Rousseff says “no” to Obama and cancels visit over spying revelations

Brazilian leader’s stance may earn her more support for a second run next year President to criticize US espionage at UN General Assembly

A file image of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
A file image of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.FERNANDO BIZERRA JR (EFE)

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday canceled her official visit to Washington set for next month in the wake of recent revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) spied on her, top officials in her government and ordinary citizens over the past years.

The “postponement of the visit” was announced in a statement released by the Brazilian government, which also pointed out that the decision had been reached jointly by Washington and Brasilia.

Rousseff made up her mind to cancel the October 23 visit after she spoke for about 20 minutes on the telephone with US President Obama, who made a last-ditch effort to convince her to go. At that moment, Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo was informing Rousseff about his recent visit to Washington, where he held talks with Obama administration officials about the espionage allegations.

Despite the fallout from the NSA affair, the White House issued a statement on Tuesday reaffirming the strength of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. “The president has said that he understands and regrets the concerns that disclosures of alleged US intelligence activities have generated in Brazil and made clear that he is committed to working together with President Rousseff and her government in diplomatic channels to move beyond this issue as a source of tension in our bilateral relationship.”

Last month, Globo TV revealed in a news program that the NSA had monitored Rousseff’s phone calls and text messages, as well as the communications of other top officials. The allegations stemmed from documents leaked by wanted former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, a US journalist based in Brazil who helped him to divulge the information. Previously, the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo had reported that Brazilian telecoms helped the NSA spy on hundreds of ordinary citizens over the years, information that also allegedly came from Snowden’s leaked documents.

Rousseff’s decision to cancel her visit is seen as a two-fold strategy that could favor her on international stage, besides drumming up support at home as she ponders a second run at the presidency next year. After the fallout from the espionage scandal back home, it would have been an embarrassment for Brazilians to see their president walk down a red carpet at the White House. “The visit would have no doubt been hypocritical,” wrote the columnist Fabio Zanini in the daily Folha de São Paulo.

A visit to the White House at this time would have been seen by voters “as a signal of weakness”

After the first revelations were published about US intelligence operations in their country, Brazilians from all walks of life, including Rousseff, considered the spying allegations “a serious matter.”

The Brazilian leader gave Obama a week in which to give her a full explanation. During the G20 Summit in St Petersburg earlier this month, the two spoke privately for 40 minutes. “I told him that I wanted him to explain everything,” she said.

Everyone knew that Obama was not going to apologize to Rousseff, and least of all, in writing. In laying down a time frame for his response, Rousseff has become the first Brazilian leader to stand up to a US president in such a public manner, mirroring the way in which Brazil has emerged from under the US shadow to demand equal respect as a world power.

And Brazilian diplomats knew that Obama wasn’t going to explain “everything” and not within a short period. But Rousseff showed diplomacy by stating that the visit was postponed for now without setting a definite new date. It would have been the first time in 20 years that a Brazilian leader had made an official visit to Washington; the last being Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The charismatic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did not make any official visits to the United States during his eight years in office.

Gerson Camarotti, a political columnist for Globo News, wrote Tuesday that “the final evaluation that came from Dilma’s political advisors focused the argument of using national sovereignty as an important component in the 2014 presidential campaign.” A visit to the White House at this time would have been seen by voters “as a signal of weakness,” Camarotti wrote.

With this firm gesture, Rousseff has been able to show that she is capable of standing up to any country, including the United States. As Zanini wrote: “The most important thing is that there has never been any Latin American leader who has lost votes for standing up to the Yanks.”

Next week, Rousseff will go to the United States but to speak at the UN General Assembly, where she will take the opportunity to denounce the United States for conducting illegal intelligence operations in other countries. Many analysts believe she will be welcomed in New York by the international community as a heroine — someone who knew how to say “no” to the White House.

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