Why Did Brazil’s President Change Her Tune on Spying?

After Edward Snowden's revelations, Dilma Rousseff came out as a fierce critic of the NSA. Now she's palling around with Barack Obama.

US President Barack Obama (R) poses with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a meeting on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) poses with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a meeting on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

SÃO PAULO — When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff emerged from a meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City in April, she was in surprisingly good spirits. She looked healthier and more energetic than she had in months as she stepped up to the microphone for a press conference. She was all smiles as she described an upcoming trip to Washington, planned for June 30.

Rousseff, who was re-elected in October with only 51.6 percent of the vote, faces a spiraling corruption scandal at home and the lowest approval rating since her party took power in 2003. And her government has been clashing with Washington off-and-on for two years. So her cheery demeanor after meeting Obama was not what the room full of journalists was expecting when she stepped out for the press conference.

“Does this planned visit mean that the NSA spying episode is entirely overcome?” Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello asked Rousseff.

“It means we recognize the actions taken by the U.S. … that friendly countries won’t be spied on,” Rousseff said. “And we have a declaration from President Obama. When he wants to know something, he’ll call me.”

To see Rousseff place this kind of trust in the United States would have been unthinkable less than two years ago. In September 2013, after Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on Rousseff and Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, the Brazilian president emerged as one of the foremost critics of U.S. spying programs. She canceled a planned state visit to the White House and her government considered introducing laws that would have forced companies like Google and Facebook to store their data within Brazil, imposing considerable cost in order to subject them to local privacy laws.

But now, it seems that Rousseff has backed down on confronting the United States over its spying and surveillance. Weakened at home politically and economically, she can no longer afford a rift with a powerful and important ally like the United States, experts and analysts say.

“The government is basically in emergency mode,” said Igor Fuser, a professor of international relations at the ABC Federal University in São Paulo. “So in the international arena, the position is maximum caution; a posture of reconciliation with traditional allies, and avoidance at all costs of anything that could cause any friction.”

While standing up to the United States can play well with Rousseff’s base, her current challenges come from the right, which has long accused her of being irresponsibly leftist in foreign policy, and has gone as far as calling for her impeachment this year. Shoring up relations with Washington, and meeting with Obama as an equal, can provide a much-needed boost to her legitimacy.

For a while, it looked like a resurgent, left-leaning Brazil, governed by a woman who had been tortured by a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, would be matched only by Germany’s post-DDR Angela Merkel in leading the charge among friends of the United States against America’s global intelligence programs.

After Rousseff canceled her planned 2013 meeting with Obama, she took her case to the United Nations. During that September’s General Assembly, she delivered a lengthy scolding against a “global electronic spying network” based in the United States. “Meddling this way in the lives of other countries violates international law and is an affront to the principles that should govern relations among nations, especially allies…. [T]he security of one country’s citizens can never be guaranteed by violating the fundamental human and civic rights of citizens in other countries,” she said from the podium in Turtle Bay. “We have informed the U.S. government of our protest, demanding explanations, apology, and guarantees that these actions will not be repeated.”

She went on to propose a “multilateral civil rights framework” governing the global Internet, aimed at establishing privacy standards and human rights online around the world. In April 2014, Brazil hosted the Net Mundial Conference, a meeting of government officials, experts, and academics to discuss the future of Internet governance. By year’s end, Brazil and Germany had presented and passed at the U.N. a resolution calling for all countries to guarantee privacy online, saying “that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”

Rousseff went on the offensive domestically, too. In October 2013, her allies in the legislature introduced amendments to a planned “Internet bill of rights” in response to the scandal. The Marco Civil da Internet had already sought to guarantee privacy and net neutrality in Brazil, but following revelations from Snowden that major Internet companies were sharing data with the NSA, Brazilian legislators introduced provisions that would force companies such as Google and Facebook to store their data on Brazilian soil, where the government could apply rigorous privacy standards — and keep the NSA’s prying eyes out. The final version, passed in February 2014, modified this provision due to fears that it would lead to high costs for Brazilian Internet users and put a financial strain on for companies doing business in Brazil — especially smaller firms. Instead, the Brazilian Congress insisted that foreign companies be subject to local judicial proceedings if they were to be proved to be violating privacy statues, even if the data is stored abroad.

Through 2014 and early 2015, Brazil and the United States remained publicly at odds over spying and privacy. Rousseff never received the public apology from the United States that she demanded in front of the U.N. — or even the public guarantee that the behavior would not be repeated.

So what explains Dilma’s apparent about face? A well-placed official in the Brazilian government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Rousseff-Obama rapprochement involved concessions from Washington.

“The American government’s posture did change. The [U.S.] president made it clear in his last conversation with Rousseff in Panama that if he wanted to know something about Brazil or the president, he will call her and not use other means,” he said. “And we have to trust in the word of the head of state.”

“She communicated that it was central that she couldn’t [again] be surprised by revelations that the U.S. is spying Brazil,” he added, noting that Obama may not have been able to apologize or make public promises due to internal political concerns.

The Obama administration has been pushing a modest intelligence reform agenda in Washington. Earlier this month, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which reversed some of the more invasive provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act. But experts on U.S.-Latin America relations note that the White House has not publicly mentioned anything about the NSA changing the way it deals with citizens of foreign countries. Nevertheless, many believe that the reconciliation with Brazil could provide an opportunity to work more productively with the region’s largest power.

“The U.S. is hopefully coming to the recognition that it has a really difficult time carrying out an agenda in Latin America without being able to cooperate with Brazil,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

Washington has an ambitious agenda in Latin America. The Obama administration is working toward repairing relations with Cuba, and also sees the need for better trade relations with Brazil. The two countries have a “paltry trade relationship” that “doesn’t make sense,” outside of their inability to cooperate, said Hakim.

The month before the Panama City summit, the United States classified Venezuela as a “national security threat” to the United States, a move that allows the United States to impose sanctions on Caracas. That was received badly by Latin American leaders.

“In the case of the flap over the Venezuelan sanctions, if the U.S. government had sat down with the Brazilians, the Brazilians would have said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Or they would have said, ‘Don’t do it before the summit, at least. You’re ruining an opportunity to highlight your reconciliation with Cuba,’” Hakim said.

But it’s not just Washington’s regional agenda that has helped lay the groundwork for the mending of relations. Rousseff might not be able to afford to strike the defiant tone of 2013, when problems in her previously very popular government had just begun to appear. At home and abroad, her government has been badly weakened by an economic downturn and a huge corruption scandal, and she is far more eager these days to build alliances and create positive headlines than to try to change the global intelligence system.

Since her narrow re-election, in which she played up her left-wing credentials, Rousseff’s government has had to embark on an unpopular austerity program to shore up public finances. At the same time, she has faced protest movements calling for her impeachment over the massive corruption scandal at Petrobras.

“Rousseff needs the United States, especially in the context of a slowing Brazilian economy,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst for the Eurasia group, noting that the country is in need of investment for infrastructure and oil. No investment partnerships or trade deals have been announced, but could come alongside Rousseff’s visit to Washington at the end of the month.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil and others in Latin America saw their economies surge and found themselves empowered to take on Washington politically. Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pushed a “counter-hegemonic” strategy alongside the other emerging powers around the world and the left-leaning governments of Latin America. But most have been hit by economic or political problems as the Chinese economy slowed, ending the global commodity boom.

“It’s not a radical break. But the trend is to go in a more conservative direction rather than a leftist or anti-systemic direction,” Fuser said.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Vincent Bevins is the Los Angeles Times' Brazil correspondent.

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