Brazil and Obama’s ‘Big Brother syndrome’

US surveillance and arrogance are damaging relations with South America’s biggest country.

Brazilian President Rousseff
President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a visit to Washington after revelations of NSA spying on Brazil emerged [AFP]

Two weeks ago, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff cancelled a diplomatic trip to Washington shortly after news broke that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on her personal communications and those of Brazilian oil company Petrobras.

Rousseff demanded a full public apology and an explanation from US President Barack Obama. On September 24, in a statement at the UN, she stated that such invasions of privacy are breaches of international law. “The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country,” she said.

With the recent stories of the mass NSA surveillance programmes there is a sense that the surveillance of Brazil should have hardly come as a surprise to anyoneand certainly not to Rousseff, the former guerrilla who fought against Brazil’s US-backed military dictatorship in the 1960s.

Yet the extent to which the NSA was spying on the president was not generally known until Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist living in Rio de Janeiro, broke the story on the popular Brazilian TV show Fantastico. Greenwald and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had arranged a secret meeting in Hong Kong, where the journalist received documentation on the US’ Brazil surveillance.

Lack of sensitivity

Obama has shown a lack of sensitivity in his recent dealings with Latin America. His flawed and inappropriate effort to discredit this year’s Venezuelan elections won him little praise in the region. A telling sign of this discontent with the US’ boorish ways surfaced when Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela each offered asylum to Edward Snowden. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro publicly declared the granting of asylum to Snowden was made “in the name of the dignity of Latin America”. Latin American leaders became even more angered when the Bolivian presidential plane was forced to reroute, being denied access to European airspace, because of Washington’s suspicion that Snowden was in the plane.

Even though Brazil seems far removed from the post-9/11 conflicts associated with terrorism, Washington still makes the unconvincing case that the whole world is a potential battlefield in the war against terror.

Unlike her Latin American allies, Rousseff distanced herself from the Snowden affair. Although Snowden had also asked for asylum in Brazil, officials there rejected the application. Brazil’s posture of siding with the US seemed clear from abroad, but within the country some disapproved of Rousseff’s handling of the issue.

Opponents of Rousseff’s dealing with the Snowden issue, like the President of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) Ivan Valente, stated, “I think Brazil, being a stronger country economically and on the global scene, could offer a stronger response and not give in to Big Brother”. PSOL is made up of former members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party who had become critical of the party after it took over the presidency. Likewise, another well-known political scientist, Mauricio Santoro, described Rousseff as failing to give as much importance to foreign policy issues as her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Such criticism has long been voiced by Brazil’s left-wing intellectuals, who describe Rousseff as a “technocrat” rather than a politician.

Even though the US didn’t give an official explanation to Brazil about the NSA’s activities, the US government held its usual discourse that surveillance is necessary to counter terrorism around the world. Yet this line of argument is hardly convincing. Since its first introduction into foreign policy by Ronald Reagan, the “terrorist” label has been given to El Salvador’s National Liberation group, Islamic fundamentalists, and anyone that the US sees as a possible threat. In this sense, even though Brazil seems far removed from the post-9/11 conflicts associated with terrorism, Washington still makes the unconvincing case that the whole world is a potential battlefield in the war against terror.

On September 8, NSA Director James Clapper claimed: “The United States collects foreign intelligence – just as many other governments do – to enhance the security of our citizens and protect our interests and those of our allies around the world.” But there was no explanation about how Brazil’s biggest oil company, Petrobras, could pose a threat to American citizens. And if the reason for the surveillance was to learn how the company’s behaviour might affect global markets or precipitate an international financial crisis, as Clapper explained in his statement, then this shows the US is now openly playing a Big Brother role.

Digital autonomy?

In the wake of the revelations, Rousseff declared her plans to build an independent internet system for Brazil to break away from dependence on the US-controlled internet. Rousseff talked about the possibility of building a fiber-optic cable connecting Brazil directly to Europe, as well as to other South American countries. Currently, most of Brazil’s internet operations are transmitted via American companies such as Google and Facebook.

Such an effort to achieve digital autonomy is hardly a solution to the challenge of cyber espionage and warfare. If states start adopting this defensive attitude, it will make futile diplomatic efforts at respecting each other’s privacy and doom international relations to ceaseless tension even among countries that are friendly. And the US would continue to spy, even on its allies, without needing to offer a justification.

In the past, Obama had made his stance very clear when he admitted to US spying on European allies, saying, “If that weren’t the case, then there’d be no use for an intelligence service”. The contradiction here is that information gathering by strong states has proceeded on the basis that there are no permanent friends and enemies in international relations, and that seeking to conduct diplomacy on the basis of trust is naive. This posture of political realism conflicts with diplomacy in international relations.

The United States’ overbearing behaviour on the world stage is becoming more pronounced, and as a superpower it has clear technological superiority. Obama’s lack of interest in providing explanations to reassure the world’s weaker countries threatens relations throughout the Western Hemisphere. One thing is for sure: In the absence of a formal apology from the US – and with national elections in Brazil looming in October 2014 – Rousseff will be under growing pressure to take further measures to make the Brazilian public believe that she is vigilantly protecting the interests of her nation in the face of US abuses.

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.