Rousseff’s Angry U.N. Speech Signals Brazil’s Shift on the World Stage

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The Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaks at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013 in New York City

When Dilma Rousseff took over as Brazilian president in 2011 one of the ways she made her mark was by setting a new direction in foreign policy. Her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had given Brazil a new importance in world affairs but Rousseff was uncomfortable with his willingness to embrace authoritarian leaders in places like Iran and Venezuela.

Rousseff did not eschew the “South-South” direction Brazil had chosen but she did seek to form closer relations with the West, and particularly with the United States.

However, recent revelations that the NSA was spying on its South American ally has sent relations plummeting. Rousseff last week became the first president in living memory to turn down a state visit to Washington DC and this week she used her opening speech at the UN General Assembly to slate what she called the “illegal actions” of the US.

“Tampering in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and an affront to the principles that must guide relations among them, especially among friendly nations,” Rousseff said. “Arguing that the illegal interception of information and data is designed to protect nations from terrorism is not tenable.”

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The scandal, coming soon after Rousseff fired her foreign minister following diplomatic blunders in neighboring Bolivia, is an unwanted diversion for Rousseff.

A Marxist guerrilla turned civil servant, Rousseff is a micro-manager who would rather spend her time working on the minutiae of motorway concessions or planning energy policy rather than hobnobbing with world leaders.

As Brazil grew economically under his watch, Lula had wanted South America’s biggest nation to have a commensurately greater say in world affairs. Lula tried to broker various peace deals, from Iran and Honduras; Brazil led developing nations in trade talks and climate change negotiations; Brazilian soldiers won plaudits for anchoring peacekeeping operations in Haiti. The number of the country’s foreign missions overseas rose exponentially.

But Rousseff had no legislative experience when she took over in 2011, and with Brazil’s economy slowing she was obliged to concentrate on domestic politics. She has neither the desire nor the resources to indulge Itamaraty, as Brazil’s foreign office is known. And most importantly, she has an election coming up and needs to focus on getting reelected.

“Foreign policy for the next year is going to be about reaction, not action,” said Marcus Vinicius Freitas, an international relations professor at Sao Paulo’s FAAP university. “Rousseff doesn’t like foreign policy and Brazilian presidents historically don’t pay attention to it because it doesn’t bring votes.”
Her decision to snub Obama, meanwhile, will boost her standing at home and play well with the rank and file of her left-leaning Workers’ Party. She is acutely aware that no Latin American leader ever lost points by standing up to Uncle Sam.

The ramifications for policy and for bilateral relations are harder to decipher. Rubens Ricupero, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington, believes the anti-American wing inside the Workers’ Party will gain ground. “Foreign policy is getting closer to the ideals of the party in power,” he said.

It might also push Brazil towards closer cooperation with the BRICS. Although the group of five major developing nations do not formally share a foreign policy, Brazil is aligning itself more closely with them on positions of trade, as well as on issues such as Syria and the Middle East, Ricupero said.

That only reinforces the long-standing impression that the US and Brazil are uneasy bedfellows and that, while the Western hemisphere’s biggest powers share a wealth of trade ties, there are plenty of bumps in the road ahead. It also hammers home to a worldwide audience what people in Brazil have long known: Rousseff is not a woman to scorn.

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