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Brazil-US relations and regional reactions to Snowden’s NSA leaks

Published on 24 September 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

An unwritten alliance. This is how the historian Bradford Burns labeled the bilateral relations between Brazil and the United States in the beginning of the XXth century. Since then, there were few moments of tension; potential crises have been successfully dealt with. In 2010, a much-welcomed US-Brazil Global Partnership dialogue was established as a framework for talks on high-level themes. Against this background of efforts to strengthen ties, president Dilma Rousseff’s decision to postpone her visit to the United States is worthy of attention.

The documents leaked by Edward Snowden had significant repercussion in South America. In Brazil, national malaise began with privacy concerns over the sharing of data stored by Internet giants with the US National Security Agency (NSA). Tensions scaled up after allegations that the monitoring carried out by the NSA might have had a real impact on peace and security and national sovereignty. A Brazilian magazine affirmed that the United States used information collected by the NSA to influence the votes of the UN Security Council members on the Iranian nuclear issue in 2010.   Although former Minister Patriota tried to downplay the importance of the news, this is a sensitive topic for Brazil, especially because of the Brazilian-Turkish attempt to broker a deal to solve the impasse. The last straw was the news about the monitoring of Rousseff’s communications. Since then, the presidential visit was hanging by a thread.

Most Brazilian analysts believe that the president’s decision to postpone the meeting was correct.  There were no pressing issues on the agenda, and going to the US could negatively impact her popularity. Moreover, Brazil’s reaction may strengthen some actors who would like NSA’s policies to be reviewed, both inside the United States and abroad: Brazil signals that these policies could be harmful to Washington’s relations with key partners and puts pressure on other governments to respond firmly as well. But in spite of the current focus on Brazil’s moves, the country is not acting alone. There were concerted responses in South America.

The VII Summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) condemned the interception of communications, which represent a “threat to safety” and a “violation of human rights”. Countries of UNASUR instructed the Council of Defense and Council of Infrastructure and Planning (COSIPLAN) to advance projects on cyber defense and interconnection of fiber networks with the goal of developing local technology and keeping more Internet traffic inside the region. Mercosur adopted a similar decision, which was presented before the UN Security Council by president Cristina Kirchner. It is also worthy of notice that, on the global level, BRICS has plans to deploy a submarine cable that would connect the five countries, decentralizing Internet traffic that is currently routed through the United States.

Documents leaked say that Rousseff’s communications were monitored in order to figure out if Brazil should be considered “a friend, an enemy or a problem”. Regardless of the context in which this doubt was raised, disappointment grows in Brazil with the apparently still undefined status of this bilateral relationship. Maybe the alliance mentioned by Burns was left unwritten for a reason.

[Marília Maciel will be one of the speakers at the Diplo just-in-time webinar on the issues raised in this blog,  on Thursday 26th September at 1300 GMT. Marilia is the coordinator of the Center for Technology & Society of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (CTS/FGV) and a DiploFoundation associate.

She can be contacted at Marilia.maciel@fgv.br | https://direitorio.fgv.br/cts  | Twitter: @MariliaM]

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