Did Brazil's president just knock down US influence a notch or two?
The postponement of President Dilma Rousseff's US state visit is a blow. But her domestic political standing may be as much a factor as anger over NSA spying.
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The decision of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff to forgo a planned October state visit to the United States is being portrayed by the White House as a mutually decided-upon postponement. Worldwide, however, that view gets little play: The cancellation is seen by many as a dismissal of the US in response to revelations about its wide-reaching National Security Agency surveillance programs.
The Associated Press framed the decision as the latest in a series of bad jolts for President Obama:
"The real issue becomes, How does this affect American influence in the world?" said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Is American influence knocked down a few notches as a result of this?" He called Rousseff's action "almost unheard of."
The most recent NSA program in question is the hacking of Brazil's oil company, Petrobras, which came to light as part of the leak of classified documents by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. President Rousseff said on Monday that such spying amounts to industrial espionage, and was quoted by Reuters as saying: "Clearly, Petrobras is not a threat to the security of any country."
Rousseff's office pointed to its need for answers to the NSA's involvement in Brazil in canceling the important diplomatic event, reports The Hill's Global Affairs blog:
“The two presidents decided to postpone the state visit since the outcome of this visit should not be conditioned on an issue which for Brazil has not been satisfactorily resolved,” Rousseff’s office said.
“The illegal interceptions of communications and data of citizens, companies and members of the Brazilian government represents a serious act which violates national sovereignty and is incompatible with democratic coexistence between friendly countries,” it said.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the 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.
The Brazilian Globo television network program on Sunday that touched off Rousseff's response also reported that the NSA hacked other companies (including Google) and France's foreign ministry, both revelations with potentially serious repercussions for the US government. A visit to Globo's news page suggests a country consumed by NSA revelations: Stories on Snowden's nomination for a human rights prize, the White House regretting the cancellation of Rousseff's trip, and details about the now-frosty relations between Rousseff and Obama still dominate the site.
About that prize: the fact that Mr. Snowden was nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament (the EU's only directly elected body) while he has been called a traitor by prominent US politicians, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, demonstrates how divisive and explosive his allegations have been.
The EU nomination cites Snowden for "leak[ing] details of mass surveillance programs to the press," precisely the same action referred to by a Fox News analyst who in June called for Snowden to be put to death.
With communications technology and surveillance of all sorts spreading and constantly increasing in sophistication, affairs like the leaks of Snowden, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and others will undoubtedly multiply along with their resulting complications.
And as can be expected when major news happens on the international stage, domestic concerns aren't far from the fore. Rousseff is fighting for re-election next year in a race that has been energized by a public protest movement that emerged spontaneously this June. Much as protests rocked Turkey earlier this year and the Occupy movement became a part of the discourse surrounding the 2012 US presidential election, the fast-moving Brazilian protests focused attention on inequality and spending on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and instantly became a political factor.
Rousseff enjoyed personal popularity ratings in the 70s earlier this year, but those dropped to 49.3 percent in July. Her numbers have recovered to 58 percent, according to a Reuters report earlier this month, but she's still seen as vulnerable to rising inflation and presidential challengers whose popularity grew during the protests. The scuppered US trip could be a game-changer, shifting focus to Rousseff's perceived strength in the face of foreign interference, playing on themes of patriotism and anger about the rise of the global, Internet-boosted surveillance apparatus.