You can’t get much colder than an Antarctica beer on a hot summer day in Rio. Until this week, when Dilma gave President Obama and the U.S. a frosty brush over revelations the NSA PRISM program pried its way into Brazilian secrets. In a joint announcement by both presidents’ press offices, Dilma revealed her desire to “postpone” her planned state visit to the United States in October.
To your average observer, this is not as bad as it could have been. She could have canceled the trip outright, or even dismissed seasoned US Ambassador Thomas Shannon. Instead, Dilma took a tried and tested Brazilian route of saying “no” by actually saying “not now”. Anyone who has ever dealt with a Brazilian client or official will know that “adiar” (to postpone) really just means “I don’t want to talk to you”.
For Brazil, this is a pretty immature response, and one unfitting of a government that wants to play in the big leagues of international affairs. Countries spy, the U.S. more than anybody, and nobody has put up more of a fuss about it than Latin American leaders that are eager to score political points by riling up anti-Yankee sentiments. With all the Chinese interest and investment in the region in recent years, and the intellectual property that many of these companies often take with them in return, the anger seems awfully misdirected. And, not so shockingly, Brazil spies too.
I have written before about the crocodile tears being shed across Latin America by leaders from all sides of the political spectrum. I still believe those reactions are naïve and nothing more than histrionics for a domestic audience.
But it is also foolhardy for the U.S. to downplay the importance of these tantrums. Relations with Latin America have not been a priority for many years now for any administration, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union and the proxy wars being fought throughout the hemisphere. In the void, new power-brokers have emerged, particularly China.
So even if the Latin anger is not real, the public tension colors the important business and cultural relationships that are much more crucial to our hemispheric ties than these diplomatic formalities, and generates distrust in Latin America at a time when the U.S. can no longer assume it is the principal political actor there. It goes to show you that the U.S. continues to underestimate the region and its place in the world.
Still, If I were a company like Petrobras or a representative in the Brazilian government, I’d be tickled that the U.S. thought I was worthy of spying. I suspect there are a number of officials within Brazil’s government who secretly view this scandal with a mix of envy for all the information the U.S. has on their governments and economies and a feeling of flattery that the U.S. government is finally paying attention, even if it is through espionage.
Unfortunately, as ever, everyone’s egos seem to have won the day.