Why Brazil Won’t Take Dilma’s U.S. Bait

President Rousseff’s attempt to make domestic political gains with her trip to America is falling flat at home.


RIO DE JANEIRO — After the two-year-long saga of scheduling, canceling, and then rescheduling her visit to the United States, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff can expect to return from her three-city tour around the United States this week to a deeply discontented populace largely unmoved about what took place during her travels.

Rousseff went to the United States to boost confidence among investors in the infrastructure sector at a time of severe economic problems and mistrust of her government, and also to report a series of positive advances that could ring well with her country in a year that has brought only strife to her administration. But announcements about her U.S. trip’s achievements, such as a pledge to increase renewable energy production in both countries, a proposal easing visa rules for travelers, and increased cooperation in the sciences, were viewed at home here in Brazil as extraneous and received little attention rather than rallied Brazilians behind their now deeply unpopular leader.

Indeed, on the day Rousseff and U.S. President Barack Obama held an amicable joint news conference, Brazilian media paid perfunctory attention; they were far more engrossed with another news item. On Tuesday, the Brazilian Congress’s lower house voted on a proposed constitutional amendment that would lower the age at which one could be tried as an adult to 16. Although the issue is hardly new — the amendment was actually first proposed in 1993 — the proposal has been the subject of campaigns and street demonstrations in Brazil in recent months, in addition to frequent news reports about violent crimes committed by teens. The amendment lost by only five votes in a session that lasted until dawn. In a dramatic move the next day, the speaker of the house modified the text and the amendment passed, causing outcry from human rights activists across the country.

The fact that Brazil’s undivided attention was focused on a domestic issue of little urgency when the country’s president was in the United States making headway speaks volumes about a country whose leadership is losing its bearings. In Brazil, a culture war is thriving, and the noisy debate over this amendment speaks more to an emboldened opposition to Rousseff and the country’s turn to the right than to a need to crack down on law-breaking youngsters.

Rousseff’s political free-fall since winning her second term has been significant.

According to some polls, Rousseff’s popularity has bottomed out to as low as 10 percent. She narrowly won re-election last October, making this the fourth consecutive term for the Workers’ Party. During the same round of elections, Brazilians elected their most conservative Congress since the country’s return to democracy three decades ago. That included the rise of the so-called “bullet caucus” representatives, who hail from backgrounds in the police and public security; evangelical legislators; and lawmakers linked to agribusiness — who have all fought against the center-left Workers’ Party on a range of social issues from indigenous-land demarcation to expanding gun-ownership rights, in addition to increasing dialogue with conservative and libertarian activist groups.

Pressure from that bloc, combined with a struggling Brazilian economy that’s expected to shrink this year, meant that Rousseff started 2015 by taking unpopular austerity measures. She appointed a University of Chicago-trained economist, Joaquim Levy, as her finance minister. In fact, so important was his presence on her trip to the United States that though the minister suffered a severe health issue — a blockage of an artery to his lung — he made the trip, lest his absence be interpreted as not legitimately due to a health problem and instead as a lack of commitment to Rousseff’s economic reforms.

Still, the view from Rousseff’s home turf is rather different. Taking the Obama administration up on an open invitation to visit was really little more than tackling “low-hanging fruit” at a moment in which Rousseff needs to looks presidential, said political scientist Bruno Borges. “Some visits are really more about internal things than external things, and some are more about [how] you want to get out of Brasilia,” Borges said in a phone interview this week. “Things [in Brazil] are so horrible now. I think she is living through hell here.”

In the two years since U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced on a breezy bayside platform in Rio de Janeiro that Rousseff had accepted his invitation to a state dinner, Brazil and its government have seen dramatic changes — largely detrimental for Rousseff.

First came the 2013 anti-government street demonstrations, which brought out hundreds of thousands across the country with banners of a variety of political stripes, often focusing on the poor quality of public services in comparison with the high government expenditures on hosting sporting mega-events.

Those protests — which boomed with large turnouts in June and July 2013 and then continued in diversified and smaller numbers through the World Cup the following year — coincided with former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden’s leak of documents to journalists, including ones showing that the United States spied on the personal communications of Rousseff. The story became a sensation, stirring up nationalist sentiment in Brazil, and in an unprecedented move, Rousseff canceled her state dinner, meant to be an honor bestowed upon the country as a symbol of deep partnership.

The 2014 World Cup continued with few problems. A year later, however, eight of the 12 stadiums are reported to be running at a loss, adding fuel to Brazilians’ fear of white elephants on the taxpayer’s tab.

Most detrimental for Rousseff’s government has been the evolution of the federal “Car Wash” corruption probe centering on the state oil company, Petrobras; over the past year the probe has seen the arrests and investigations of dozens of businessmen, politicians, and their aides. The Car Wash case raised its head again on the eve of Rousseff’s trip to the United States this week, when a right-wing newsmagazine carried an exclusive report saying that a state witness from a construction company said he had made illicit donations to her re-election campaign. Rousseff’s government has said the donations were legal and that the company also donated to her opponent in last year’s election.

As unemployment and inflation have risen, Brazil in recent months has seen street protests of a new kind — those from the far right — going so far as to call for the impeachment of the president. The corruption probe and her economic management have also pushed away many on the left, who were apathetic about her visit to the United States.

“It’s an attempt to create positive headlines in the press, which has constantly been publishing news unflattering about the government, like the numbers in the economy and facts related to the investigation of Petrobras,” said Luciana Genro, a presidential candidate from the far-left Socialism and Freedom Party who came in fourth place in last year’s general election, in a phone interview.

If the far left, many of whose members rallied to Rousseff’s support when she needed their narrow margin to win re-election, speak so unfavorably about her administration now, it is a sign of how isolated her government has become domestically, not to mention how far the former Marxist guerrilla fighter and political prisoner has traveled from her ideological roots. Her U.S. trip itself has involved many measures that underscore the journey the Workers’ Party has taken from its leadership in Latin America’s so-called “new left” to pragmatic and beleaguered Rousseff’s need to shore up confidence.

Her series of meetings in the United States has left Rousseff — a former leftist guerrilla imprisoned and tortured during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship — open to criticism from the left. Those meetings included, among others, Rupert Murdoch, the media executive who owns Fox News; Henry Kissinger, the Cold War-era secretary of state; and Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state during the Iraq War.

On the eve of Rousseff’s departure this week for the United States, her commerce minister made highly unexpected statements to the media about Brazil’s desire to seek a free trade agreement with the United States. “That is a huge change within the Workers’ Party,” said political scientist Maurício Santoro.

It’s worth remembering that Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, made his international reputation by embarking on ambitious and alternative foreign-policy projects that often ran counter to U.S. interests, including his “south-south” cooperation agenda across the Western Hemisphere and a nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran in an attempt for the latter to avoid international sanctions.

And though Rousseff has largely avoided grand foreign-policy initiatives, it is clear/seems that her visit to the United States has long been about calculated gains domestically rather than an ideological statement about Brazil’s relationship with the northern power. In a sign of this calculation, Genro pointed out that had she herself been elected and invited to the White House, the first point she would have raised with Obama would have been asylum for Snowden, whose revelations angered the Brazilian government enough to cancel its state visit.

If, for the United States, the visit represented a turning of the page for the Brazil-U.S. relationship after the NSA fallout, it seemed to domestic Brazilian observers to be a grasping attempt for a sense of normalcy at a time when bad news at home in Brazil only keeps coming.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Taylor Barnes is freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. She tweets at @tkbarnes.

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