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Rousseff hopes for domestic boost from US trip
When China’s premier Li Keqiang visited Brazil last month, the two sides announced a rash of extravagant infrastructure-related deals worth about $50bn.By contrast, a planned trip to Washington by Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff starting this Sunday is expected to be much lower key.
The meeting with her US counterpart, Barack Obama, is the first attempt at rebuilding a relationship that was hit hard in 2013 when Ms Rousseff cancelled a planned state visit to Washington after former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed his country had spied on Brazil.
At the time, Ms Rousseff was near the peak of her popularity, but she will now be coming to the US keen for foreign policy successes to make up for plummeting approval ratings at home with Brazil’s economy contracting and corruption scandals mounting.
“She will be making this visit at a very tough moment for her,” said Carlos Melo, political scientist at Insper in São Paulo. “She needs somehow to recover some of her support base, above all in the middle class.”
The US and Brazil, the two giants of the western hemisphere, are continent-sized democracies with a common history based on slavery and European immigration, huge agricultural sectors and a taste for unabashed consumerism.
But their relationship has often been characterised by suspicion. Brazil distrusts what it sees as US military and commercial hegemony while Washington is unnerved by Brasília’s friendships with countries such as Russia, Iran and China and its trade protectionism.
In spite of often prickly official relations, commerce between the two countries has traditionally been strong. Two-way trade in goods and services has risen sharply over the past decade to $110bn last year, according to the US Census Bureau.
While China is interested in Brazil’s commodities and natural resources, the US is an important market for Brazil’s advanced manufactured goods, such as aircraft produced by Embraer, the world’s third largest commercial jet maker.
“The fact that business thrives between the two countries in spite of government not because of government puts pressure on the governments to catch up,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves of Eurasia Group.
During Ms Rousseff’s trip, the two sides are expected to try to make headway on easier visa access for tourists from both countries, US officials say. They are also expected to revive defence co-operation agreements that will allow easier sharing of information and technology.
The fact that business thrives between the two countries in spite of government not because of government puts pressure on the governments to catch up
– João Augusto de Castro Neves, Eurasia Group
The US will be hoping to find common ground with Brazil on climate change efforts ahead of UN talks in December in Paris that will try to strike a long-lasting agreement on reducing emissions.
In addition, Mr Obama will seek a common plan on dealing with the political meltdown of Venezuela. Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party has been traditionally sympathetic to Venezuela’s leftist rulers, including the late former president Hugo Chávez. But growing authoritarianism in the country with the jailing of opposition leaders is challenging Brazil’s ability to remain a quiet bystander.
Of the two leaders, Ms Rousseff has the most to gain from the visit, according to Mr Melo of Insper. Brazil’s urban middle classes tend to look favourably on the US so any effort to improve relations, especially in practical ways such as easier visa access for tourists, could help lift her failing popularity. “The trip could be very important if she can succeed in using it to improve her image,” he said.
Most analysts in Brazil agree, however, that anyone expecting a large number of “deliverables” — or important announcements — during Ms Rousseff’s US visit — especially large commitments to invest, similar to the sort that characterised Chinese Premier Mr Li’s visit to Brazil — will be disappointed. “The main deliverable is the visit itself,” said Mr Neves of Eurasia Group.