Brazil in 2015 sits at a pivotal point. In the aftermath of a massive scandal at the state oil company, Petrobras, and with a stagnating economy dipping into recession, President Dilma Rousseff has struggled to right the ship and regain political support. Although the calls for her impeachment have recently diminished, her approval ratings remain near historic lows and she struggles to maintain governing authority. At the same time, the relationship between Brazil and the United States has remained frosty ever since the 2013 Edward Snowden spying revelations. However, with the country’s ongoing domestic challenges, Rousseff has expressed greater interest in an improved relationship with the United States once again. In that context, she prepares for a working visit to Washington, D.C. on June 30, 2015.
In this setting, Matias Spektor—an associate professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, columnist with Folha de São Paulo, and one of the country’s most respected scholars of international affairs—joined the dialogue to discuss the context of the visit. Additional commentary was provided by João Fellet, the Washington correspondent with BBC Brazil, and Peter Hakim, president emeritus at the Dialogue. In a wide-ranging discussion that touched on everything from the dynamics of power inside Brazilian foreign policymaking to the likelihood of specific bilateral agreements, the experts discussed the context and expectations for US-Brazil relations in 2015.
In economic terms, Brazil is desperately in need of new investment and renewed economic ties. Above all, this means building new relationships beyond the aging and ineffective Mercosur trade bloc. According to Spektor, “Brazil is the largest violator of Mercosur rules,” and as a result, it remains one of the most closed economies in Latin America. This makes sense, he said, because the organization is “not a trade project; it’s a political project from which Brazil has benefited enormously.” Hakim put the situation more colorfully, calling Mercosur not a free trade agreement, but an “everybody’s-free-to-do-what-they-want agreement.” The Brazilian government seems well aware of this situation, with the newly-appointed finance minister Joaquim Levy working hard to transform fiscal policy, attract investors spooked by the country’s instability, and open up its trade relationships.
At the same time though, Rousseff’s visit to Washington is not necessarily about economics and trade directly. Even though, according to Hakim, Brazil is only “2% of the US trade relationship,” it’s unclear how much progress can be made in building integration between the two countries. As Spektor pointed out, a free trade agreement with the US would be almost impossible under Brazil’s fractured and polarized congress. “When it comes to free trade,” he said, “the Brazilian government is very much a house divided.” According to Fellet, almost nothing from this visit, regardless of specifics, would be able to get through the Brazilian congress.
As such, expectations for specific policy accomplishments from the trip should be restrained. There is a chance that the Obama administration will be able to broker an agreement on climate change in anticipation of the Paris COP21 conference, but Spektor expected any deal to be less impressive than the deals the US struck with China and India in the past year. Moreover, according to Spektor, “Brazil is not a major player” in international climate change negotiations. Fellet also expected the trip could yield incremental progress on narrower trade issues, including lifting US restrictions on Brazilian beef and opening up trade on narrow baskets of goods, such as machinery and construction materials.
There was also hope that diplomatic progress in the bilateral relationship between the US and Brazil could lead to a more assertive regional reaction to the situation in Venezuela. Yet it is also unclear how much flexibility there really is on the issue. On one hand, the ongoing transitions in Venezuela—as well as those in Argentina—have made Brazil’s regional integration strategy through Mercosur seem less viable. Therefore, Brazil may be more willing to criticize the Maduro regime than it has been in the past. At the same time, according to Spektor, Venezuela is “a matter of domestic politics” in Brazil, similar to the issue of Iran in the United States. This ties Rousseff’s hands politically. It’s also “not at all clear that Brazil has the policy tools” to influence the Venezuelan government, especially if any pressure is seen as indirectly originating from the United States. As a result, Michael Shifter, the moderator and president of the Dialogue, suggested that a combination of UNASUR and European Parliament election observers could walk a middle line in protecting democracy in Venezuela, should Brazil push for them. Spektor agreed and even expected that an announcement of such an effort could come in the near future.
Above all though, the truth is that Rousseff’s trip to Washington, while technically a working visit, is really more about what Spektor called “atmospherics”—creating the image of healthy diplomacy. Most of all, Rousseff needs to look presidential and rebuild Brazil’s reputation internationally in this moment of crisis. More specifically, according to Spektor, “this visit is about showing inside Brazil that the Snowden affair is over.” If that is all it accomplishes, then it can still be a success. The biggest indication of this fact is that, while the Obama administration originally offered later potential dates, the Brazilian government insisted that the visit be as soon as possible. However, it has still not put forward an agenda, even with barely a month left. Because of this, according to Hakim, we should stop talking about “deliverables” from this visit and instead think about how the meeting can contribute to a better political relationship between the US and Brazil in the future. This task is an essential one for both countries. On one hand, the Rousseff government cannot rebuild its stature at home and abroad without the image of a healthy partnership with the United States. On the other, the United States cannot implement its agenda in Latin America without, at least in some way, better coordinating with Brazil.