Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 | 5 p.m.
President Barack Obama's tenure in the White House started with promising words regarding engagement with Latin America, but this summer's news of National Security Agency spying in Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere has undermined that goodwill.
In the latest turn since reporters started unveiling secrets based on the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday canceled a U.S. visit high on pomp and circumstance as she waits for the United States to mount a proper investigation into the extent of NSA surveillance of her country.
Shortly after Barack Obama took the oath of office as president in 2009 he attended the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
There, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez approached Obama, shook his hand and gave him a copy of "Open Veins of Latin America," Eduardo Galeano's treatise on five centuries of European and United States exploitation of the continent.
At that meeting's opening ceremony, Obama addressed the delegates:
"I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time. While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. ... So I'm here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration. The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made."
Now, Obama may be soon apologizing for the errors of his own administration.
Relations between Caracas and Washington, D.C., never improved significantly, and Obama has made little headway in the rest of South America, said UNLV political scientist John Tuman, who primarily studies Latin America.
Another step backward in relations came Tuesday as the Brazilian president canceled a visit to the White House in light of revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Rousseff and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. The spying included the president's personal calls.
On Oct. 23 Rousseff was scheduled to conduct a state visit, the highest honor given to foreign leaders that includes a gala and ceremonial military welcome. It would have been the first state visit of Obama's second term, and the first by a Brazilian in nearly two decades.
Following The Guardian and its Brazilian-based journalist Glen Greenwald's reporting on the NSA's surveillance in Brazil, the government issued a release saying Rousseff's visit was postponed indefinitely.
"The illegal practice of stealing the communications and data of citizens, businesses and members of the Brazilian government is a serious thing, a threat to the national sovereignty and individual rights, and it is incompatible with the democratic coexistence of friendly nations," the release says in Portuguese, the official language of Brazil.
Brazilians may have been most caught off guard by the sheer breadth of the surveillance.
"Maybe the revelations about the scope of the surveillance of both individuals and people in government surprised some folks, but it's not a big secret that countries, even ones on good terms, will collect intelligence on each other," Tumans said. "Brazil is certainly concerned over whether or not this involved economic espionage in terms of their state oil company."
Brazil, which has the sixth-largest gross domestic product in the world and is the second-largest economy in the Western Hemisphere, has been trying to expand economic ties with the United States. In recent years China has overtaken the United States as Brazil's No. 1 trading partner.
"Overall, it's a fairly minor thing," Tuman said. "A lot of that has more to do with shoring up support among domestic constituencies. In countries like Brazil there is a pragmatic realism in the bilateral relationship."
Rousseff is facing an election next year and has confronted large protests over the cost of living and transit fare increases as Brazil invests heavily in preparing for soccer's World Cup next year.
The Brazilian release goes on to say that without an investigation and assurances that the spying would cease, now was not the time for a state visit.
The release says Obama and Rousseff spoke on the phone Monday and mutually agreed to postpone the meeting, "because the results of this visit should not be conditional on a topic whose satisfactory solution to Brazil has not yet been reached."
"The Brazilian government is confident that once the matter is settled properly, the state visit will take place as soon as possible, boosting our strategic partnership to new heights."
A release from the White House acknowledged the phone call and promised a review:
"The President has said that he understands and regrets the concerns disclosures of alleged U.S. intelligence activities have generated in Brazil and made clear that he is committed to working together with President Rousseff and her government in diplomatic channels to move beyond this issue as a source of tension in our bilateral relationship. As the President previously stated, he has directed a broad review of U.S. intelligence posture, but the process will take several months to complete."
The information released in Snowden's documents also drew the ire of Mexico, with the revelation that the NSA was also spying on Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
In July, Bolivian President Evo Morales was infuriated by what he said was U.S. intervention in his flight home from Russia, based on suspicions that he was transporting Snowden.