It feels like we’re back to the days Fidel Castro was hailed as a hero across Latin America, with leftist leaders worshiping at his altar, the atrocities he committed against his own people a mere footnote.
Brazil President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, elected to a third term last year on a promise to restore democracy in Latin America’s largest country, should have known better. His fawning over Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro this week sent a bad message to the world.
Maduro is accused of the systematic torture and killing of his own people and of rigging his election. He presides over a ruined economy that has forced a mass exodus of people fleeing to the United States, as well Brazil and other neighboring countries.
Yet Lula treated Maduro as a “companheiro” during the Venezuelan leader’s visit to a regional summit in Brasília. To Lula, Maduro is a victim of a U.S.-created narrative and unfair sanctions — “Our opponents will have to apologize for the damage they’ve done,” Lula said.
“There’s a narrative in the world that Venezuela doesn’t have democracy,” Lula said. “That [Maduro] has made mistakes. So I told him it was his responsibility to construct his own narrative, with the true facts.”
Lula should next pay a visit to Miami and ask who people who fled Maduro’s brutality their thoughts about such “narrative.”
It isn’t surprising that Brazil’s leftist president would reestablish relations with Venezuela. The countries share a 1,400-mile border, the Amazon forest and a long history of trade. Lula was once close with Hugo Chavez.
Lula has made it a priority to revive the Union of South American Nations and his country’s standing on the international stage after former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro retreat from it. Brazil wouldn’t be the first country to be friendly with oppressive regimes. The United States has had its own roster of autocrats and dictators as allies over the decades.
Lula has made a rocky attempt to return Brazil to its days of international glory that the country enjoyed during his first two terms in the early 2000s. He has accused both Ukraine and Russia of wanting to go to war and proposed Ukraine cede Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, to end the current conflict. He blamed the United States for “stimulating” the war and hosted Russia’s foreign minister in Brasilia.
What Brazil’s leader says about Ukraine might not matter as much as Lula’s embrace of Maduro. Venezuela had previously been iced out by other South American countries, and any remaining chance of ousting Maduro — if that’s even still a possibility — gets harder without support from Latin America’s biggest country.
Lula, a former union leader and Brazil’s most recognizable leader, is now 77, a member of Brazil’s old left that has struggled to reinvent itself in the 21st century, that still sees the world through a Cold War lens and treats Che Guevara and Castro as freedom fighters. Lula’s praise of Maduro sounds straight out of the playbook used to defend the Cuban regime: Blame all of your troubles on the U.S. embargo and ignore how, even today, Cubans sit in prison for simply protesting their government.
It took Chile’s 37-year-old President Gabriel Boric to call out the hypocrisy among his fellow leftist presidents. After Lula’s remarks, he told reporters that Maduro’s human-rights violations are not a “narrative.”
“As a president of the left,” Boric added, “I think it’s necessary to confront it, not sweep it under the rug.”
Ideological alignment shouldn’t dictate how leaders here and abroad deal with antidemocratic regimes. We have long seen our own members of Congress decry socialists in Cuba and elsewhere only to turn around and embrace right-wing strongmen such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
Lula’s coziness with Maduro is a shame given his election was a necessary break from the anti-democratic forces that Bolsonaro unleashed in Brazil. In January, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters staged their own version of Jan. 6, storming and defacing the country’s presidential palace because they believed lies that last year’s elections were stolen.
If democracy is good enough to defend on our own turf, it should be good for the people of Venezuela. These are the people whom Lula should support, not the dictator who is making them suffer.