“Nations be spyin’, yo!”
That’s how Jon Stewart of The Daily Show recently summed up the ongoing-and-ever-expanding allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on Brazil and other nations, a story to which Wikipedia now devotes more than 33,000 words and nearly 600 source references.
“All nations act in their own self-interest,” Stewart said on October 24, addressing those such as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff who have responded with outrage to the allegations. “Don’t act like your s*** don’t stink, it does, and we know, because we have a super-secret program that goes through your s***.”
Stewart was more right than he knew.
This week in Brazil, local media revealed that the Agência Brasileira de Inteligência (Brazilian Intelligence Agency—ABIN) has spied on diplomatic allies including the United States—an embarrassing revelation for Rousseff, who in recent months has positioned herself as a champion of privacy rights and even canceled an official state visit this fall to the White House because she said the U.S. refused to swiftly end its spying program.
Awkward. But now, the revelations about Brazil’s spy program have sparked a reaction similar to Stewart’s.
“Brazil has an intelligence agency, so it is not big news that Brazil spies,” Rafael Alcadipani da Silveira, of the Rio de Janeiro think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas, told me.
“Everybody spies,” agreed Christian Lohbauer, a political scientist at the Universidade de São Paulo (University of São Paulo—USP). If anything, he is now more annoyed at Brazil’s government for having used the issue to gain political points at home.
Brazil’s postponement of its White House state dinner–seen as a long-awaited wedding ceremony for the two countries after a very drawn out courtship–may signal more than just President Rousseff’s anger with revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on her personal life and Petrobrás, the state oil company. Since the postponement (which some have understood to mean cancellation), Rousseff has carved out a new niche for Brazil’s international identity, seizing the opportunity to make a bold and public statement about the direction of its foreign policy, away from the United States and its allies.
Brazil’s newfound enthusiasm for the issue of Internet privacy comes after a half-decade of an ambivalent foreign policy strategy. The predictions of a major shift in international political influence following the 2008 financial crisis, when the G-20 rose in importance to become the premier forum of global governance, signaled a potential new role for Brazil. However, this was problematic for Brazil since the G-20 represented everything that the country had long criticized: a private club of global power players.
Yet, predictions of a seismic change in global power did not come to fruition. Brazil has not made the transition to global player, and is instead juggling conflicting identities. It is a member of an elite club of global power players, but it’s also a committed proponent of global governance reform. Thus, Rousseff’s refusal to accept Obama’s explanation of spying and her recent championing of the right to privacy signal a turn away from the shaky middle ground and toward a more vocal role as a critic of the forums of global governance.
RIO DE JANEIRO—How quickly it all unraveled.
Less than four months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama sent his vice president to Brazil to personally deliver an invitation for President Dilma Rousseff to visit Washington this October. It was the only such invitation extended to any foreign leader in 2013, and the first for a Brazilian president since 1995.
To be sure, Rousseff had already met with Obama in Washington in 2012—following Obama’s visit to Brasília in 2011—but this official state visit was to include a welcome ceremony, 21-gun salute, dinner at the White House, and meetings on trade. In delivering the invite in May, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called 2013 “the beginning of a new era of relations between Brazil and the United States.”
This year has indeed turned out to be the beginning of a new era, but now for all the wrong reasons.
On September 17, Rousseff canceled her October 23 visit, a decision forced by two months of drip-drip revelations in local media O Globo that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been monitoring millions of phone calls and emails sent by citizens across Brazil, including those of Rousseff herself and the state-owned oil giant Petrobras. Not even an 11th-hour phone call from Obama to Rousseff on Monday night could salvage the trip.
Who bears the responsibility?
Roberto Izurieta, head of the Latin America Department at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, places the fault at the feet of Rousseff for allowing the spying allegations to drive a wedge.
“In any kind of relations, you can focus on what unifies us all, or on the problems that divide us,” he said. “In my opinion, the president of Brazil chose the second.”
Brazilian media, meanwhile, praised Rousseff’s response to the White House’s reported failure to adequately investigate the allegations of espionage. In an official statement, Rousseff cited “the absence of timely investigation of the incident” as a reason for canceling. The White House said yesterday that an ongoing review of its intelligence posture “will take several months to complete.”
Tuesday’s election results were not unexpected. The question now is what will they mean for U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. The outlines are already clear: expect a sharper tone across the board of Congressional oversight and initiative toward the Administration in trying to impact policy. Here are a few predictions for regional policy based on the midterm election results.
The new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; the chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee will be Connie Mack. Together with newly-elected Senator Marco Rubio, this troika of Florida Republicans may well seek to reverse the Obama Administration’s slow motion liberalization of Cuba policy. Expect also a harder line coming from Congress toward Venezuela and the possible renewal of an effort to sanction Venezuela as a state sponsor of terror. As well, Chairman-To-Be Ros-Lehtinen has earned strong pro-Israel credentials and is a strong supporter of Iran sanctions; further moves of Brazil or Venezuela toward Tehran could well prove to be a point of friction between the Administration and Congress if the Administration is perceived as downplaying their significance.