BRASILIA, Brazil — Secretary of State John Kerry sought on Tuesday to allay the concerns of Brazil's top leaders about U.S. surveillance in their country while highlighting the expanding relationship the U.S. is nurturing with the economic powerhouse in Latin America.
Kerry met with Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota and will talk later in the day with President Dilma Rousseff as part of the Obama administration's quest for deeper relations with the region. He spent Monday in Colombia.
During President Barack Obama's visit to Brazil in 2011, the two nations signed 10 bilateral agreements. Five more were signed when Rousseff visited the United States earlier this year, evidence of enhanced cooperation between the two countries. She has been invited again to Washington in October, when Obama hosts a state visit for Brazil.
The U.S.-Brazil relationship, however, is not without snags — the latest prompted by the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs.
The O Globo newspaper reported last month that information released by NSA leaker Edward Snowden showed Brazil is the top target in Latin America for the NSA's massive intelligence-gathering effort, aimed at monitoring communications around the world. U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro and initially broke the Snowden story in the Britain-based Guardian newspaper, sought to explain Brazil's involvement during an interview with O Globo.
He said the Snowden documents show that the U.S. was using Brazil as a "bridge" to gather data on better-protected states where it cannot gain direct access, but whose traffic could pass through Brazil. Both Rousseff and Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota expressed deep concerns about the monitoring of Brazil and demanded explanations from the U.S.
Knowing he would be asked about the surveillance program, Kerry sought to ease Brazil's concerns even before he arrived.
In an op-ed Sunday in the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo, Kerry wrote: "We both agree we must find a way to work through and move beyond this issue. The stakes are far too high to let one issue detract from the clear momentum we've built toward an even more effective strategic relationship."
Kerry noted that the U.S. and Brazil are cooperating on issues like science, education, defense, disaster management and trade. Brazil's foreign minister on Tuesday said that U.S. investment in the country had surpassed $100 billion and that tens of millions of dollars flow in annually, a statistic that shows that Brazil is an attractive destination for American investors.
Kerry began his one-day visit to Brazil with a stop at an educational institute. Brazil's Scientific Mobility Program aims to train 101,000 Brazilian students overseas and have them return to their homeland to make use of their newly acquired knowledge in science and technology. Rousseff plans to have 47,000 of those students trained in the United States. This dovetails with President Obama's 100,000 Strong Initiative to bring 100,000 Latin American students to the United States and send the same number of U.S. students to that region.
Kerry walked through a science fair where future or former students, like Pedro Mehme, showed him their inventions. The 21-year-old from Brasilia, who studied electrical engineering at the University of Brazil and also studied in the United States, showed Kerry a cylindrical device that rises into the atmosphere via a helium balloon. At 32 kilometers, the balloon bursts, a parachute is activated and the device travels back to the ground taking photos and collecting data.
Mehme recently won a contest that will allow him to take a sub-orbital space flight in 2015. Kerry asked him what he planned to do in space.
"I'm not sure," Mehme said. "It's only going to be a one-hour flight."
Next, Kerry met with the foreign minister to discuss issues, such as human rights, climate change, the environment and curbing the use of hydrofluorocarbons. They also were expected to talk about their recent visits to the Middle East and Patriota's attendance at the recent inauguration of Iran's new president, Hasan Rowhani.
The U.S. is hoping to have warmer relations with Rousseff than her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who supported the governments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's late president Hugo Chavez. Rousseff seems more focused on internal issues and her popularity has suffered, with massive street demonstrations across the country.
The protests began in June in response to a transportation fare increase, but quickly became a forum for Brazilians to vent complaints about government corruption, high taxes, poor public services and billions being spent for next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Kerry arrived late Sunday in Bogota, the Colombian capital, at a time when the country is holding peace talks to end a half-century-old conflict with the Western Hemisphere's most potent rebel army, known as FARC.
The rebel force has diminished in strength thanks in considerable measure to U.S. military and intelligence support. Kerry's discussions in Colombia also focused on trade, energy and counternarcotics, and he met with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos.
"Colombia is a success story," Kerry said. "The Santos administration has taken a very courageous and very necessary and very imaginative effort to seek a political solution to one of the world's longest conflicts."