RIO DE JANEIRO – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived here hoping to build bilateral relations with Latin America’s leading economic powerhouse, but was given little time for diplomatic pomp and circumstance.
Instead, the top U.S. diplomat was met with questions and doubts from the Brazilian government over revelations concerning the National Security Agency’s intelligence gathering in the South American country.
Kerry was quickly put on the defensive as Brazilian officials demanded answers about the espionage scandal that shocked the country in a front-page story by the country’s largest newspaper, O Globo, in July.
The big problem of the threat of U.S. espionage is the fact that no one knows exactly what is being collected, it is this uncertainty that makes it so scary.
- Renan Hamann
But Kerry didn’t back down, defending the NSA with the argument that the agency’s actions were strictly preventative and, in fact, could help boost security in Brazil.
“We are convinced that our intelligence collection has positively helped us to protect our nation from a variety of threats, not only protect our nation but protect other people in the world, including Brazilians,” he said.
The espionage scandal and subsequent damage control come amidst President Obama’s effort to deepen ties and trade with the South American economic power.
Kerry’s visit is the third by a U.S. cabinet member to Brazil in the last three years. Obama himself visited in 2011 and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to several locations in the country earlier this year, just weeks before news of the spying scandal broke.
Responding to Kerry’s defense of the NSA program, Brazilian Foreign Minister, Antônio Patriota, countered with comments unveiling deep concern, noting that NSA surveillance on Brazil could leave a “shadow of distrust” over the two countries’ future relations.
Some of it could be attributed to national pride, but the controversy also harkens to concerns over U.S. imperialism in the region.
“The fact that the United States tries to control information of the entire planet makes some people have the feeling that their own country doesn’t have autonomy,” explained Renan Hamann, a researcher who did a study on U.S. surveillance in Brazil.
“The big problem of the threat of U.S. espionage is the fact that no one knows exactly what is being collected, it is this uncertainty that makes it so scary,” said Hamann.
Call him a cynic, but Rio resident Diogo Barbosa just couldn’t believe Kerry was being honest in arguing that NSA spying was in Brazil’s best interest.
“The USA was protecting Brazil, how sweet, just as sincere and honest as the Military Police in Rio,” said Barbosa sarcastically, referring to allegations that local authorities have been using undercover officers to infiltrate protest movements.
Another explanation behind Brazil’s strong reaction to NSA surveillance lies in the country’s tradition of political submissiveness to U.S. influence. But former President Lula da Silva, as well as current leader Dilma Rousef, have taken an active stance to level the playing field, standing up to the U.S. and even taking a defiant stance.
For example, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began taking pictures and digital fingerprints of all foreigners entering the country, Brazil retaliated by making U.S. visitors go through the same registration process.
Current Foreign Minister Patriota stressed that the violation of Brazilian privacy will not be tolerated and he demanded answers — basically saying that the U.S. cannot outright dictate the narrative between the two nations.
“We need to discontinue practices which are an attempt to sovereignty in the relationship between the states and can violate the individual freedoms that both of our countries are very much fond of,” he warned.
“It's been a staple of the Workers Party's foreign policy to seek alternative alliances among emerging nations to form an unofficial ‘axis of resistance’ against American foreign policy interests,” explained Melissa Souza, an international relations professor and commentator on American foreign policy for TVE-Brasil.
Although the Brazilian government is being upfront with its discontent with the U.S. over the spying issue, experts said it will have little impact in terms of economic relations and trade between the countries.
“It will not have any major impact on Brazilian trade relations or any other economic arrangements between the two governments,” said Souza, author of Brazil and the United States: Imagined Nations. “The Worker’s Party is trying to use this as a wedge issue to exercise sovereignty and gain concessions in trade, perhaps.”
The Brazilian government’s stance is also meant as a double-entendre for domestic purposes.
“This serves as a convenient story to deviate attention from the incessant protests the government has been facing — its collapsing popularity and apparent inability to deal with the demands of the population,” noted Souza.