LOS ANGELES -- President Joe Biden avoided challenging Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over his upcoming election and handling of the Amazon rainforest during the public portion of their first-ever meeting Thursday, while the Brazilian leader sounded a more defensive tone in addressing those issues.
The two had never met, or even spoken, before they took their seats in a room at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where Biden has been hosting a weeklong summit of leaders from the Western Hemisphere.
During the public portion of their meeting, Biden praised Brazil's “vibrant, inclusive democracy and strong electoral institutions," a show of support for a system Bolsonaro often criticizes.
Bolsonaro, who is up for reelection this year and faces a challenge from one of his predecessors, has been repeating baseless claims about his country's voting systems in what some Brazilian analysts see as an attempt by Bolsonaro to cast doubt on the outcome if he loses in October.
Bolsonaro raised his upcoming election himself, striking a defensive tone as he did so.
“We do wish to have honest, clean, transparent, auditable, reliable elections” so that there is no “shadow of a doubt whatsoever following the elections,” he said in Portuguese through a translator.
“I came to office through democracy and I am quite certain that when I leave office it will also be through democratic means," Bolsonaro said.
Biden, who has been on the receiving end of baseless claims by former President Donald Trump that he lost to Biden because the election was stolen, has made promoting democratic institutions at home and abroad a core feature of his presidency.
Bolsonaro supported Trump, and was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden, waiting more than a month after the November 2020 election to do so.
The U.S. and Brazilian leaders met about an hour before a U.S. congressional committee in Washington opened the first in a series of televised public hearings into the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by angry supporters of Trump, who sought to delay certification of Biden’s defeat of the Republican in the November 2020 presidential election.
Before the meeting, Bolsonaro told journalists that it wasn't supposed to happen.
“I wasn’t expected to come here. They sent a special envoy and we set the agenda,” he told journalists outside his Los Angeles hotel, speaking of the U.S. “It is well set, so we will show up. It is like a marriage; you accept my flaws, I accept yours and let’s be happy.”
Bolsonaro had said he would attend the U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas only if Biden agreed to a private meeting and also refrained from confronting him over some of the most contentious issues between them, three Brazilian’s Cabinet ministers told The Associated Press this week.
He did not want to be criticized over Amazon deforestation or warned about his questioning of the Brazilian electoral system’s reliability as he prepares to campaign for reelection, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly..
But Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told U.S. reporters who accompanied Biden to Los Angeles that no topic is ever off limits for the president. Sullivan said he anticipated that Biden would discuss “open, free, fair and transparent democratic elections” and that climate, including protecting the Amazon, would be among the topics of conversation.
In the meeting, Biden also offered kind words for Bolsonaro's handling of the Amazon rainforest, praising Brazil for making some “real sacrifices” to protect the vast natural resource.
But Biden also suggested there’s more that can be done.
“I think the rest of the world should be able to help you preserve as much as you can,” Biden said.
As a candidate for office, Biden had 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, Scotland, last year, and regular bilateral meetings with U.S. authorities.
But those conversations have stalled as data show continued deforestation. The most recent annual reading was the worst in 15 years. Bolsonaro has vowed to introduce mining, logging and other industries to the Amazon.
Addressing the Amazon, Bolsonaro again sounded defensive, telling Biden that “at times we feel threatened in our sovereignty in that region of the country. But the fact is that Brazil does very well preserve its territory.”
Biden and Bolsonaro, presidents of the hemisphere’s two largest democracies, met for about 45 minutes, the White House said. They did not shake hands in front of journalists who witnessed their public comments.
Unlike during a meeting Biden had earlier Thursday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the U.S. and Brazilian delegations wore face coverings.
A member of Bolsonaro's delegation had tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the meeting, a White House official said. Since other members of the delegation were considered “close contacts,” the official said, the Brazilians were asked to wear masks and U.S. officials did the same.
The White House official requested anonymity to discuss the planning for the meeting.
Bolsonaro himself had flouted health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and proudly insisted he would not get vaccinated against the virus. He continues to say he has not received the vaccine, and has had his vaccination record sealed for 100 years.
Superville reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Mauricio Savares in Sao Paolo, Brazil, contributed to this report.