Many accounts of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s decision this week to cancel next month's state visit to the U.S. put it down to simmering outrage over revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency has been tapping the communication channels of top Brazilian officials, starting with hers. In truth, the decision probably has as much to do with politics.
For starters, anyone shocked that U.S. intelligence is bugging Brazil really ought to get out more. Or maybe do a little reading. Start with James Bamford’s excellent “Body of Secrets,” published more than a decade ago. Skip to the index entries for Brazil, and you will see that by 1945, the U.S. had cracked Brazilian codes and was reading its diplomatic traffic; during the 1960s, it was reading the dispatches of the Brazilian ambassador to Cuba as a U.S. spy ship, the USS Oxford, was -- with the unwitting help of the Brazilian navy -- vacuuming up Brazil’s military communications; in the early 1990s, U.S. spy agencies helped level the playing field for the U.S. defense firm Raytheon by providing electronic evidence that Brazilian officials were taking bribes from a French company. And those are just the stories that made it to print.
So I hope for their sake that Brazil’s leaders weren’t truly stunned by Edward Snowden’s exposure of the U.S. effort in their front-, back- and sideyards. I can understand why Rousseff, a former prisoner tortured as a 22-year-old by Brazil’s military government, might particularly detest this kind of spying, not least because Brazil’s own intelligence agency has been rocked by various scandals, including accusations in 2008 that it had tapped phone conversations by senior judicial, legislative and government officials.
But as one of Brazil’s biggest papers pointed out, “Interests diverge, negotiations are made with other partners, what is officially declared is not what is planned in closed doors. A world without espionage would be even more difficult to imagine than a world without war or without armies.” And U.S. and Brazilian interests do diverge, whether on commercial relations, agriculture, ties with Venezuela or even negotiations on climate change.
Here’s where the politics come in: Right now, one of Rousseff’s top interests is arresting a fall in her popularity and shoring up her prospects for re-election in a year. What better way than to hoist up a burning U.S. flag? Moreover, who’d want to risk the possibility that journalist Glenn Greenwald releases a few more stink bombs to make any Washington visit more memorable?
Finally, there’s a more subjective reason why Rousseff perhaps chose not to rise above this manufactured tempest: You don’t have to look hard to get the distinct impression that Barack Obama doesn’t exactly stir her caipirinha. Check out the video footage of their meeting in Washington in April 2012, when the U.S. side begged off on offering a state dinner (never mind what it gave U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron just a month earlier). Rousseff's body language sure doesn’t suggest a samba, and Obama isn’t at his suave best either.
Here’s a suggestion for some unusual cooperation to help melt the ice: Brazil’s intelligence agency attracted homegrown ridicule when it announced that, after this summer’s widespread riots caught it off guard, it was going to monitor social media for signs of disturbance. Meanwhile, a research project funded by U.S. intelligence agencies just announced that its own social-media modeling effort had accurately predicted a recrudescence of those riots earlier this month. I smell synergy!
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)