Snowden Aftermath: Compromised Brazil Unlikely to Challenge Obama

It seems that the Snowden saga may exert a profound impact upon diplomatic relations at the global level. In yet another bombshell, Snowden disclosed sensitive NSA files relating to Brazil. Despite outrage, however, reaction within the Rousseff administration has been decidedly muted.
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As more and more stories leak out, it seems increasingly likely that the Snowden saga may exert a profound impact upon diplomatic relations at the global level. In yet another recent bombshell, Snowden disclosed sensitive U.S. National Security Agency (or NSA) files relating to Brazil. Snowden's revelations, which stand to tarnish relations between Brasilia and the Obama administration, sketch the outlines of a massive NSA electronic and eavesdropping program focusing on the South American nation.

Indeed, according to O Globo newspaper, Brazil was the second largest target of NSA spying in the hemisphere after the United States and the agency soaked up data on millions of Brazilian phone calls and internet communications. The newspaper adds that the NSA program, which was code-named Fairview, collected calls through an American company dealing with telecommunication services in Brazil. In addition, Snowden's revelations show that the NSA spied on the Brazilian Embassy in Washington and the South American nation's mission at the United Nations in New York.

Public Outcry

Perhaps, the NSA scandal will give rise to an anti-imperialist backlash in Brazil. Many people in this South American nation have bad memories of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, which spied and conducted espionage on everyday citizens. Brazilians also recall how the U.S. aided and abetted such espionage by helping to overthrow the democratically elected government of João Goulart in 1964. Even today, Brazilians are wary of government overreach and some have voiced concerns that the government conducted surveillance of recent political protests in Brasilia and other cities.

Not surprisingly, leftist parties in Brazil have lambasted the Obama administration over the Snowden affair. Take, for example, members of the Socialism and Liberty Party, who previously split from Rousseff's own Workers' Party or PT. They want Brasilia to take a tough stand against Washington, and have even lobbied the government to grant asylum to Snowden. Even the more conservative Brazilian Social Democracy Party or PSDB wants Brazil to take a bold position. Meanwhile, Brazilian Senators have argued that the government should demand an official apology from the U.S. over the Snowden affair, and they want the U.S. Ambassador to account for Washington's actions.

Cautious Rousseff

Despite such outrage, reaction within the Rousseff administration has been decidedly muted. To be sure, the authorities have announced that they will investigate data storage policies of technology companies like Google, and the government has asked Federal police and the Brazilian telecommunications regulator to find out if local companies were involved in spying. In addition, Brasilia has announced the creation of an inter-ministerial working group which will try to get to the bottom of the NSA affair.

Nevertheless, Brazil lags behind other more combative Latin American countries which have lambasted Washington over the Snowden imbroglio. Careful not to ruffle any feathers, Rousseff remarked rather meekly that the NSA programs represented a "violation of sovereignty." The President added that she would bring up the NSA scandal at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Hoping to bury the matter and move on, Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said he was encouraged that the Obama administration had demonstrated a willingness to discuss controversial NSA programs with Brasilia.

Meanwhile, however, Rousseff has kept her distance from Snowden himself. Unlike Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, which have signaled a willingness to harbor the NSA fugitive, Brazil has said no to the young whistle-blower. What is more, the Brazilian President has been tight-lipped about the recent grounding of Evo Morales' plane in Vienna. When rumors swirled that the Bolivian President might be harboring a fugitive Snowden on board, various European governments denied Morales use of their airspace as the latter was traveling en route between Moscow and La Paz. The outlandish incident prompted Latin leaders to convene an emergency meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Conveniently, Rousseff failed to show up.

Reluctance to Challenge Obama

What might explain Rousseff's meekness to stand up to the Obama administration? Though Brazil is a rising world power, the South American juggernaut is known for pursuing a kind of "under the radar" style foreign policy. Furthermore, news of the NSA spying program comes at a delicate time for Brasilia. Indeed, come October Rousseff is scheduled to meet Obama at the White House for an official state visit. It's the first such affair for nearly two decades, and the meeting will reportedly include a military reception and black-tie dinner, honors which are typically reserved exclusively for America's closest partners.

As Rousseff is well aware, crossing Washington has its downsides. For some time, Brasilia has been on a quixotic quest to secure a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. According to WikiLeaks documents, Brazil wants Washington's support for its UN bid and therefore the South American nation tends to avoid international conflict. "The end result," American diplomats remarked, "is that Brazil often remains reticent to take firm positions on key global issues and generally seeks ways to avoid them. More often than not, the government of Brazil eschews positions of leadership that might require overtly choosing sides."

Brazilian Indignation Rings Hollow

Moreover, dig a little deeper and Brasilia's cries of foul play over NSA ring a little hollow. For years, Brazil has been playing a kind of diplomatic double game in South America. On the one hand, Brazil has expressed public support for other leftist governments throughout the region. On the other hand, however, WikiLeaks documents demonstrate that Brazil routinely curries favor with Washington and may even collaborate on vital intelligence matters.

Indeed, if WikiLeaks documents can be believed, the U.S. has pretty solid relations with the Brazilian military. "Cooperation on law enforcement issues...and intelligence sharing," American diplomats noted, "is excellent and improving." In 2005, the U.S. Ambassador in Brasilia met with the Foreign Minister and expressed Washington's "growing concern" about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's "rhetoric and actions." Going further, the American diplomat sought to set up a joint U.S.-Brazilian operation which would gather intelligence on Chávez. The Foreign Minister said the Lula government would be interested in "any intelligence [the U.S.] wished to provide unilaterally."

The Americans also took note of former Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, a figure who had "challenged the historic supremacy of Itamaraty [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs] in all areas of foreign policy." In confidential conversation with the U.S. Ambassador, Jobim remarked that he had personally been obliged to "beat back more than one outlandish proposal by [Itamaraty officials] calculated to upset relations with the U.S. and other industrialized countries." Confiding yet further in the Ambassador, the Minister confessed that his government shared U.S. concerns about Venezuela "exporting instability."

Rather bluntly, Jobim also suggested that Brasilia and Washington should "step in and confront Chávez if he did anything extraterritorial" [Jobim was referring to Venezuela's claims on Guyana's disputed Essequibo region]. In 2007, Jobim's calls were echoed by former Brazilian President Jose Sarney, who fretted to American diplomats that Venezuela was "becoming a destabilizing military power." Elaborating further, the veteran politician added that Chávez's aggressive behavior could pose a threat to a Brazilian road which stretched from the jungle city of Manaus all the way to the Guyanese border.

Later, a growing number of conservative politicians in Brasilia echoed such alarmist claims until Sarney finally laid down the gauntlet, urging Washington to "do more to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's increasingly destabilizing actions in the region." Interestingly, however, it wasn't just the political opposition which had grown leery of Chávez and Venezuela's regional ambitions. Reportedly, Lula himself was ready to throw in the towel as the President had grown increasingly worried about Venezuela's "serious" border problems with Guyana. Indeed, Lula believed that Venezuela might even want to "annex one third of Guyana's territory."

Brazil's Ambiguous International Position

In light of WikiLeaks documents, Rousseff's indignation over the NSA affair seems a little hypocritical. Perhaps, the President has been unaware of massive and historic NSA spying on Brazil. As WikiLeaks documents reveal, however, the South American nation has had plenty of underhanded dealings with Washington and plays a diplomatic double game within the wider region. Perhaps, further NSA files could prove embarrassing for Brazilian political elites, just like the earlier WikiLeaks documents. Though both civil society and senior figures in government are pressing for a full investigation over NSA, Rousseff would probably just as soon prefer to see this scandal go away.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.

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