By Gabriel Stargardter and Matt Spetalnick
RIO DE JANEIRO/WASHINGTON - Brazil's leftist presidential frontrunner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva quietly dispatched his emissary, Senator Jaques Wagner, to meet with U.S. State Department officials in Washington in April, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Wagner's private meeting with U.S. officials, which has not been reported before, is part of an effort by Lula and the United States to overcome lingering wariness of each other ahead of October's election. Polls show Lula on track to beat far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Wagner, a former defense minister and ex-governor of Bahia state, did not respond to requests for comment.
The State Department declined to comment.
The unannounced nature of Wagner's Washington trip underlines the skepticism of Lula - and other Latin American leftists - toward the U.S. government. It also contrasts with Lula's own high-profile tour of Europe in November, when he glad-handed with French, German and Spanish leaders.
Lula, a former union leader and president who was jailed on corruption charges that were overturned last year, harbors lingering suspicion of the United States, saying that U.S. investigators collaborated with the Brazilian prosecutors who put him in jail.
Meanwhile, the United States takes issue with Lula's public support for the left-wing governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which Washington views as "undemocratic."
U.S. officials have also been careful of getting close to the Lula camp for fear of appearing to favor one candidate over another during what is likely to be a combustible election, the sources said.
The specific details of Wagner's discussions with U.S. officials were not clear. Sources said they talked about the possible contours of a future Lula presidency, and how he would approach U.S. relations, without giving further details.
One of the sources said that when the U.S. government had previously spoken privately with Lula intermediaries, they had focused on the environment, which Lula's Workers Party has identified as a key friction point between Bolsonaro and U.S. President Joe Biden.
Wagner's trip came while he was in the United States for the Brazil Conference at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an annual event put on by Brazilian students in the Boston area.
During his April 9 speech at the event, Wagner appeared on Lula's behalf and said Brazil was in the midst of an "environmental crisis." He added that the environment would not be "a minor point," in Lula's potential administration - "it will be central to his government."