Two of the world’s four largest democracies look to close a chapter of hard feelings on Sunday when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff arrives in the United States for a three-day visit, capped by a bilateral meeting on Tuesday with Barack Obama at the White House.
The two leaders are expected to discuss economic and trade issues, defense cooperation, education, and climate change.
The visit’s main significance, however, is symbolic, rejuvenating a relationship that has historically been one step forward, one back, long on promise but short on strategy or results.
“We still don’t understand each other very well,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
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The visit should have happened two years ago amid warming relations between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest countries. Early in her first term, Rousseff made better relations with the U.S. a priority. She was close to awarding U.S. manufacturer Boeing a lucrative contract with Brazil’s air force.
But revelations that the National Security Agency had spied on Rousseff infuriated her, so Brazil’s first female head, who in her younger days was imprisoned and tortured by Brazil’s military dictatorship, canceled a state visit Obama had planned for her. Even her many political opponents at home supported her decision, and relations with the U.S. deteriorated.
Rousseff’s arrival this weekend – she first goes to New York to meet with investors and business leaders to discuss infrastructure projects before arriving in Washington on Monday night – is the strongest indication to date that the two countries have patched things up.
Asked about the spying at a press conference at the presidential palace in Brasilia on Thursday, Carlos Antonio da Rocha Paranhos, an official at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that, “It is important to not make that an issue again. It has been overcome.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, made a similar observation in a conference call with reporters. “We went through a very thorough review of those activities, and we worked hard, together with the Brazilian government, to address a variety of concerns, but importantly, to begin a new chapter in our bilateral relationship,” he said.
For a long time, Rousseff had insisted on a public apology from Washington. It does not seem she ever received that. “We have not made it a practice to issue apologies related to our surveillance activities,” Rhodes said Thursday.
Expectations are low expectations for any major achievements or new agreements.
“This visit is heavy on optics and atmospherics and putting behind the Snowden affair,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group, said, referring to the documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden that revealed the Rousseff phone monitoring.
The issues are long-standing ones. They include improving access to the U.S. market for Brazilian beef producers and easing the visa process for Brazilians. But a lack of substantive agreements may not matter much.
“The concrete achievement of the visit is that the visit is occurring,” said Farnsworth.
Rousseff arrives facing multiple challenges at home and overseas.
Brazil’s economy is in its worst shape in over a decade, and she has been heavily criticized for her handling of it. It’s expected to contract this year after growing last year at a piddly 0.1 percent. It also being hurt by a fall in commodity prices and slightly lower growth from China.
A major corruption scandal involving state-owned oil company Petrobras, politicians, and business executives continues to deepen. This month, the president of the powerful company Odebrecht, was arrested as part of the investigation. Odebrecht is one of the main financial donors to Rousseff’s political party.
The result of all of this is that Rousseff’s poll numbers have dropped to a record low even after winning re-election last October.
One of Rousseff main goals is showing the importance the U.S. economy to Brazil’s recovery. In 2014, U.S.-Brazil trade totaled $62 billion, with the U.S. running an $8 billion surplus.
Upon arriving in Washington on Monday evening, Rousseff will have a private dinner with Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. She will then spend the night at the Blair House, a courtesy not afforded to her during her last visit in 2012.
On Tuesday, after the White House meeting, she’ll be guest at a lunch hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, who was a key figure in the U.S.-Brazil reconciliation.
Though he is sometimes made fun of for his interactions with women, Rousseff views him fondly. He visited Brazil during the World Cup last year and this year attended her second-term inaugural. That was not a small sacrifice – presidential inaugurations in Brazil take place on Jan. 1.
The Brazilian leader will also fly to California where she will visit the headquarters of Google and NASA’s Ames Research Center. She is scheduled to meet with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Stanford University, where she’ll be a guest at a lunch with Silicon Valley executives.