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Brazilian President Makes First U.S. Visit Since NSA Spying Scandal


Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, arrived in the U.S. over the weekend. This is her first time in the country since canceling a state visit two years ago. That's when it was revealed that the NSA was spying on her. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on why Brazil is now willing to hit the reset button with the United States.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Brazil's president was pretty furious over the Edward Snowden revelations. Just to recap, in 2013, the former NSA contractor released reams of documents which showed that, among many other things, the NSA had listened in on private communications between President Dilma Rousseff and her cabinet - phone calls, text messages and emails, the works. They also penetrated the network of the state oil company. And to be clear, the U.S. government has been unapologetic.

PETER HAKIM: They've never been willing to say they're sorry to Brazil. They're never willing to say this won't happen again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which, by the way, they did to Germany, more or less, after the U.S. was shown to have spied on it. Peter Hakim is a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. He says Brazil's tanking economy is one of the main reasons for this rapprochement.

HAKIM: Brazil has moved into a near-recession. Its economy is struggling, and most people think that a better relationship with the United States would give Brazil more credibility. This is one of a number of economic measures.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Things are pretty bad economically in Brazil right now, but they are even worse for President Rousseff. A recent poll has her approval rating at 10 percent - 10 percent - so she needs to mend fences with the U.S., say analysts.

LUIZ AUGUSTO DE CASTRO NEVES: She doesn't want to open another front. She wouldn't want this relationship to be another problem. Quite on the contrary, she wants that to be smooth because it might be helpful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luiz Augusto Castro Neves is the chairman of the Brazilian Center for International Relations, a private think tank here. A smooth visit means engaging on subjects where there can be some progress, so one of the big topics will be climate change. Brazil has yet to announce what its carbon emissions targets will be in advance of the big climate change meeting in Paris at the end of the year. The hope among environmentalists is that climate change and the environment will become a bigger part of Rousseff's agenda in her second term. De Castro Neves says the U.S. also hopes to press Brazil on issues of regional concern.

DE CASTRO NEVES: Brazil would be, if it wanted to be, an important ally of the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the two countries have been estranged with very different agendas, and that has become more acute over the past decade. Paulo Wrobel teaches international relations at Rio's Catholic University. He notes Brazil has made being close to China its big foreign-policy priority, a country which has become the U.S.'s great rival, he says. Brazil soon will have to choose which country it wants to be friends with, he warns.

PAULO WROBEL: It's difficult, I think, to see how Brazil could be - at the same time have a strategic alliance with China and with the United States. It seems to me it's becoming incompatible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ironically, all this comes at a time when the Brazilian and American societies have never been closer. Brazil is Florida's biggest trading partner. Brazilians are now among the top visitors to the U.S. and outspend most Europeans by far. If only their governments could get along the same way. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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