U.S. Spying Scandal Takes a Latin Twist

The revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, are a rude surprise for the citizens of those countries. For the presidents targeted, the scandal should be a reminder of how geopolitics works.

After TV Globo's newsmagazine "Fantastico" in Brazil broke the story on Sept. 1 -- citing documents leaked by former Central Intelligence Agency hand Edward Snowden -- Brazilian politicians reacted with outrage. Lawmakers launched an investigation. Rousseff called a meeting of her closest ministers and summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation. Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo called the case "an inadmissible and unacceptable violation of Brazilian sovereignty," and said Brazil expected a "written" explanation from U.S. President Barack Obama sometime "this week."

Rousseff's aides made it known unofficially that the president could cancel her scheduled October trip to Washington if the U.S. failed to give "satisfactory answers." It is still unclear, however, what "satisfactory" means.

Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo pointed out the obvious in a Wednesday editorial, aptly dubbed "Exaggerated Reaction": "If the explanation by President Barack Obama is not considered satisfactory -- it is difficult to imagine one that is -- what does Dilma plan to do after suspending her trip? Pull her ambassador from Washington? Freeze relations?" (Today, Rousseff pushed further, canceling the trip of an advance team of aides meant to prepare for her arrival in the U.S.)

There is a reason Rousseff seems to protest too much. Her country's ties to the U.S. as not as strong as, say, Mexico's, and any potential confrontation with the U.S. could boost her sagging popularity. Estado's Wednesday editorial suggested as much: "With her reaction, Dilma earns points with an electorate that loves to hate Americans. The image of a strong, determined woman who defends Brazilian interests against the "evil" represented by the U.S. is a powerful electoral tonic".

A more subtle Mexican reaction seemed to be more effective. In a carefully worded statement, the foreign ministry said: "Without judging the veracity of the information presented in such media outlets, the government of Mexico rejects and categorically condemns any espionage activity against Mexican citizens." Pena Nieto was equally noncommittal when he told Mexico's daily El Universal he would raise the issue in "a casual or informal" meeting with Obama during the G-20 meeting in Russia. (He did on Thursday, as did Roussef.)

This didn't sit well with many Mexicans. Jorge Ramos, the head anchor for Univision, captured the Mexican mood when he asked in a Wednesday tweet: "Brazil demands explanations from Obama in writing this week over spying on Rousseff. What is Mexico demanding?" Early Thursday, as an angry Rousseff prolonged her posturing, Mexican news agency Notimex reported Pena Nieto had spoken on the phone to Obama, who promised to investigate the matter. Afterwards, Pena Nieto did his own posturing as well, telling Russia Today in an interview: "If the U.S. has spied on Mexico, there must be appropriate sanctions."

The U.S. has remained silent so far. Indeed, there is very little any government could say. Espionage is a fact of life in global political affairs, even between friendly governments. Brazil's Folha de S. Paulo newspaper said it best in its Wednesday editorial "Global 'Big Brother'": "Interests diverge, negotiations are made with other partners, what is officially declared is not what is planned in closed doors. A world without espionage would be even more difficult to imagine than a world without war or without armies." No number of intelligence leaks will change this reality.

The era of Wikileaks and Snowden has done more to embarrass governments than to reveal new information about backroom politics. In a sense, the latest scandal is interesting as a test of how top Latin American leaders and the Obama administration handle egg on their faces. I suspect we will find that, in cases like this, less outrage can go a long way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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    Raul Gallegos

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