Brazilians tuning into the Globo Network’s Fantástico news show on successive Sunday nights this month were taken aback by allegations that the United States not only spied on their president but also was monitoring Petrobras, the state-run oil company.
The charges that the National Security Agency carried out cyber-espionage in President Dilma Rousseff’s office and kept track of her conversations with cabinet members raised nationalistic hackles in Brazil.
While Rousseff’s response — the postponement of a state visit to Washington scheduled for late October — was a setback in diplomatic relations between the hemisphere’s two largest democracies, the decision played well in Brazil.
“Her decision has been accepted by most people as inevitable in light of the allegations. Brazilians don’t feel good about the U.S. spying on the president of a country that has been described as an important strategic partner,’’ said Paulo Sotero, who heads the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Even before the postponement was announced last Tuesday, the perceived attacks may have helped Rousseff in the polls. After a difficult summer marked by massive domestic protests and a lackluster economy, Rousseff’s approval rating fell 24.4 points to 49.3 percent from June to July in a poll conducted by MDA Research for the National Transport Confederation.
But the latest MDA poll taken mostly in early September — after Glenn Greenwald, a Guardian correspondent living in Rio de Janeiro, appeared on the popular Fantástico program and made the espionage allegations based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — showed Rousseff’s approval rating had climbed to 58 percent.
President Barack Obama called Rousseff last Monday night trying to convince her to make the trip, which would have been the first state visit by a Brazilian president in 18 years, but in the end analysts say her calculation was there was little upside to traveling to Washington.
“It really wasn’t a good environment to tackle issues aiming at making a better U.S.-Brazil relationship,’’ said Sotero.
The statement issued by the White House on the postponement echoed that theme. The relationship between the largest economy in South America and the United States “should not be overshadowed by a single bilateral issue, no matter how important or challenging the issue may be,’’ it said.
Another factor may have been the risk of more revelations coming out in the media during the visit, resulting in a “double embarrassment” for both presidents, said Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington and now a business consultant in São Paulo.
Some in Rousseff’s cabinet urged her to cancel the trip outright and members of her leftist Workers Party were pushing for the recall of the Brazilian ambassador to Washington, but her decision to simply postpone the trip allows some room for diplomatic finesse.
But analysts said if she doesn’t make the trip by early next year, it might not happen because in 2014 Brazil will be in full-fledged campaign mode leading up to the October 5 presidential election.
“I think it will be difficult for a state visit in the middle of the election season,’’ said Barbosa.