World leaders

10.23.134:45 AM ET

Why Dilma Cancelled On Obama

The president of Brazil needed to send a strong message after the NSA revelations—but she's also shown a deft ability to compromise, says Heather Arnet.

This week we were supposed to be celebrating the first state visit to the White House by a Brazilian president in nearly two decades. Instead we are recognizing a very different first—the first time a world leader has declined to attend a state dinner with the President of the United States.

President Barak Obama earlier this year extended his only State Dinner invitation in 2013 to Presidenta Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. At the time she accepted, this was celebrated as a continuing step in rebuilding a tentative relationship between these two powerful nations.

In recent weeks, however, after news broke that the NSA was spying not just on Brazilian citizens but also on the Presidenta’s own personal phone calls and emails, Rousseff canceled the State Dinner.

The history between our two democratic nations is complicated. America was one of the first countries to recognize Brazil’s independence, and Brazil was the only South American nation to join the U.S. and its allies in sending troops to fight in World War II. Those are historical high points in the relationship.

More recently, there have been tensions between the two nations inspired by the Iraq war—which Brazil did not support. Furthermore, Brazil is in a “new era” of democracy, brought about after the fall of a military dictatorship in the late 1980s. A military dictatorship, which Rousseff herself fought against, and as a result was tortured for over 20 days and imprisoned for three years. Part of the complex history between these two nations relates to the United States support of this military dictatorship.

As we reflect on Rousseff’s decision to cancel the State Visit in response to news of the NSA spying, it is important to remember that this was not a decision made lightly. This was an instance when a president of a sovereign nation, a democratic nation, was defending her country’s independence and also its liberties. Liberties that have been hard fought for and are quite new. Rousseff’s decision to cancel her White House visit must be understood within this historical context.

As Rousseff enters a re-election year, decisions like these cannot be made lightly. Brazil’s economy is facing inflation and declines in growth for the first time in decades. This summer, her people went to the street in millions to protest for more federal investments in education, public transportation and healthcare. And right now Latin America is more powerful and independent, as a coalition of nations, then at any other time in history. With all of this in mind, Rousseff had to respond to the U.S.’s infringement on the sovereignty of Brazil with serious and swift action.

I was not surprised to hear Rousseff’s quick and honest response. That was my sense of her and her administration during my time researching her presidency while working on a film titled, “Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.,” a documentary produced by the U.S.-based Women and Girls Foundation in collaboration with ELAS women’s social investment fund in Rio de Janeiro. The film explores how it is that Brazil, and so many other nations, have been able to elect a female president prior to the United Sates.

In researching the 18 nations that currently have elected female heads of state, I was struck by the fact that all of them (like Brazil) have new constitutions (either written or rewritten since World War II). Brazil’s current constitution was adopted in 1988. Women were often involved in these countries in the protests, revolutions, and peace and reconciliation work involved in the evolution of these new democracies. And in many of these 18 countries, women were involved in some way in developing the content of their new constitutions. Rousseff's decision to cancel her State Visit with the U.S. President is a sign that American Presidents will have to learn how to navigate the landscape that now includes these new sovereign democracies and new world leaders.

When the protests occurred this past summer in Brazil, Rousseff’s first public response was to praise the protesters for their “greatness,” and said "Brazil has woken up a stronger country." Some critics referred to these remarks as “conciliatory’ and “weak in leadership” because the Presidenta, in these remarks, (and through her immediate actions) gave in to the protesters demands by asking local governments to roll back public transportation far increased and by renewing her efforts to support the passage of legislation that would dedicate oil profits to support public education and healthcare. This past August, the Presidenta signed that legislation into law.

We are used to seeing world leaders respond to protests in their streets with tanks and bullets—or in our own country, with apathy. What does it mean when presidents respond by saying that they have heard the voices of the people, agree that they can do better, and present a list of reforms? What if instead of being “weak” Rousseff was being true to herself, her populist values, and to the people who put her in office?

From Germany to Chile, Liberia to Kosovo, the places where women govern are places that have often recently experienced war or revolution, and harness the need for negotiation and reconciliation. They also need leaders that will defend their rights and liberties—even from American interventionism.

I do hope that Rousseff’s state visit is rescheduled. And when she does meet with our President at the White House, I expect that Rousseff will be there not just as a representative of one of the most robust nations on the planet, but also she will be serving powerfully as a new model of political leadership that can be strong and smart, while also deeply rooted in the values of her people.


Heather Arnet is the CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation. Her film, “Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?: Vamos Meninas!” will premiere on WQED Multimedia (PBS) in March 2014.