Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was 40,000 feet in the air on Sept. 21, en route to the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, when he got the news. Exiled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, after sneaking back into his Central American country, had shown up at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa seeking refuge. Lula, like every other world leader, has called for Zelaya's restoration ever since the Honduran was ousted by a military coup on June 28, so he had little choice but to let him into the embassy. But when Lula arrived in Manhattan, according to numerous sources, his irritation was plain. "He was taken by surprise and put in an uncomfortable position," says one Brazilian source. "Brazil was on the spot, in the center of the Honduran crisis. It's not what we wanted."
But it was the wish of left-wing Latin American leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who publicly boasted that it was he who'd urged Zelaya to go to the Brazilian mission. Whether or not that's true and many in the Brazilian media "are skeptical that this could have happened without the Lula government giving Zelaya some sort of signal that he would be welcome" at the embassy, says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Brasília finds itself in the kind of diplomatic spotlight it once shunned. Chávez never misses a chance to thumb his nose at U.S. influence in Latin America, and since he'd grown impatient with what he considered the Obama Administration's too tepid efforts to lean on the Honduras coup leaders and get his ally Zelaya returned to power, he decided it was time to bring Lula deeper into a banana-republic situation that gets messier for the hemisphere by the day.
Brazil may be justifiably annoyed with Chávez, but perhaps it shouldn't look so surprised. In recent years the South American powerhouse has been recognized as the first real counterweight to the U.S. in the western hemisphere and that means, at least in the minds of other countries in the Americas, taking a larger and more proactive part in helping solve New World political dysfunction like Honduras'. Lula and Obama are buddies and left-of-center soul mates, but when Obama said last month that those who question his resolve in Honduras were being hypocritical because they're "the same people who say that we're always intervening in Latin America," he was including Brazil, which has voiced its own concerns about U.S. efforts. "You can't have it both ways," Obama huffed.
Brazil is hardly an idle player in Latin America. In fact, its diplomatic corps (usually called Itamaraty, after the name of the Foreign Ministry's Modernist building in Brasília) is widely considered one of the world's best, and it has played a key role in defusing South American crises like last year's chest-thumping row between Colombia and Venezuela. Brazilian troops run the U.N. mission in violence-torn Haiti. And Lula, one of the world's most popular heads of state, has become arguably the most effective intermediary between Washington and a resurgent, anti-U.S. Latin left.
Brazil prefers to keep that work behind the scenes, and its foreign policy is decidedly non-interventionist. "We don't feel a temptation to export our political and economic model," Lula foreign policy adviser Marco Aurélio Garcia told TIME last year. "We don't believe everyone should be like us." But at the same time, Lula is on a crusade to make Brazil, with the world's fifth largest population and ninth largest economy, a serious international player. He's stumping hard for a permanent Brazilian seat on the U.N. Security Council and more input from developing nations in setting global trade and economic policy. (He is also personally cheerleading in Copenhagen for the Brazilian bid for the 2016 Olympics, a move that may have helped convince Obama to head to Denmark himself to back Chicago's candidacy.) It's hard to keep a pristine non-interventionist tradition with ambitions like those and increasingly, the hemisphere is telling Brazil that it's a tad disingenuous to insist that it can still have it both ways.
So now, whether it likes it or not, Brazil is up to its neck in Honduras, and the hemisphere is hoping that means enhanced prospects for a negotiated settlement between Zelaya and coup leaders like de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti. Zelaya has complicated things for Brazil by making hyperventilated comments, claiming last week that "Israeli mercenaries" were targeting him and his entourage with high-frequency radiation. Micheletti, meanwhile, has gone over the top this week, expelling an Organization of American States (OAS) delegation and trying to shut down constitutional rights in Honduras. He even gave Lula until early next week to declare how long Brazil intends to harbor Zelaya or risk unspecified measures against the embassy. Lula shot back that Brazil won't "respond to an ultimatum from a government of coup mongers." But, says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., "Brazil is discovering what Obama's been up against there."
Still, because most analysts agree that the Honduras coup sends a dangerous signal to the region's fledgling democracies, they feel that having Brazil's respected heft thrown more directly into the mix could help negotiations. Says another source close to Lula, "I think the talks are evolving now that Zelaya is back and under our protection." If an accord actually gets inked in Honduras, Brazil's image as a regional power broker will take off. And if not, Lula at least will win points with the leftist base of his Workers Party. "Even if it doesn't work out he is still the hero of a noble cause [to] the Latin American left," says Rubens Ricupero, once a top Brazilian diplomat and Lula political rival.
Even so, says Shifter, Brazil and the U.S. are likely to demarcate their hemispheric efforts when the Honduran crisis is over: Brazil focused on South America, where Washington's performance seems increasingly ham-handed, and the U.S. on Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, where Brazil has scant interests. For the moment, however, both powers are mired in the streets of Tegucigalpa.