The State Visit That Isn’t: Is the U.S. Dissing Brazil’s Dilma On the Eve of Her Trip?

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Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, March 14, 2012.

In the often Sisyphean exercise known as U.S.-Latin American relations, old habits die hard on both sides. Even the Obama Administration, which came to power pledging a less high-handed hemispheric policy, snubbed Brazil this week by not designating President Dilma Rousseff’s trip to the U.S. next month as a high-level “state visit.” That’s largely because the White House is still mad at her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for independently brokering a deal two years ago to let Iran pursue nuclear energy.

On the one hand, punishing Rousseff for the foreign policy naivete of her old boss – the U.S. and much of the international community are convinced that Iran is developing not just nuclear energy but nuclear weapons –  feels like outmoded yanqui arrogance, especially when Rousseff has distanced Brazil from Iran since taking office last year. On the other hand, Rousseff and her Workers Party represent the Latin American left, a cohort that still tends to give communist Cuba a free pass on human rights – as Rousseff’s critics noted earlier this year when, on a visit to Havana, she did not publicly comment on the Cuban government’s repression of democracy and free speech but publicly blasted the U.S. for holding terrorist suspects in spartan conditions at Guantánamo Bay.

If the U.S. wants better relations with what is now the world’s sixth-largest economy – meaning a partnership that’s more in synch on issues like Iran – petty slights like the state-visit refusal don’t exactly help. And if Brazil wants state-visit  standing – to be taken more seriously as the emerging power it is today, America’s first real counterweight in the Americas – coddling Cuba while dissing the U.S. isn’t exactly the way to go, either. As Peter Hakim, emeritus president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., put it to me this week, “Few countries talk more about the need for a more strategic relationship between them than the U.S. and Brazil do, yet few do so little to bring it about.”

See “Obama Goes to Rio: A Nod to Brazil’s Growing Power”

That promises to make Rousseff’s Washington visit on April 9, the same day kids will be rolling Easter eggs on the White House lawn, a less than cuddly event, though both she and President Obama will insist that bilateral relations are tudo bem – just fine. What irritates both the Americans and Brazilians are what they call each other’s double standards. Yes, Lula and Brazil may have overreached on Iran in 2010, but the U.S. may also have overreacted, and Brasília feels the U.S. did so in large part because it still expects countries in this hemisphere to toe Washington’s foreign policy line in ways it doesn’t demand of emerging powers in Asia, like India.

India crosses Washington’s foreign policy lines much more than Brazil does, on issues from nuclear proliferation to trade protectionism to Iran. (Obama, in fact, is threatening New Delhi with sanctions now for continuing to import large quantities of Iranian oil.) Nevertheless, Obama has granted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a state visit and has even endorsed India’s bid to become a permanent U.N. Security Council member, something Brazil wants as well.

The Brazilians also feel slighted by the Obama Administration’s seeming indifference to the fact that the U.S. Air Force this month inexplicably cancelled a $355 million aircraft contract it had awarded jointly to the Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. and the Brazilian firm Embraer, after complaints from a competing firm, Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft Corp. The Air Force will only cite “documentation problems;” but high-ranking Brazilian government officials, as well as Jerry Mallot, head of the economic development organization JAXUSA Partnership in Jacksonville, Fla., where Sierra Nevada and Embraer plan to build the turboprop planes, tell me they fear U.S. election-year politics are at play. Hawker Beechcraft argues its planes will generate more U.S. jobs; Sierra Nevada and Embraer dispute that and note the Jacksonville facility would employ scores of skilled Florida workers laid off by the recent closing of NASA’s space shuttle program. “We’re stunned,” says Mallot. “We had the superior tactical aircraft.”

Still, Embraer is confident it will win the contract again in a new bidding process, and “we don’t think this should be a point of tension during Dilma’s visit,” says a Brazilian diplomat. “We expect to keep developing strong relations with the U.S. on defense.” Part of the reason Rousseff hasn’t cancelled her U.S. trip despite the state-visit rebuff (she made sure Obama’s visit to Brazil last year was a full state visit) is her determination to upgrade her country’s high-tech industry and education – which China, Brazil’s new No. 1 trading partner, isn’t helping much given its obsession with buying commodities over manufactured goods.

In fact, as Paulo Sotero, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute in Washington, points out, the more important U.S. stop for Dilma may well be Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she’ll promote her Science Without Borders project to get tens of thousands of Brazilian students educated abroad in math, science and engineering. “Like any leader, Dilma does care about protocol, but she’s more preoccupied with substance,” says Sotero. “I think the state-visit issue bothers her less as a result.”

For its part, the Obama Administration is increasingly frustrated by what some U.S. officials call Brazil’s own less-than-honest foreign policy practices. Brazil has long declared itself a champion of independent, multilateral and above all non-interventionist diplomacy. But the Americans complain that Rousseff’s recent remarks in Cuba, as well as Brazil’s penchant for abstaining or voting against international measures in crises like Syria, betray an anti-U.S. bias and a tendency to shield dictators and other human-rights violators.

The former, they say, is undeserved given the goodwill gestures Obama has made – like going to Brasília last year to see Rousseff instead of the new Brazilian President traveling to the White House first, as had always been the case between the two countries in the past. As for the latter, they call the silence on Cuba particularly bewildering in the case of Rousseff, who was tortured by Brazil’s former military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Still, those Beltway officials insist that behind the scenes, the U.S. and Brazil are actually fortifying their partnership in areas like “competitive neutrality” – read getting countries like China to play on a more level trade field – and infrastructure improvements for the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, both to be held in Brazil. “We can talk to the Brazilians very well on those issues,” one high-ranking U.S. diplomat recently told me. “That’s going to be the basis for the long-term enhancement of our relationship.”

In the meantime, though, the White House risked worsening relations with Brazil this week by suggesting it’s not granting any state visits now because this is a presidential election year – even as it was hosting a state visit, complete with black tie dinner and all the other pomp, for British Prime Minister David Cameron. That’s not cricket.