Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has cancelled a proposed visit to the US amid accusations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on top officials in the Brazilian government and its state-owned oil industry. Despite a promise to personally look into the matter, Barack Obama has seemingly not done enough to appease the Brazilian population, something Ms Rousseff is keenly aware of.
The timing of the suspension of the visit is in many ways unfortunate for Brazil, which needs to retain strong trade ties with the US to revive its stumbling economy which is beginning to stagnate after years of strong growth.
Furthermore, the Brazil-US relationship is historically one of the most friendly in the Americas and for the two regional powers to fall out over what is a fairly trivial matter is potentially destabilising.
Much has been made of the fact that the US was the first country to recognise Brazilian independence from Portugal in 1824. Additionally, the democratic constitution of the Brazilian First Republic, approved in 1891, had much in common with its American counterpart, showing the influence the US was to exert over the ‘new’ states of Latin America which, like itself, had escaped from years of colonial rule.
During the 1930s Getulio Vargas, the Brazilian President, expanded economic ties with the US with American technology allowing Brazil to establish a modern industrial base. When war broke out between Nazi Germany and the European Allies, Vargas allowed the Americans to build military bases in Northern Brazil for use against German U-Boats in the Atlantic. In return, Vargas extracted generous loans and technological assistance to aid Brazilian development.
Vargas even sent 25,000 Brazilian troops to fight the Nazis in Italy alongside the US Fifth Army, albeit in 1944 when the tide of war had turned in the Allies’ favour.
There were some more dubious aspects to the US-Brazilian relationship in the 20th century, particularly the 1964 coup d’etat that saw the overthrow of the left-leaning president Joao Goulart by the Brazilian Armed Forces with poorly-veiled American support. Nevertheless, at a time when socialist government was being revealed as inherently weak in other parts of the world, it could be argued that the US did Brazil a favour.
Between 1964 and 1984 Brazil was under military rule, during which time the US was a willing ally, pleased as it was to have another large anti-communist country in close proximity to home. Richard Nixon even went as far as to plan the overthrow of left-wing leaders in Latin America, such as Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, with the complicity of Brazilian ruler Emilio Medici.
A return to civilian rule only strengthened Brazil-US relations as the Brazilian economy relied heavily on American loans and technology transfer to avoid the worst of the Latin American debt crisis at the end of the last century. Whilst Brazilian borrowing has remained at an unsustainable level, American debt write-offs and negotiations through the American-dominated IMF have helped prevent economic meltdown.
Such strong relations need to be preserved; the Americas still remains a divisive continent and leadership from its bigger countries is essential. There is no excusing NSA espionage, particularly against the political and economic interests of a supposed ally.
Yet Brazil cannot afford to be too nationalistic and proud. The American market remains essential if South America’s largest country is to join the world elite. Whilst no doubt disappointed by the revelations, the US government knows it can bide its time and has no reason to move quickly towards a full confession and apology.
Such is the way in the ranking of states; the weak can only be principled for so long.