Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Brazil-U.S. Relations: What Happened?

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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.” Many here only saw political downsides to Rousseff pushing forward with a state visit. “Dilma’s canceled trip only brings benefits,” said Fabio Zanini, the world editor for Folha de São Paulo, in an op-ed yesterday. Zanini suggested that the visit was only ever a “political gesture.”

“Perhaps most importantly,” he wrote, “you’ve never heard of a Latin American leader losing political points for snubbing the Yankees.”

The sentiment was echoed in an op-ed by Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, who warned that the political opposition would have used Rousseff’s photo with Obama “like a bazooka.” 

That may be true. But leaders anywhere will also lose points for economic troubles, and Brazil’s already stuttering economy won’t benefit from a freeze in diplomatic relations with its second-largest trade partner (after China, which surpassed the U.S. in 2009). Marques Moses, a professor of international relations at the School of Sociology and Politics in São Paulo, went so far as to predict earlier this week that Rousseff would not cancel the state visit because of the business impacts—from airplane sales in Brazil to soy and citrus exports to the U.S.—he told local newspaper O Estado. Talk had come as recently as last week from Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro of negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty as a way of resolving frustrations with “the complexity of Brazil’s tax system, with local content requirements and with a perceived lack of transparency.” 

Now, any such treaty looks a ways off. 

The next move for Rousseff on the world stage is a visit to the UN General Assembly later this month, where she is expected to push for international rules on privacy and security in hardware and software. Ironically, it could be a message not unlike the one former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered in a 2010 speech on Internet freedom. “In an interconnected world,” Clinton said, “an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.”

When Obama visited Brazil in 2011, he praised the nation as a flourishing democracy. “We all yearn to choose how we are governed. And we all want to shape our own destiny,” he said. “These are not American ideals or Brazilian ideals. These are not Western ideals. These are universal rights, and we must support them everywhere.”

As Brazil attempts to shape its own destiny, it’s finding that the United States still has many secret backdoors into its old backyard.

Tags: Brazil-U.S. relations, Dilma Rousseff, NSA
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