President Biden met for the first time Thursday with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, the leader of the second-largest country in the Western Hemisphere, in a face-to-face conversation that was one of the most anticipated of the ninth Summit of the Americas.
The two leaders were nice to each other in a photo session before the closed session.
“Brazil is a wonderful place with magnificent people,” Biden said, noting that he had been lucky enough to visit the “magnificent country” three times in the past. He praised Brazil for making real sacrifices in an effort to protect the Amazon rainforest.
“I think the rest of the world should be able to help you preserve as much as you can,” Biden told Bolsonaro.
The meeting had the potential to be one of the most tense of the week.
Bolsonaro is a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump and a supporter of many of the policies that Biden has tried to fight. He opened up the Amazon to more logging and mining, made it easier to buy weapons in Brazil, denigrated the idea of transgender rights, and brought Brazil closer to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
But what worries U.S. officials most are Bolsonaro’s efforts to question the reliability of Brazil’s voting systems ahead of October’s presidential election, a race in which polls show him trailing. Bolsonaro has even questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s electoral victory, mimicking Trump’s rhetoric, including this week.
“I am not going to discuss the sovereignty of another country. But Trump was doing really well,” he said in an interview with local media on Tuesday when asked about allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 US election, which have been repeatedly debunked. “We don’t want that to happen in Brazil.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters before the meeting between the two leaders that no topic was off limits. “I anticipate that the president will discuss open, free, fair and transparent democratic elections,” he said.
Sitting next to Biden on Thursday and speaking in Portuguese, Bolsonaro addressed concerns about his country’s democratic traditions.
“I came into office through democracy, and I’m pretty sure that when I leave office, it will also be through democratic means,” he said, according to an unofficial translation of his remarks.
Several members of Congress have publicly urged Mr. Biden to press Mr. Bolsonaro to increase efforts to find Dom Phillips, a British journalist, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian indigenous expert, who disappeared in the Amazon on Sunday after facing threats from illegal fishermen. The Brazilian government’s response has been widely criticized for being slow and ineffective.
On Thursday, editors from many of the world’s largest news organizations, including The New York Times, sent a letter to Bolsonaro, asking him to “urgently step up and provide all necessary resources to locate Dom and Bruno.”