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Published: Tuesday, 9/17/2013

NSA spying scandal spoils dinner at the White House for Brazil's president

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

RIO DE JANEIRO — President Dilma Rousseff, incensed over a series of reports that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) tapped her personal communications and spied on Brazil’s state oil company, has canceled a state visit to Washington next month, Brazil’s government said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama tried to soothe Rousseff about the spying disclosures in a 20-minute phone conversation Monday night, Brazilian and American officials said. Rousseff’s aides had expressed their ire over the revelations, saying that her attendance at the only state dinner the Obamas are hosting this year was in jeopardy unless the United States provided a detailed and satisfactory explanation for the spying.

“The illegal practices of intercepting the communications of citizens, businesses and members of the Brazilian government constitute a grave threat to national sovereignty and individual rights and are incompatible with the democratic coexistence between friendly countries,” said a statement issued by Brazil’s presidency.

Rousseff, who had a 36 percent approval rating last month in the wake of nationwide protests against substandard public services, has been under pressure from leftists in her Workers Party movement to stay home. Canceling the trip is seen as politically expedient here, partly because she faces a tough reelection campaign next year.

But Brazil’s decision will in the short term be damaging for the country, which has a struggling economy that is seeking American investment and a greater opening to Brazilian products. Bloomberg News reported that Brazil’s trade deficit with the United States widened 161 percent in the first half of the year to $6 billion from a year before.

“The decision was political, a response to revelations about the NSA,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, a scholar on Brazil at American University who is in Brazil attending a conference where she is speaking about cyber-security and governance.

The irony, she said, is that Brazil has long wanted a state visit, which symbolizes not only its close U.S. ties but also its importance. That sentiment clashed with those furious about the revelations, which were made in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo and on the Globo TV network based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“This is a generational issue for Brazilians,” Mendelson Forman said. “Those who still feel the U.S. is the imperial power versus those who see Brazil as an equally important global player,” one that has to work with the United States.

The Brazilian government and the United States both tried to cast the cancellation as a postponement that would not hurt relations.

The White House said in a statement that Obama “understands and regrets the concerns” the NSA disclosures have had in Brazil and stressed that he is committed to resolving the dispute with Rousseff. The two countries opted to “postpone” the state visit, the White House said, while a “broad review of U.S. intelligence posture” takes place.

“President Obama looks forward to welcoming President Rousseff to Washington at a date to be mutually agreed,” the statement said.

At least publicly, the Brazilians were most upset about a Sept. 1 report on the Globo TV program “Fantastico” in which NSA slides revealed American government monitoring of phone communications and the emails of Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. A week later, the same program said the Obama administration had spied on Brazil’s state-run Petrobras oil producer, the country’s most important company.

The NSA documents were given to Brazilian media by the American journalist and blogger Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro and has collaborated with Snowden since he fled the United States with the cache of secret files.

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