US National Security Agency

Dilma Rousseff's snub of Obama not the first snag in relations with US

State dinner at White House for Brazilian leader falls victim to row over Edward Snowden's revelation of US espionage, despite bid to placate her

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 4:53am

For the first time since Barack Obama took office, a year of his presidency is likely to end without him toasting an ally at a glitzy White House state dinner.

One had been scheduled for October 23, to showcase US relations with Brazil. But on Wednesday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postponed her state visit in protest at a US spying programme that has targeted her government and citizens.

It's the only state dinner the White House had announced for 2013. And, coming so late on the calendar, it's unlikely that another will be scheduled before the year ends.

To many analysts, it was a sense of déjà vu. Every time Brazil and the US get to the altar, the roof of the church seems to collapse.

In 1982, then-US president Ronald Reagan travelled to Brazil for a dinner banquet meant to herald a new era in ties between the Americas' two biggest countries. But when Reagan raised his wine glass and toasted "the people of Bolivia", it seemed to confirm his hosts' worst fears that the US saw Brazil as just another poor country in its so-called backyard.

Last week, hopes for a breakthrough fell apart once again, in even more dramatic fashion.

Rousseff's cancellation will probably stymie co-operation on trade, regional affairs and other issues for years to come.

A pragmatic leftist, she was outraged over recent revelations by former US defence contractor Edward Snowden which showed that the National Security Agency spied on her private communications, as well as her top aides.

While the two countries will retain generally cordial ties, Rousseff plans to take retaliatory measures, including the levying of onerous new taxes and rules for US internet companies operating in Brazil, and ruling out a purchase of fighter jets from Chicago-based Boeing, according to officials.

She said the espionage was incompatible with a relationship among allies, and told aides it was pointless to go ahead with a trip whose ostensible purpose was to symbolise growing respect.

The cancellation of such a high-profile visit, despite two last-minute personal appeals by Obama, upset officials from both countries. It also caused a familiar sense of disappointment among observers who have long rooted for better ties between two giant democracies with similar histories as multiracial melting pots.

In another recent example of a promising moment gone somewhat awry, Obama made a big show in 2011 of taking his wife and daughters on a trip to Brazil, heralding "even greater co-operation for decades to come." But many Brazilian officials felt that, when Obama showed up late at the presidential palace because he was co-ordinating US missile strikes on Libya, it was a classic sign of a distracted imperial power.

Moises Naim, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the state visit would have been a great opportunity to put such episodes firmly in the past and overcome a long legacy of mistrust.

"We were so close this time," he lamented.

Each country had big hopes for the October 23 event, which would have included a black-tie dinner at the White House and a military salute for Rousseff.

For Brazil, the visit offered validation that after an economic boom over the past 20 years, their country had arrived as a global power worthy of Washington's highest formal honour.

Rousseff hoped the trip would open up a new wave of US investment in Latin America's largest economy, which has struggled since she took office in 2011. A photo-op with Obama would also have burnished her moderate credentials.

Like most Brazilian politicians, Rousseff harbours a deep mistrust of free trade, particularly on Washington's terms. On several occasions, she has accused the US of unfairly boosting its exports through expansionary monetary policy.

As the visit grew closer, some Brazilian officials expressed concerns that Washington was placing too much emphasis on trade.

In that context, the NSA revelations seemed to exploit each country's worst suspicions of the other. Brazil saw the espionage, which also included US monitoring of state-run oil company Petrobras, as another sign that the US is an entrenched superpower that will do anything to block the rise of others.

Meanwhile, many in Washington saw Rousseff's reaction to the revelations - which included a demand for an apology and a full accounting of US intelligence activities - as further evidence of Brazil's exaggerated sense of self-importance and naiveté about what it means to be a major world power.

"All the ghosts came back," said Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, editor of Politica Externa, a foreign policy magazine.

Nevertheless, both governments valued the visit enough to push for a solution until the bitter end.

Despite other priorities, namely the conflict in Syria, Obama spent 45 minutes with Rousseff at a September 5 summit in Russia to try to ease her concerns. He also made a last-minute attempt to change her mind in a 20-minute call on Monday.

Rousseff, too, searched for a solution. But she believed she needed a stronger, public gesture of contrition from Obama to make the trip politically viable - to prevent the powerful left wing of her Workers' Party from attacking her as weak.

"The Americans have no idea how hard it is to be pro-American in Brazil," one official close to Rousseff said.

Taking a tough stance on the spying may boost Rousseff's popularity, which sank to a record low after more than 1 million people protested in June against government corruption, inflation and shortcomings in public services, said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst with consulting firm Tendencias.

Rousseff, who is widely expected to run for re-election in October 2014, could score political points from the spying scandal. "She will hype this trip cancellation as 'kicking Uncle Sam in the ass' and this will boost her popularity," said David Fleischer, a politics professor at the University of Brasilia.

"She is showing firmness toward Obama, the world's most powerful leader and this goes down well with the Brazilian public," Tullo Vigevani, a Sao Paulo University analyst, said.

Approval of Rousseff's government fell to 30 per cent on June 27-28 from a high of 65 per cent in March, according to a survey by Datafolha published in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. The government's approval rating rose to 36 per cent in an August 7-9 Datafolha survey of 2,615 people that has a margin of error of two percentage points.

Rousseff's handling of the episode has solidified impressions that she is unable to insert Brazil more fully into the world both economically and strategically. That's an impression that could linger among foreign companies looking to invest in Brazil, as well as other governments.

Reuters, Associated Press, The New York Times