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The Incredible Unknown Bond between Joe Biden and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff

How the vice president's style—and a shared connection from the past—helped win over the Brazilian president
Joe Biden and Thomas Traumann meet at the Palácio do Planalto in Brasilia
Photo: Courtesy of Palácio do Planalto, May 2013

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The incredible unknown bond between Joe Biden and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff

“I have often congratulated President Obama for having such a seductive vice president.”

That comment, made with a wink and a smile by Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff at a dinner just before the World Cup last year, raised eyebrows for two reasons. First, Rousseff is not exactly known for her personal charm. And second, relations between Washington and Brasilia were still on the rocks after revelations that the National Security Agency had spied on Rousseff and countless other Brazilians.

So many at the table asked, not for the first time: What gives with Dilma and Joe?

The full story has never been publicly told. It begins with a tragedy more than four decades ago.

In December 1972, Joe Biden, then 30, had just been elected as the youngest U.S. senator in a century. His wife and three children were out shopping for a Christmas tree when a truck broadsided the family’s station wagon. Biden’s wife and 18-month-old daughter were instantly killed. His other children, Joseph (“Beau”) and Robert, suffered severe injuries.

Biden was shattered. The Democratic National Committee, worried about the well-being and political future of one of its rising stars, decided to assign Biden one of its most esteemed senior aides: Wes Barthelmes. Barthelmes was himself no stranger to tragedy, having been the press secretary for Robert F. Kennedy prior to his assassination in 1968. Talented but discreet, Barthelmes became Biden’s chief of staff and head speechwriter. His primary mission was to help the young politician put his life back together and, eventually, rise in the Senate.

He succeeded. Biden began his now-famous tradition of commuting from Delaware by train so he could be close to his surviving children. He remarried. And over time, the Biden and Barthelmes families became extremely close. So much so that when Wes’ sister, Jane, married a German man and moved to southern Brazil, she continued to receive Christmas cards every year from the Biden family.  

Jane remained in Brazil and had five children, one of whom was named Thomas.

Thomas, believe it or not, grew up to become the spokesman for Dilma Rousseff.

That one of Rousseff’s top aides was also the nephew of one of Biden’s top aides was never widely known in Brasilia. Wes Barthelmes died of brain cancer long before Rousseff took office in 2011. And like his uncle Wes, Thomas Traumann preferred discretion. Brazilian through and through, stories about his U.S. heritage could easily have been exaggerated or distorted by local media. Indeed, the only sign of Traumann’s past was his near-perfect English—which he spoke with a light German accent.

Meanwhile, Biden didn’t really need an “in” to open doors in Brasilia. In fact, he has earned a reputation as a kind of wizard on Latin American issues. Biden has made 11 trips to the region since taking office, and pulled off some diplomatic coups along the way—including, most notably, when he seemed to single-handedly talk Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, no friend of Washington, out of giving asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Something about Biden’s personality just works in Latin America—Obama, recognizing this, made him a point man on regional issues.

That all said…

Personal ties matter in politics—especially at the highest levels. A friendly face is more effective than a thousand policy papers. So when Biden visited Rousseff’s palace for the first time in May 2013, and Traumann introduced himself, the vice president nearly fainted in surprise. The moment, captured in the photo above, was electric. “Your uncle was one of the finest speechwriters on Capitol Hill!” Biden exclaimed. The ice broken, Rousseff and Biden sat down—and hit it off. “It was one of the best meetings she’s ever had with a foreign leader,” Traumann recalled in a recent interview with AQ. “She respects him. And just as important, she likes him.”

Afterwards, Rousseff marveled to her aides: “That man could sell an icebox in Canada.”

Biden would need to draw on every ounce of that goodwill in the months ahead. Weeks after his trip, the NSA scandal erupted. Outraged, Rousseff canceled a planned state visit to the White House in October 2013—sending U.S.-Brazil relations to their lowest point in years. But when the moment came to start repairing the relationship, there was no question who would take the lead. It was Biden who visited Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, and stopped by Brasilia to chat with Rousseff. It was Biden who interrupted his holiday to attend Rousseff’s re-inauguration ceremony on New Year’s Day this year. And it was Biden who called this April to invite Rousseff to finally reschedule her White House visit. She accepted, and it will go forward on June 30.   

Biden’s painful family history resurfaced recently with the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. U.S. officials tell AQ that preparing for Rousseff’s trip to Washington has been one of his main priorities as he grieves. Traumann won’t be in attendance—he left Rousseff’s government shortly after her second term began, and is now involved in preparations for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But the link he helped forge remains. While Rousseff is in Washington, who will be hosting a lunch for her? That irascible “seducer,” the man who persevered and found unexpected friends in Brazil: Joe Biden.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Joe Biden, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil