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Brazil's president Lula is heading to China to reverse Bolsonaro's isolationist policies

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brazil may be back on the world stage. That is at least the hope of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who pledges to try to reverse his predecessor's isolationist policies. And as NPR South America correspondent Carrie Kahn reports, Lula is headed to China, and that makes some in the West nervous.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: President Lula highlighted Brazil's political reemergence with a trip last month to the Oval Office. Through an interpreter, he told President Biden Brazil was leaving behind its former leader Jair Bolsonaro's self-marginalization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Through interpreter) The former president didn't enjoy to keep international relations with any country. His world started and ended with fake news.

KAHN: He also took a quick jab at the former leader, who Lula says spent his days and nights consumed with fake news. Biden joined in, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Sounds familiar.

(LAUGHTER)

KAHN: While the two men bonded over defeating far-right opponents and defending democracy at home, there are cracks in the relationship especially when Lula preaches neutrality and nonalignment. His refusal to strongly condemn Russia's invasion or sell ammunition to Ukraine irks the West, and so does his upcoming trip to China. Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at Brazil's FGV University, says Lula is just following Foreign Policy 101.

OLIVER STUENKEL: Never depend too much on one great power.

KAHN: And he says having lots of different, powerful friends gives Lula more room to negotiate when dealing with the giant to the north.

STUENKEL: The overarching dynamic here is that Brazil wants to tell Washington, look, I got other options, which is seen to be the best strategy to extract concessions from Washington.

KAHN: Lula is also proposing being a mediator in the Ukraine War. He wants to create a peace club together with India, something he plans to propose to Xi Jinping. Lula pushed his trip back a day after catching a mild pneumonia on Thursday, but the two leaders do plan to meet on Tuesday in Beijing.

LULA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "It's time for China to get its hands dirty and help try and find peace between Russia and Ukraine," Lula recently told reporters. Thiago de Aragao, an international business consultant in Brasilia and Washington, D.C., says the idea of Lula as a peace broker is ridiculous.

THIAGO DE ARAGAO: Brazil is not fit to be a mediator in the war in Ukraine. There are dozens of other countries that have more conditions to do that.

KAHN: He says Lula should use his international prestige as a defender of the environment and to get China to help fund preservation. Trade talks are more important on this visit to China, he says. About 30% of all Brazilian exports head to China, its No. 1 trading partner. The U.S. is a distant second. And any U.S. criticism of Lula's China visit just ignores those facts, says Rodrigo Zeidan, a Brazilian economics professor at NYU in Shanghai.

RODRIGO ZEIDAN: Not everything is about the U.S.

KAHN: He says Lula has to work on repairing ties with China after the beating the relationship took over the past four years under former President Bolsonaro. Etivaldo Gomes hopes Lula can do that.

ETIVALDO GOMES: Bolsonaro has done great things but has done really wrong things as well.

KAHN: Gomez's family-owned beef and pork business sends 40% of their exports to China. He's one of hundreds of businesspeople, politicians and officials on the trip with Lula.

GOMES: I do believe Lula is doing the right thing.

KAHN: Even though he didn't vote for Lula, Gomes praises him for now putting business over politics. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.