The biggest World Cup match for USA? Biden vs. Rousseff

The US faces off against Ghana on the soccer field today, with Vice President Biden in the stands. But after the game, the US leader will meet with Rousseff in another high-stakes match.

Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff reacts during an announcement contracting for new sanitation services of PAC2 (Growth Acceleration Program) to municipalities with up to 50,000 inhabitants, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia May 6, 2014.

Dozens of world leaders are descending on Brazil during the World Cup to play a bit of soccer diplomacy, from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

But for the United States, Vice President Joseph Biden’s attendance at today’s USA-Ghana match and meeting afterward with President Dilma Rousseff holds special significance. This will be the highest-level bilateral meeting since relations broke down last October over reports that the US National Security Agency spied on Brazilian companies, citizens, and the president herself. 

“It is a way to restart high-level contacts,” says Rafael Alcadipani da Silveira, professor at Rio de Janeiro-based business school Fundação Getúlio Vargas. “His visit is to show that Brazil-US relations are normal, business as usual.”

Yet with Brazil and the US still far from resolving their cybersecurity row, and given uncertainty surrounding President Rousseff’s political future after the upcoming October presidential election, the summit is expected to be mostly symbolic. Indeed, the chances of Mr. Biden scoring diplomatic points with Brazil appear about as good as underdog Team USA’s likelihood of advancing out of its so-called Group of Death against Ghana, Germany, and Portugal. 

“It is unrealistic to expect much substantive progress as a result of Biden’s visit to Brazil,” says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “For Rousseff – in the midst of a World Cup tournament, widespread protests, and critical elections coming up – the timing couldn’t be worse.”

President Obama isn’t breaking precedent in staying home, as he also declined to attend the 2010 World Cup – although South Africa lacked Brazil’s geographic significance as a political and economic powerhouse in America’s backyard. And to be sure, Obama also faces significant challenges at home and abroad that deserve his attention, such as the crisis in Iraq.

Still, Biden isn’t quite dealing with a dead ball. A hint toward discussion topics was given in a May 8 statement from the White House saying that Biden spoke by phone with Rousseff and “discussed regional developments and the importance of working together with other countries in the Americas to address current political, economic, and social challenges.” One of the top regional crises now is the violent standoff in Venezuela between the government and opposition activists. Talks may also follow up on US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s visit to Brazil in March on the restart of US-Brazil trade ties, says Mr. Alcadipani.

The elephant in the room will be the allegations of cyber-espionage. Rousseff said earlier this month that she might reschedule a visit to Washington if the US gives a “clear signal” to stop eavesdropping, though she may not get that opportunity. A recent Ibope poll found only 40 percent of Brazilians intend to vote for Rousseff in October, leading some  analysts to declare she is unlikely to win reelection.

“The opportunity to patch up the strained bilateral relationship will likely come after the October elections,” says Mr. Shifter.

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