Opinion Piece

Rousseff's Washington ruse may backfire

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's decision – and it obviously was hers, rather than one agreed with the United States government as the latter has claimed – to call off (or postpone as the Obama administration likes to put it) her state visit to Washington planned for October appears to be a case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Rousseff cited the failure of Obama's government to adequately explain allegations of spying by the US National Security Agency, including claims that the NSA intercepted personal communications of Rousseff and those of state oil company Petrobras, and the lack of an apology, as the reason for her drastic decision.

"In the absence of a timely investigation of the incident, with corresponding explanations and the commitment to cease the interception activities" the visit could not go ahead, the Brazilian government said.

Yet, Ms Rousseff may be doing more damage to Brazil's interests than good. The trip was to have been the first state visit to Washington by a Brazilian president since 1995, and the only one of any leader worldwide this year. Two-way trade between the countries last year stood at some US$74bn, and Brazilian businesses could have used the trip to boost exports and investments. The high profile visit would also have helped to raise the profile of Latin America in the United States. She may have even bolstered Brazil's claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

What is more, Rousseff could have used the platform to address the issue of surveillance, or espionage, directly with Obama, and make her feelings known in no uncertain terms, as she did at the United Nations this week.

Some will say, of course, that Rousseff is merely playing politics here, as she attempts to recuperate her popularity following the slump it suffered with the June protests. That may be the case, but politicians, at least in democratic regimes, are quite right to pay attention to the polls, in other words, to listen to what people are saying, without of course blindly taking the populist road.

Brazil has been the most vocal critic globally of the NSA surveillance, although Mexican leader Enrique Peña Nieto also voiced concerns when it was claimed he too was the victim of prying while he was a presidential candidate. But the real question is why have so few others come out to express their anger and dismay at these surreptitious activities, either governments or members of civil society.

The answer, in the case of governments, is probably because most engage in similar surveillance themselves, although not to the extent of the United States. As Obama himself put it in trying to justify the program, although he has pledged to review it, the US simply has a greater ability to do such things. That, of course, does not make it right, even if the end objective is to protect law-abiding citizens.

Secondly, the allegations, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, hardly came as a surprise. Most of us knew the US was up to this kind of thing anyway, and has been for a long time, whether using digital communications or via radar bases under the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, for instance.

Lastly, and perhaps most depressingly of all, people seem resigned to the fact that so much of our personal data is open to scrutiny, whether this is by the likes of Facebook, Google or governments.

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