Americas
6:00 am
Wed October 23, 2013

Why Dilma's Doldrums Nixed Her State Visit To Washington

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff attends a recent meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff attends a recent meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg, Russia

Washington was supposed to fete Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff today. But she canceled her formal state visit, the only one the White House had scheduled for a foreign head of state this year.

By now most people know why. Rousseff is protesting revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on her personal phone calls and e-mails.

“Without respect for sovereignty,” she said in a blistering speech last month at the United Nations aimed at the Obama Administration, “there is no basis for relationships among nations.”

Rousseff is one angry presidenta. And to be honest, she’s got a right to be. But Dilma, as Brazilians call her, is also one lucky presidenta. And she knows it.

Domestic Pressures

There are few gifts more golden for a Latin American leader than being the victim of an affront by the United States, the imperialist beast of the north. The martyr in question usually scores hefty domestic and regional political points.

And Dilma needed them.

Before the NSA scandal broke late last summer, Dilma’s doldrums were spiraling. Brazil’s phenomenal economic boom had sputtered – growth came in at less than one percent last year – while large and often violent street demonstrations over government dysfunction and corruption had rocked the country.

Rousseff, once one of the world’s most popular heads of state, suddenly saw her approval ratings plummet to less than 25 percent. Then, in September, the NSA came to her rescue.

Murillo De Aragao
Murillo De Aragao
Credit University of Miami Center for Hemispheric Policy

New surveillance information leaked by U.S. intelligence subcontractor Edward Snowden exposed the yanqui eavesdropping. Not coincidentally, Dilma’s poll numbers have since rebounded to around 40 percent – less than a year before a 2014 re-election bid that looks harder than anyone expected her to face.

(To be fair, her recovery was also due partly to her attentive response to the summer protests.)

The question, however, is whether Brazil might suffer in the long run thanks to Rousseff’s short-term effort to spurn Washington and rally her leftist political base at home. I asked Murillo de Aragão, the president of Arko Advice in Brasília and one of Brazil’s most respected political analysts, if Rousseff was right to call off today’s state visit.

“In her point of view, considering her interests in relation to the election, the decision was right,” says Aragão, who visited the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy last week. “She just used the [NSA] event in her favor.”

But Dilma’s government, Aragão insists, is no hotbed of anti-American sentiment, like neighboring Venezuela’s left-wing regime. As a result, he  doesn’t see any lasting U.S.-Brazilian breach, diplomatic or commercial, resulting from this.

Reelection Trouble

Even so, Aragão agrees that Rousseff’s re-election efforts are, despite the NSA bounce, in some trouble. Although she’s retained support among much of Brazil’s poor – 40 million of whom were added to the middle class over the past decade – her opposition looks more robust after two of the country’s most popular political figures, Pernambuco state Governor Eduardo Campos and former Environment Minister Marina Silva, announced an alliance earlier this month.

And while Rousseff is still favored to win next October, she has to show Brazilians that she and her Workers Party are serious about fixing the deep-seated governance flaws that keep hindering the development of Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy and the world’s sixth largest.

“The pace [of change] is [too] slow,” says Aragão, citing two key reforms Brazil has to undertake stat: overhauling its political and tax systems. Other analysts would add problems like threadbare infrastructure and abysmal schools.

That last issue is arguably the most urgent – and a big argument for Rousseff not canceling the state visit. For all its financial might, Brazil’s economy is still a low-tech affair too reliant on commodities exports. Bilateral trade matters like technology exchange and easier access to U.S. visas for Brazilians were expected to be important agenda items today.

Which is why Christopher Sabatini wrote in Americas Quarterly last month that while the NSA’s behavior does smack of “frightening overreach,” it still didn’t “merit the cancellation – or indefinite postponement – of a planned state visit that could have advanced Brazilian interests and deepened ties between the hemisphere’s two largest economies.”

What’s more, Sabatini noted, it forfeited a chance to make the Beltway pay attention to Brazil for a change: “Rousseff might not be coming to Washington, but few in the U.S. capital will even notice.”

Summer Soccer

What Washington and the rest of the world will notice, however, is whether or not Brazil proves itself ready to host the soccer World Cup this summer. Aragão believes it will be. But, in the wake of last summer’s street protests, he doesn’t believe a successful World Cup (or a Brazilian World Cup victory) will enhance Rousseff’s re-election chances all that much. That’s because much of the public ire had to do with the billions of public dollars being spent on the event at the expense of things like improved healthcare and education.

In the end, security analysts say it’s naïve for Brazil to think that other world powers, especially China, aren’t nosing in on Rousseff’s personal communications too. The U.S., they say, just got caught. So apparently did Canada, which newer Snowden leaks this month show has also spied on Rousseff’s government.

But that only adds fuel to the presidenta’s indignation – and that of her countrymen -- and voters. Politically, anyway, the NSA is a gift that just keeps giving for Dilma. Maybe even until next year’s election.

The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.