Brazil's president will visit the United States in a few weeks, and the Brazil mediasphere is all abuzz with news that the U.S. government will not receive her as a "state visit," meaning the highest honors given to a visiting head of state. Does it really matter if Dilma gets a black tie dinner, a week of cultural events, and a chance to address Congress? In theory, no, not really. But the symbolism behind denying her an official state visit does matter--not just for Brazil, but for Latin America, too.
The problem was that the U.S. told Brazil that it would not be a state visit because it wasn't allowed during an election year. The big mistake there was that it was obviously untrue: just last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited Washington on an official state visit. To add insult to injury, three other major developing country leaders had state visits during Obama's administration so far: China's President Hu Jintao in 2011, Mexico's President Felipe Calderón in 2010, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009. Meanwhile, Itamaraty wants the visit to be "reciprocal" and to be a "mirrored" agenda from Obama's visit to Brazil. While Brazil rolled out the red carpet for Obama in a visit fit for a king, it doesn't seem that will quite be the case for Dilma in Washington.
Truthiness does not bode well to try to fortify what is arguably the United States' most important relationship in Latin America, nor does it promise to get the visit off on the right foot. Brazil is already on the defense after the U.S. suspended a big fighter jet purchase from Embraer (though there's a possibility it could still happen), throwing the Brazilians off guard. On Cartas de Washington, Denise Chrispim explains that with few "impactful" topics to discuss, Dilma will likely push her Science without Borders program, working on establishing more ties with the U.S. to send Brazilian students to study here.
There's been some theorizing about why the U.S. decided not to give Dilma a state visit. In TIME, Tim Padgett hypothesized that the Obama administration was irritated with Brazil's foreign policy, a combination of Lula's Iran (mis)adventures, Dilma's failure to criticize human rights in Cuba (she instead discussed Guantanamo), and abstentions at the UN on Syria and human rights issues.
There's also been some discussion about whether the semantics of a state or official visit really matter. Boz of Bloggings by Boz wrote in a blog post that he doesn't think it matters, and that practical, concrete results matter more:
I'd rather know the details to the next space and technology cooperation agreement than what was served with each dinner course. I'd rather know how Brazil and the US are going to cooperate on anti-hunger programs in Haiti and Africa than which chefs made the amuse-bouche and caipirinhas. I'd rather know how we're going to resolve our differences over military procurement and Iranian sanctions than argue over which dresses looked best and worst.
While symbolism matters, he argued, the U.S. should save symbolic events for China, which really appreciates them.
But Brazil really does appreciate symbolism, and takes diplomatic cues very seriously, not to mention its incredible sensitivity to how the country is perceived abroad. By not telling the truth about why it wouldn't be a state visit, the U.S. gave Brazil even less reason to create a basis of trust between its leaders, and established that the playing field between the two countries is in fact uneven.
This is another issue that Brazilians are sensitive to, even at the diplomatic level: as the country's power has grown and its international role has expanded, Brazil sees itself not only as a regional power, but now, as a world power too. It expects to command more respect and desperately craves to be viewed as an equal partner, rather than the stigma of a "poor" developing country on a lower tier. With the news that the UK, but not Brazil would get a state visit, the U.S. sent a clear message: Brazil is simply not as important a partner.
Sadly, that seems to be the reality of it from the administration's perspective. While Brazil is a critical regional partner for the United States, it's not a global strategic priority. In an op-ed for the Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer outlines some of the reasons why this is, and why the U.S. considers China and India as more strategic partners (he argues that Brazil should be treated more like India). Maybe this will change, particularly as Brazil becomes an even bigger oil power, but not yet.
In the end, the diplomatic saia justa sends a message not only to Brazil, but to the region, too: if Brazil isn't considered important enough for a state visit and the level of dialogue and respect it affords, what can other Latin American countries expect? On the eve of the Summit of the Americas, it's especially telling about U.S.-Latin American ties.
In the end, Dilma is the ultimate pragmatist, and she'll do what she has to do to cover her agenda. It also seems likely she'll travel outside of Washington to work on Science without Borders, possibly going to Boston to visit Harvard and MIT. But there doesn't seem to be much to expect in terms of game-changing policy announcements or really new developments in the bilateral relationship. It will hopefully be a constructive visit, with more commitments to education exchange, which is always exciting. But Itamaraty won't forget about the diplomatic snub, and if other Latin American leaders are paying attention, they won't either.