Brazil’s Rousseff Goes to Washington

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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expected for her first official visit to Washington on Monday. Though the visit won’t include a basketball game, 19-gun salute or formal state dinner that British Prime Minister David Cameron enjoyed last month, it won’t be the tense, hyperchoreographed reception Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu got earlier in March either.

The truth is, the U.S. is still trying to figure out whether Brazil is an ally or a rival. Relations under Rousseff’s Workers’ Party predecessor, Lula da Silva, deteriorated as Brazil, the largest and fastest-growing economy in South America — overtaking the U.K. as the sixth largest economy in the world last year — began to challenge its North American superpower on both regional and global levels. Brazil in 2010 attempted to forge an independent civilian nuclear deal with Iran, though Brazil’s declaration that every state has the “inalienable right” to enrich uranium for “peaceful purposes” was somewhat self-serving, given that it’s home to the world’s fifth largest uranium reserves.

And last year, Brazil backed Palestine’s unilateral declaration of statehood — a move so opposed by the U.S. as detrimental to the Middle East peace process that President Obama was driven to deliver a forceful U.N. speech against it. Brazil also abstained or outright opposed U.S.-backed resolutions on issues such as Libya and Syria, arguing against economic sanctions as effective foreign policy. Regionally, Brazil helped create the 12-member Union of South American Nations, which has pointedly excluded its northern neighbor while focusing on U.S. issues like its military bases in the Americas and its monetary policy. Brazil has also engaged with actors the U.S. would rather leave at the time-out table, such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — who is currently in Brazil seeking urgent medical treatment for cancer — and the Castro brothers of Cuba.

All of which led to Obama’s trip to Brazil last year, just three months after Rousseff was sworn in, in an attempt to reset relations. The end of U.S. tariffs on Brazilian ethanol in January was a sore spot that is now gone, and both the U.S. and Brazil have been increasingly allied against China’s flood of cheap exports and its unwillingness to allow imports of manufactured goods. Rousseff has backed off helping Iran with its nuclear program. The U.S. has made a real effort to deal with a backlog of Brazilian visa applications in the past year. And Brazil’s booming middle class has become an important market for U.S. exports, and Brazil hopes to bolster its sales of aircraft and weaponry to the Pentagon.

“There’s a great deal of connectivity that the two governments are trying to capitalize on and get out of the way of,” says Shannon O’Neil, a Brazil expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. To keep up the drum beat, after the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are both expected to travel to Brazil.

Rousseff’s visit will focus on Brazil’s Science Without Borders program — the South American country’s push on innovation and technology, particularly through education exchange. “Cooperation in the areas of education and innovation is now one of the priorities of Brazilian foreign policy,” Brazilian Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante told reporters in Brasilia last week, adding that Obama is expected to announce facilitated access for Brazilian students seeking to study in the U.S. as part of the summit. Perhaps more important than her Washington leg, Rousseff will visit Harvard and MIT, schools that expect to accept thousands of Brazilian students in the coming years.

At the same time, Brazil has felt snubbed by Washington politics. Brasilia wanted Rousseff’s dinner to be a state visit, but the Obama Administration replied that it didn’t do state dinners during elections years — never mind Cameron’s visit. Brazil also feels that a $355 million contract with the Brazilian firm Embraer for 20 fighter planes fell victim to election-year politics when it was abruptly canceled in January after complaints from U.S. groups that the contract should go to a U.S. firm — and the jobs to U.S. workers. And Brazil has smarted at Washington’s refusal to endorse its candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N.’s Security Council, even though Obama in 2010 endorsed India’s bid and in 2009 gave Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the honor of Obama’s first state dinner, as my colleague Tim Padgett pointed out. All of which is probably why no one expects major news to come out of Rousseff’s visit, but sometimes no news — or little news — isn’t such a bad thing.

There are a few places where the two countries can make progress, and the visit is an opportunity to deepen ties between Obama and Rousseff, who seemed to genuinely hit it off in Brazil last year. Brazil has been pushing for cachaça, the Brazilian sugarcane liquor in its national drink, the caipirinha, to be considered separate from rum and therefore not subject to the import tariffs that protect rum made in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. And Brazil wants the Administration to come out against a bill recently passed by the Florida legislature that could prevent a Brazilian company from building a $700 million hotel in Miami. Given election-year politics, the former is more likely. So, here’s a tip for Obama: when cheering over caipirinhas, Brazilians say saude, Portuguese for “to your health.”