Brazilian leader's US visit: how Obama patched up ties after spying scandal

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sits down with President Obama at the White House Tuesday after a year of personal efforts by President Obama to address the issue of NSA spying on US friends and allies.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Obama and Rousseff aim to show they've moved beyond tensions sparked by the revelation nearly two years ago that the US was spying on Rousseff.

When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sits down with President Obama at the White House Tuesday, their meeting will underscore the concerted effort Mr. Obama has made to win back key partners who were repelled by revelations of NSA spying on US friends and allies.

Nearly two years ago, Ms. Rousseff stunned the White House by canceling a planned state visit to Washington – a first for any state visit invitee – over revelations of US spying on Brazilians, including her and her government. A furious Rousseff went a step further, blasting the United States before the United Nations in September 2013 and calling on the world to stand up to such corrosive activity.

But now after a year of what both administration officials and analysts say has been a sincere effort by Obama to address the issue of friendly spying broadly and Brazilian concerns more specifically, Rousseff is finally making her White House visit.

Obama and Rousseff took a stroll around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Monday afternoon before sitting down to a private dinner, and Tuesday they get down to the specifics of what officials from both governments say are the key issues for the two leaders. Those range from trade and investment to democracy and human rights in Latin America and climate change.

Yet despite the declarations from both sides of the importance of the bilateral relationship, administration officials and regional experts say it was more than anything else the US effort to mend ties that got the relationship back on track.

“There’s really been a focused effort from the White House over the past two years to reach out to the Brazilians and get the relationship beyond this low point,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington.

Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Brazil in January to meet with Rousseff, and in April Obama took advantage of a meeting with her on the margins of the Summit of the Americas to issue a second-time-the-charm invitation that resulted in this week’s visit.

Obama has also had to makes amends with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over revelations of the US listening in on her cellphone, and more recently with French President François Hollande over WikiLeaks evidence of US spying on French leaders. Obama reassured both leaders that such spying programs, and in particular eavesdropping on them personally, had ceased.

But fixing things with Rousseff proved more difficult. One major reason was that the spying only reinforced Brazilian perceptions of the US as an arrogant overseer bent on maintaining its hold on the Western Hemisphere.

While US-Europe ties are mature relations among allies that are indispensable to both sides, the spying scandal struck at a moment when the US was wooing a rising Brazil that was set on establishing itself as an independent power on the world stage. Saying “no” to Obama’s state visit was a flamboyant way to declare that independence.

Obama made it a personal task to patch up relations with leaders, including Rousseff. The president ordered a yearlong review of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, and he ordered changes – including concerning foreign governments – that he then explained to Rousseff and others, White House officials say.

“What the president has done ... is make changes based on his very thorough review of our various programs, [and] he made clear that there have been a number of changes made in different elements of our intelligence programs with respect to collection, for instance, related to individual leaders,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

“We’ve addressed this at the level of the presidents,” he adds, “and have been able to make very clear to Brazil what we do and don’t do.”

At a noon press conference at the White House Tuesday, Obama hailed Rousseff’s visit as marking “a new, more ambitious chapter” in US-Brazil relations, while Rousseff said her meeting with Obama “celebrated an upward trajectory in our relations.”

Asked if she had gotten past the spying scandal that led her to cancel her visit two years ago, Rousseff said she was “satisfied that conditions have become very different” and accepted Obama’s reassurances that the US “would no longer engage in intrusive acts of spying on friendly countries.”

Turning to Obama with a smile, Rousseff said she told the US president that “if he ever needs nonpublic information on Brazil, just pick up the phone and call me.”

Although Obama’s efforts have apparently satisfied Rousseff, it is now other, more urgent matters that explain why the Brazilian leader accepted the White House invitation, some say.

Unlike two years ago, when she was riding high in the polls, Rousseff’s popularity has sunk to the single digits, with a series of political and graft scandals dragging her down. The once-booming Brazilian economy is shrinking, inflation is nearing 10 percent – and a country that could confidently rebuff American overtures is now keen again on drawing US investors.

Indeed, getting a White House visit on her calendar was so important to Rousseff, according to some Brazilian analysts, that she opted for a no-frills “official” White House visit now over the state visit that Obama offered to schedule for next year.  

The importance of the economic dimension of Rousseff’s trip can be seen in her other US stops. Before coming to Washington, she met with US business leaders in New York, and on Wednesday she travels to San Francisco to talk up Brazil with Silicon Valley executives.

Yet while Rousseff’s US visit has been widely filed under “fence-mending” and a leader’s efforts to entice much-needed investors, the bigger take-away may be that both the US and Brazil have realized they need each other, says Mr. Farnsworth, who helped develop US policy on Latin America in the Clinton White House.

“Just as the US has realized that the world is a happier place for it to operate in if it finds a way to work with Brazil rather than be confounded by it,” he says, “Brazil also has come back to a realization that this relationship is too important for Brazil to be cavalier about it.”

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