Leading up to President Dilma Rousseff's Washington visit, there was an odd mixture of hype and a collective shrugging of shoulders. On the one hand, there was much ado about how it wouldn't be an official state visit with the honors and symbolism it entails. Reuters explained how the snub in protocol would have reverberations. "There's a feeling that most people in Washington don't appreciate what's happening in Brazil...Obama could have taken her to dinner, or to the Kennedy Center," an anonymous Brazilian source said.
Some observers anticipated there wouldn't be many concrete results to come out of the trip, and that long-term changes in foreign policy would be key. Others pointed out to ongoing foreign policy problems in not seeing eye to eye. A Financial Times article cited a U.S. government official who called Brazil "the France of Latin America," saying that the country's “obstructionism in global talks is often driven by their need to assert their newfound power...undermining our initiatives in Iran or over trade talks, for example, is their way of forcing us to pay attention to them.”
On the other hand, there was lots of noise from analysts who said there was even more opportunity for Brazil and the United States to forge a closer relationship, and that given Brazil's global rise, there was even more incentive and need to for the U.S. to adapt its stance on Brazil. "Brazil has probably never mattered more to America than it does now. America has probably never mattered less to Brazil," The Economist declared. Several op-eds recommended that both countries work on a free trade deal (though this still seems highly unlikely on either side.) One analyst said there was room to bring the two governments closer, since they maintain a cordial relationship but a safe distance from one another. A Politico op-ed vaguely called for a "bolder partnership."
So what actually happened? Not a lot, really. But the saddest thing was how little interest the whole trip generated.
In the English language press, there was some coverage, but some of the biggest publications--including The Washington Post and The New York Times--initially ignored the visit. (As I was writing this, the New York Times published a very good analysis of the visit which was more helpful post-visit than pre-visit.) Obama and Rousseff gave a very brief press conference after their meeting, which was broadcast live on a Brazilian government website and publicized by Itamaraty, but was not broadcast on the White House website and was nowhere to be found on there later. The White House livestreams today were dedicated to a daily press briefing--which did not include remarks on Dilma's visit--and an Easter concert. In comparison to the North American leaders visit last week, which had a full, livestreamed press conference with Obama and his Canadian and Mexican counterparts, it seemed the administration really didn't give Rousseff's visit much importance at all. On the Brazilian side, there was plenty of press coverage, but as journalist Gabriel Elizondo pointed out, news of Facebook's takeover of Instagram dominated the afternoon news, rather than the visit.
Both leaders released a joint statement, which was full of pretty words like "cooperation" and "partnership" and "welcomed" and "praised" but was pretty low on substance. (Notably, Obama failed to endorse Brazil's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council--again.) Dilma said she hoped to build a relationship "among equals" while Obama said he was "lucky" to have a "partner" like Dilma. Despite the attempts to be cordial, there wasn't much love--it was all very friendly, but it was definitely a cool exchange.
Meanwhile, there was an all-day event surrounding the visit at the Chamber of Commerce, where gung-ho Brazil advocates spoke of "crucial strategic issues" and said promoting Brazil policy was not an option for the U.S. One speaker joked that Brazil had made a terrible mistake for not having Pakistan or Syria on its borders, therefore making the country more relevant to U.S. foreign policy. President Rousseff later spoke at the event, where she talked at length about economic policies and the real focus was discussing monetary policy in developed countries. The night before, she met with representatives from the private sector, half-joking that she had to leave Brazil to meet with Brazilian businessmen.
Still, there were a few small concrete morsels. The biggest thing was that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would open two new consulates in Brazil in order to allow for more access to visas. One will be in Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais, and the other in Porto Alegre, in Rio Grande do Sul. It's a necessary step, considering Brazil is the size of the continental U.S. and only has four consulates. It's also quite symbolic that a consulate will open in Minas, the state with one of the largest numbers of migrants to the United States during the 1980s and 90s. Now, the U.S. is courting its rabid consumers--talk about coming full circle. Still, it means that most of the country's consulates are in the south and southeast; the only consulate in the Northeast is in Recife, and the country's third-largest city, Salvador, does not have a consulate. Also, according to one report, the new consulates won't open until 2014. [UPDATE: a 4/10 Globo article interviews a U.S. diplomat who says she doesn't expect Brazil to meet the visa exemption requirements in the short or medium term. It's more than percent of approved visas; the country needs 100% digital passports and government information sharing.]
On the visa front, the leaders discussed the Global Entry program, which the United States recently announced would be open to be Brazilians, allowing screened "safe" travelers to enter 20 U.S. airports without waiting in line at immigration. The Brazilian government needs to approve the program in order for it to go into effect, and the U.S. hopes Brazil will reciprocate by creating a similar program. It would be one of the easier first steps in terms of visas, since the U.S. has already taken the first step. Still, it's not clear when and if the Brazilian government will approve the program.
In the Brazilian press, there was much ado about this line from the joint statement from the two leaders: "They committed to work closely together to satisfy the requirements of the of the US Visa Waiver Program and Brazil’s applicable legislation to enable US and Brazilian citizens visa free travel." As far as I'm concerned, that means the U.S. is still just talking about considering allowing Brazil into the visa waiver program, which is different from saying it is close to eligible or realistically has a chance of this happening by the end of Dilma's administration. Still a lot of talk and very little action. The fact that the big news was more consulates is great, but it also means that there's an expectation for more visa processing, not less.
Finally, both countries agreed to new terms on alcohol imports. The U.S. will officially treat cachaça as separate from Latin American rums and as "exclusively and distinctly Brazilian," while Brazil will label bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as "officially American," in a bid to increase trade of both types of liquor. The agreement should theoretically lower import taxes on cachaça in the U.S. Still...one of the only concrete trade deals was getting both sides to acknowledge semantics? And on liquor, at that? Also, as a gift of goodwill and to celebrate the alcohol deal, Dilma will allegedly give Obama a diamond-encrusted, $116,500 bottle of cachaça. No word on if or what gift Obama will give Dilma. Touché.
All in all, it was a pretty disappointing affair. There's hope yet, though--Rousseff's visit to Boston to promote Science without Borders has the potential to be more promising than her trip to DC.