BRASILIA, Brazil — U.S. President Joe Biden became concerned that his Brazilian counterpart was going to skip this week’s summit in Los Angeles, so he dispatched a close adviser to personally deliver the invitation to Jair Bolsonaro.
The gesture was met with a demand, according to three of the Brazilian leader’s Cabinet ministers.
Bolsonaro said he would attend the Summit of the Americas only if Biden granted him a private meeting and also refrained from confronting him over some of the most contentious issues between the two men, the officials told The Associated Press.
He didn’t want any criticism over deforestation in the Amazon or warnings about his questioning of the Brazilian electoral system’s reliability as he prepares to campaign for another term, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department did not address questions about the requested preconditions.
Whether or not Biden bites his tongue, the demand is a reminder of the gap between the two leaders as they prepare for their first one-on-one meeting, which two ministers from Bolsonaro’s government said was expected to take place Thursday. The White House has not said when the meeting will happen.
Bolsonaro’s attendance at the summit may help Biden contain embarrassment over some leaders staying away, partly in a dispute over not all the region’s nations being invited to the conference, which is being hosted by the U.S. for the first time since the inaugural event in 1994.
But Bolsonaro’s appearance may also be a source of friction. Ignoring Bolsonaro’s unrelenting barrage of criticism for Brazil’s election system may be untenable for Biden, who has said promoting democratic institutions at home and abroad, is a core part of his administration.
“I don’t think there’s any way around it,” said Ted Piccone, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who works on Latin America issues. “If Biden says nothing about this issue, it will look bad for him and his democracy agenda in the region and at home.”
As a far-right ally of former President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro was among the world’s last heads of state to recognize Biden’s election victory. More recently, Bolsonaro accused Biden of snubbing him at a summit of world leaders in Rome last year, saying: “He went by as if I did not exist.”
While Biden ran for president two years ago, he criticized Brazil for rising deforestation in the Amazon. After Biden took office, Bolsonaro’s administration worked to demonstrate commitment to reining in the destruction. Efforts included stepping up its pledges at the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow and regular bilateral meetings with U.S. authorities.
But those conversations stalled as data showed continued deforestation. The most recent annual reading was the worst in 15 years.
“This is really heading in the wrong direction,” Piccone said. “If Biden can get Bolsonaro to stop the damage, that would be a win.”
Brazil is the hemisphere’s second most populous democracy after the U.S., and Bolsonaro’s positioning ahead of his reelection campaign has raised alarm at home and in Washington.
He will be running against his political nemesis, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. While Bolsonaro has fervent support among his base, early polls say da Silva is leading handily before October’s election. The campaign officially starts in August, though both Bolsonaro and da Silva are already holding rallies.
Bolsonaro insists polls don’t reflect the true scope of his support, and he has sown doubt about the electronic voting machines employed in every Brazilian election since 1996. He says the electoral authority lacks transparency and accuses some of its members of being biased against him.
Analysts and opposition lawmakers say they worry Bolsonaro is laying the groundwork to reject election results should he fail to secure a second term, and follow Trump’s example in encouraging supporters to back a tropical version of the U.S. Capitol riot. He has said repeatedly that only God can remove him from the presidency.
“Democracy in the country is no longer just a domestic issue,” the electoral authority’s president, Luiz Edson Fachin, said in an interview with foreign correspondents on Tuesday. “Brazil’s democracy is of interest to Brazil but also South America, Latin America and all democractic countries in the world.”
In a meeting last July at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, CIA Director William Burns told two of Bolsonaro’s ministers that the president should stop attacking the electoral system, said two officials who were present at the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Brazil’s presidential palace did not respond to a request for comment about the tenor of the Burns meeting. The CIA declined to comment.
Burns’ warning didn’t prevent Bolsonaro, just two months later, from pushing Brazil to the brink of an institutional crisis when he rallied supporters to protest against the Supreme Court and told the assembled masses he would no longer heed rulings from one of its justices. Ultimately, he backtracked and said his comments had come in the heat of the moment.
Months went by without further attacks. Recently, though, he has returned to his heated rhetoric.
“If need be, we will go to war,” the president told a crowd Friday during a speech in Parana. “I want the people by my side, conscious of what they are doing and for whom they are fighting.”
“He keeps preparing a coup,” Sen. Renan Calheiros told AP by phone. “The political parties need to remain prepared, support the Supreme Court that is the country’s great bulwark, and keep institutions strong, calling the attention of the world.”
Calheiros is one of eight senators participating in an informal watchdog group that this year has been meeting to discuss Bolsonaro’s comments and the traction they receive among civilians, police and military. The group also includes Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral authority, Calheiros said.
The U.S. has confidence in Brazil’s electoral system, Juan González, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told reporters Wednesday.
But he didn’t say if the issue would be raised when Biden and Bolsonaro have their bilateral meeting. He said they would address global topics, citing as possibilities food security, health security and economic actions in response to the pandemic.
If Biden doesn’t push Bolsonaro to respect election results, he risks legitimizing the Brazilian leader’s recent challenging of authorities, Brazilian political analyst Thomas Traumann said.
“I only see downside for Biden,” Traumann, whose uncle was a top aide for Biden, said by phone.
He noted that the Summit of the Americas is supposed to promote democracy, “but Biden is going to be in a photo beside President Bolsonaro, and that doesn’t guarantee that he will accept the election results.”
Bolsonaro, for his part, can use the meeting to head off criticism at home that he is isolated internationally and lacks access to the U.S. president, said Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington who is president of the Institute of International Relations and Foreign Trade, a Sao Paulo-based think tank.
Bolsonaro has not held many bilateral meetings in his three years as president. He met with Trump in 2019 and 2020 during visits to Washington and Mar-a-Lago, and in the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Bolsonaro met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow and later with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban in Budapest.