central bank, a parliament,” he said. “The EU is a democratic patrimony of humanity.”
The meeting was called to decide what the countries wanted out of South America, said Lula, advancing the idea of a deeper “South American identity also in the monetary area, through a more efficient compensation mechanism and the creation of a common reference unit for trade, reducing dependence on extra-regional currencies.”
For his part and building on that statement, Lula proposed the construction of a common currency to negotiate terms between countries without having to buy dollars. "It is not correct," he said of the current dollar-based international settlement system.
From Shanghai, Rousseff, in her role as president of the BRICS bank has confirmed that the bank plans to provide 30% of loans in local currencies of its member nations, effectively moving away from using the US dollar in international trade, a move widely seen as a first step to the development of a common currency.
Working in concert with Brasilia and Shanghai Lula and Rousseff proposed the use of development banks such as CAF (Corporación Andina de Fomento), Fonplata (Financial Fund for the Development of the La Plata Basin), Banco do Sul and BNDES (National Bank for Economic and Social Development) for regional savings at the service of economic and social development.
Together, the 12 nations with a population of 450 million people constitute an enormous consumer market, and with a projected cumulative GNP of $4 trillion, constitute the world's fifth largest economy, said Lula.
"We are a region of peace, without weapons of mass destruction, and where disputes are resolved through diplomatic channels," Lula told the participants, reminding them of the success of the previous iteration of UNASUR on conflict resolution.
Noting that in the coming years, the region will host events from the main forums of global governance, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum meeting, in Peru, the G20 Summit, the BRICS meeting and the COP 30, on climate, in Brazil, Lula added, "We need to arrive at these spaces united, as reliable interlocutors sought after by all."
And that is clearly the role Lula sees for South America and for Brazilian leadership emerging as a region that engages the rest of the world focusing on the realistic, the pragmatic instead of the idealistic.
It is also clear that his vision includes an integration that becomes an entry ramp into the BRICS bloc for all of South America.
The leaders agreed to set up a commission to explore integration issues.
On the UN Security Council
Making the case that Brazil deserves a permanent seat at the UN Security Council representing South American interests, Lula said that the geopolitics have changed, that there are now many more people in the rest of the world that need their moral and political input on the functioning of the UN.
Saying that the five permanent members of the Security Council are the most warring and biggest arms dealers on the planet, Lula went on to note that wars like the US and Iraq war and others that involve council nations did not go through the Security Council.
If the five members do not respect it, in fact, if they are the ones who most disrespect it, then what is it they are doing, asked Lula. "That is why Brazil needs to be a permanent member," he said.
"Everyone knows that Brazil has been fighting for a long time. And we will continue to fight because the Security Council, represented by these five countries, no longer reflects the truth of the world's geopolitics."
Saying again that Brazil wants to be an agent of peace, Lula said that in his view it is not yet a time for peace between Russia and Ukraine. He said he sent an envoy to Moscow and Kyiv, and at this time both sides believe they will win, so no one is ready to talk peace. "No side wants to show its hand."
But here too, the close association with Maduro may hinder advance.
While the Security Council is not specifically tasked with promoting human rights and democracy —these issues are often addressed in the context of maintaining peace and security— and critics are already saying that supporting, or ignoring abuses by Maduro undermines Lula's claim for Brazil.
Lula was unmoved.
He questioned why the world makes democratic demands of Venezuela but does not make such demands of Saudi Arabia.
In doing so, he was taking an indirect shot at his critics and his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, whose many trips and close association with Saudi Arabia are being investigated due to a $ 3 million jewel gift from the kingdom that ended up in the hands of Bolsonaro ostensibly destined to his wife, and not the state as required by law.
On a regional Amazonia
"Now that Amazonia has an important weight in world affairs, we need to have a meeting of the countries that comprise Amazonia, said Lula. "Amazonia is not just Brazil," he noted. "It is Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, even France has a part of it."
"We need to get together, to see what the others think, what is the process, how are the indigenous peoples treated in other counties, the miners, how are they seen, and how they are. Then we can begin to work across the globe with another country that has great forests, that is Indonesia, so we can work together to better the lives of the world."
Lula advised Maduro to take control of his own narrative about his government and his country. It may be advice Lula himself could use about the results of the historic encounter of the leaders of South America, the first in two decades.
As the summit concluded, the headlines and discussions were still heavily centred on his reception of Maduro and Lula found himself trying once more to explain the whys of his position.
In closing remarks, he defended Maduro again, but this time adding that he was speaking from personal experience, equating the loss of his own narrative and what had been done to him as he was faced with a deluge of bad press in the wake of accusations that sent him to prison on charges that were later reversed.
"I told Maduro to put out his own truthful narrative," said Lula.
The last time such a meeting took place, there was a friendship and a mandate, recalled Lula, naming Morales, Kirchner, Bachelet, Correa and other leaders of the first Pink Tide.
"This meeting was important and gratifying," added Lula, because it was the first time he met many of the leaders. He had not met Chile's Boric or Uruguay's Lacalle before.
“We are not starting from zero," he added. "UNASUR is a collective asset. Let's remember that it is in effect; seven countries are still full members."
Waxing poetically in remarks at the closing of the summit, Lula described his dream of a unified region "from Patagonia, to Atacama, to Amazonia, to the Cerrado and the Andes."
He said he envisioned a future where South Americans can be cheering for each other "as Brazilians were cheering for Argentinians at the World Cup in Qatar."
Decrying the isolationism under Bolsonaro, Lula also said that the interruption of the forces of integration was something in which "we all lost."
It is important to retake the road we were constructing, South America's elder statesman, told to the leaders. "We have no time to lose."
The morning after the summit, however, with the leaders heading home, the Venezuelan flag flew at Brazil's Alvorada Palace, indicating the presence of Maduro at the presidential residence.
Perhaps time and thought are needed to retake the narrative.