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Trouble at home: Why Brazil's Rousseff needed US state visit

President Dilma Rousseff was able to turn her back on a US visit in 2013, claiming moral authority over reported NSA spying. But domestic challenges in Brazil mean she needs a cozier relationship with the US.

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US President Barack Obama meets with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 30, 2015.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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As Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff traded amicable jokes with President Barack Obama at the White House and discussed bilateral trade and investment opportunities this week, attention back home in Brazil was focused largely on an issue hitting far closer to home.

Colorful demonstrations swamped the congressional building in Brasília ahead of a Tuesday vote on a hotly debated amendment to reduce the age at which one can be tried as an adult from 18 to 16.

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Rousseff's center-left party opposed the amendment – and it failed to pass by five votes. But the feverish attention given the legislation is indicative of Brazil’s growing domestic disquiet and shift to the right. And it underscores just how much things have changed here, domestically and in terms of US-Brazil relations, since President Rousseff first announced her cancellation of a US visit in 2013 over allegations of National Security Agency spying.

Whereas in 2013, the scheduled trip was expected to be a triumphal state dinner, the planning of which had been in the works for years beforehand, this week has felt much more perfunctory. Rousseff went from being able to turn her back on the US invitation in 2013, claiming moral authority over reported spying on her personal communications, to needing a cozier relationship today with the United States.

“It’s not a work trip to resolve problems,” says Luciana Genro, a 2014 presidential candidate from the far-left Socialism and Freedom Party. “It’s a trip to try to hide her problems here in Brazil, creating political news and positive agendas around the subject of commerce.”

Since 2013, Brazil has faced months of on-and-off mass street protests full of antigovernment slogans and often focusing on the poor quality of public services. The economy has pitiable growth rates, even flirting with a recession, and unemployment has risen, though Rousseff has said that the official unemployment rate between 6 percent and 7 percent is still not high. Brazil racked up high tabs to host sporting mega-events, like the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps most damaging, Rousseff's government is embroiled in a large-scale corruption probe, dubbed the “Car Wash.”

'Much more pragmatic'

Rousseff’s five-day tour of the US began Saturday and included visits with business leaders and a meeting about investing in Brazilian infrastructure. In a press conference at the White House alongside President Obama Tuesday, she spoke largely about commerce, cooperation in defense, the sciences, and climate change.

A former member of a banned leftist group and a political prisoner who was tortured during Brazil’s military dictatorship, Rousseff had meetings with a number of conservatives that in the past may have created waves back home. She met with Rupert Murdoch, the owner of conservative Fox News, Henry Kissinger, the cold war-era US secretary of State, and today is having lunch with Condoleezza Rice, former president George W. Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of State during the Iraq War.

But such ideological issues were given little attention in Brazil this week, given the economic crisis, graft allegations in the state oil company that have touched a number of politicians, and the growing power of Brazil’s own conservative political base. Rousseff’s approval rating has fallen to about 15 percent, the lowest of any Workers’ Party government since her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in 2000.

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Criticism comes from across the political spectrum.

“I’m not expecting anything about the United Nations or human rights or a big vision about international politics,” to come out of this visit, says Maurício Santoro, a professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. 

In her 4-1/2 years in office, Rousseff has never been viewed as someone focused on grand foreign policy initiatives, a departure from her predecessor. President da Silva attempted ambitious and alternative foreign policy that often ran counter to US goals, from his so-called “South-South” hemispherical engagement to brokering a nuclear-fuel swap with Iran that would eventually be quashed by Western powers.

“It’s very different from the Lula government, when Brazil had these big ambitions” in terms of foreign policy, Mr. Santoro says. “Now it’s much more pragmatic: Let’s try to bring money into Brazil and make Brazil grow again.”