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Five Points to Watch on Rousseff's Postponement of Her U.S. State Visit

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

(AP Photo)

September 16, 2013

On September 17, President Dilma Rousseff announced that she would postpone her October 23 state visit to Washington. Citing concerns about spying by the National Security Agency (NSA), a statement from Rousseff’s administration noted that “conditions” weren’t right for the trip. Rousseff’s state visit, which has yet to be rescheduled, will be the first by a Brazilian leader in nearly two decades. However, the presidents have yet to reschedule a date for the visit.

AS/COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth explains the importance of the state visit, as well as the impact of the postponement.

Why did President Rousseff postpone the state visit?

Revelations from Edward Snowden that the United States was spying on Brazilian officials, including the president, have caused an uproar in Brazil. After a long deliberation, Rousseff determined that a state visit in October would not be convenient in the current circumstances. Postponing the visit to some uncertain future date will allow the United States to conduct a “review” of its intelligence gathering practices as the temperature of the issue presumably dies down and allows both nations to re-focus on the pending bilateral agenda. As well, it allows the Brazilian president to mollify some of her critics on the left—her political base—who have long been suspicious of a close relationship with the United States.

Why did the Obama administration select Rousseff for the next state visit?

Giving Brazil the only state visit contemplated for 2013 is a big deal in terms of how Washington thinks, and it was designed to offset the relationship with Brazil from others and to highlight the importance that the administration places on the relationship. It also sought to rectify the oversight, according to some observers, that occurred in early 2012 when Rousseff traveled to Washington for an official visit, but Obama went to Brazil on a state visit. Reciprocity and protocol matters in diplomacy, and the offer of a state visit in 2013 was designed to give a boost to the relationship and to get beyond some of the disagreements of the past.

What were some of the specific topics the two presidents were expected to address on October 23?

Energy, trade, mutual cooperation in third countries, education, and the entire agenda would have been overshadowed by discussions of the NSA spying issue. Postponing the visit will allow both nations to put this issue into a broader context rather than having to take up a state visit—the grandest stage a U.S. president can offer a foreign leader—on such a divisive and complicated matter. Nonetheless, the decision will come at a cost.

When was the last state visit by a Brazilian president and how has the relationship evolved since then?

The last visit was offered by Bill Clinton for Fernando Henrique Cardoso. I remember it well, as I was serving at the White House at the time. As a special recognition of the importance of Brazil and the affection that the two presidents and first ladies shared with each other, they also took a short trip to Camp David, a symbolically important event. Since then the relationship has definitely had its ups and downs, as many bilateral relationships do.

One thing is clear: the personal relationship that leaders have with each other often drives the broader bilateral relationship. Day-to-day cooperation may continue, but if the leaders “click,” it can supercharge cooperation. The opportunity to further develop the relationship between Presidents Rousseff and Obama—and, therefore, their governments—is one of the primary costs of postponing the visit.

What does the postponement of the visit mean for overall U.S.-Latin American relations?

In the long run, these issues do have a way of working themselves out, although Washington has long memories when it comes to such things. In the short run, postponement of the visit stalls the important agenda that the two governments are jointly pursuing. Official contacts will continue and cooperation will advance, but foregoing the huge political momentum offered by a visit will necessarily impact the ability of bureaucracies to advance the agenda. The bottom line is that this decision will take a while to move beyond.