Chip East/Reuters
Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff delivers a speech at the Brazil Infrastructure Opportunity event in New York, September 25, 2013. Rousseff is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

Is Brazil's Rousseff the new voice of Latin America?

The Brazilian president’s fiery speech at the UN condemning US spying solidified her position on the world stage as a civil liberties champion unafraid to stand up to Washington.

The world has a new global voice, and it belongs to Dilma Rousseff.

The Brazilian president’s fiery speech yesterday at the United Nations condemning the US spying program solidified her position on the world’s podium as a civil liberties champion unafraid to stand up to Washington, analysts say.

“This is about global governance,” says Elena Lazarou, director of the Center for International Relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro. She says that Rousseff spoke "for those not respected equally, not just Latin America or just the developing world. She’s talking about justice.”

But the forcefulness of her call for the US to respect national sovereignty and end state-sponsored espionage also took many observers by surprise, as Brazil is a longtime US alley normally accustomed to playing the role of peacemaker. President Rousseff delivered “slams,” “blasts,” and “attacks” yesterday in a speech alternately described in the media as a “tirade” and “stinging rebuke” to the US.

Rousseff is wading into uncharted waters, says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, who described her speech as a radical shift from the foreign policy laid down by her predecessors. Rousseff is now leading Latin America's largest economy in a new direction, asserting its needs in new ways.

“Brazil has chosen to take a rather fierce stance and has described the United States as if Washington was Pyongyang and this was North Korea and not a sacred alley," says Mr. Birns. “Anyone who says this is a mere permutation in a much larger pictograph is not comparing what Brazil was in the past and what … it is for Brazil to behave in this manner. The whole geopolitical map has been changed.”

'Talking about justice'

Rousseff’s address yesterday at the opening of the United Nation’s annual general assembly was widely anticipated following her decision last week to cancel an official state visit to Washington amid revelations that the US National Security Agency spied on her private communications. The visit is “postponed” indefinitely until Brazil receives a full explanation of the surveillance program and a promise to cease spying, according to Rousseff’s office.

At the UN yesterday, Rousseff called the US spying program a “case of grave violations of human rights and civil liberties” that undermined any basis for a relationship. “Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership, as in our case, cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal,” she said. “They are unacceptable.”

She also called for a new framework on how governments use the Internet that will guarantee privacy.

Rousseff is positioning herself, and Brazil, as a voice calling for norms that will govern global internet security, says Ms. Lazarou, from the Fundação Getúlio Vargas. However, the president is not seeking to become a voice for all of Latin America, Lazarou says.

In criticizing the US surveillance program, Rousseff also drew on her personal history as a former guerrilla fighter imprisoned and tortured for her role opposing Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s. “I fought against authoritarianism and censorship and I cannot but defend, in an uncompromising fashion, the right to privacy of individuals and the sovereignty of my country,” Rousseff said. 

The UN general assembly was an ideal platform for Rousseff to stand up to the US about the spying allegations, says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “She seized the high moral ground, which plays well domestically as well as internationally,” Mr. Shifter says. 

However, Rousseff’s decision to go beyond calling for a new set of internet security rules to lambaste the US highlights an attempt to gain political clout at home and across the region, says Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas. And to what end? 

“Spying will continue, as it does by China, Russia, and Brazil itself, so singling out the US for special treatment is regrettable in my view, especially given the [US] president’s commitment to review the US approach worldwide,” says Mr. Farnsworth. 

“The speech appears now to be an attempt to gain political advantage at home, but it also reinforces those in Brazil and across the region who seek to distance relations with the United States.” 

No going back?

Where US-Brazil relations go from here is up for debate. Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue believes the setback is temporary, as “there is too much at stake for both countries for the relations to become adversarial and confrontational.” 

But Farnsworth and Birns both see a frozen agenda that shows no signs of thawing soon. To be sure, the US and Brazil have had fallouts before. “But this is different,” says Birns. 

“I just don’t see how there’s any going back on this,” he says. “The US relationship with Brazil has experienced an enormous sea change. The courtesy and the affable goodwill that gave most of the coloring to the US-Brazil relationship is now gone, it’s a remnant of history.”

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