Guess who's (not) coming to state dinner: Brazil could cancel over NSA

President Rousseff is indicating she plans to snub the only state visit the Obama White House has scheduled this year.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama (c.) talks with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff as he joins with other leaders for the group photo at the G20 Summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Rousseff suspended preliminary steps for her October state visit to Washington, for the only state visit the Obama administration has scheduled this year.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff suspended preliminary steps for her October state visit to Washington, signaling allegations of US spying on her personal communications could reverse what would have been a crescendo of positive US-Brazil relations.

President Rousseff called off her advance logistics team that would have laid the ground for the only state visit the Obama administration has scheduled this year. It’s an honor reserved for Washington’s closest partners – including a black-tie dinner and military reception ­– and the invitation last May was viewed as an upgrade for Brazil in terms of bilateral relations.

But the US-Brazil relationship, already tense after leaks in July of alleged US eavesdropping on millions of phone calls and emails sent by citizens across Brazil, was further strained this week. After the widely viewed Sunday night TV program Fantástico alleged that the US also spied on the personal communications of President Rousseff and her aides, her administration hardened its tone, sending strong signals that the October visit could be cancelled.

Rousseff’s outrage goes beyond posturing to gain bargaining power with the US, says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília. “It was pretty genuine. She is a pretty short tempered person,” Mr. Fleischer says.

A state dinner is such a high-level commitment that to cancel it would be a blow to Obama; the Monitor found no examples that a state visit, once announced, has ever been cancelled before.

'Avoiding closing doors'

The documents used to substantiate the claims of spying this week were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. They don’t show specific messages that were intercepted – as was the case with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto – however, there were statements that suggest spying occurred. One slide said, “increased understanding of the communications methods” of Rousseff and her aides was an agency “goal,” which was followed by another reference to a certain data team that “was able to successfully apply this technique against high-profile, OPSEC-savvy Brazilian and Mexican targets.”

Rousseff’s Minister of Communications, Paulo Bernardo, has accused the US of giving false explanations to Brazil after the first spying story came out.

“All of the explanations that were given since the beginning of this episode have been proven to be false, both those that we got from the US embassy and those our teams got when they visited the US,” Mr. Bernardo said. “The spying is of a commercial, industrial character. It is the interest [of the US] to know about issues of the pre-salt [offshore oil finds] and other issues of economic and commercial weight,” Bernardo said, highlighting that he didn’t believe the US was spying due to terrorism concerns.

Rousseff and Obama met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg Thursday, where he pledged to have an explanation to the Brazilian government by Sept. 11. Rousseff also said she will propose the United Nations create a system of oversight against spying.

Rousseff feels she “needs to give a strong political answer to the US” but is also “careful about avoiding closing doors to a better dialogue,” wrote Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and human rights adviser to Amnesty International, in an email. In addition to the NSA, President Barack Obama’s proposal of a US strike on Syria – which Brazil opposes – has also created tension, Mr. Santoro wrote.

Repercussions

Rousseff’s October visit would have touched on issues important to US interests. Rousseff planned to have a deal ready for Obama that would allow the US to use the satellite launching base Alcântara in the northeastern state of Maranhão, a site to which the US has long sought access, Brazilian media reported. An accord signed by the former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 2000 was so favorable to the US – allowing, for example, exclusive access to parts of the base where Brazilians would be prohibited to enter – that Brazil’s congress never approved the deal.

The NSA spying revelations are also believed to have set back US efforts to close a deal to sell Brazil $4 billion in Boeing fighter jets. “We cannot talk about the fighters now.... You cannot give such a contract to a country that you do not trust,” a Brazilian official said in August, speaking on the condition of anonymity with Reuters.

US Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon left his post this week, feeding rumors that it was over pressure due to the NSA revelations. Though his departure had been planned, the timing raised eyebrows. 

Despite these developments, Fleischer says he isn’t convinced the visit will be cancelled.

“There is a lot at stake in trying to maintain the relationship,” he says.

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