Last week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff became the first head of state ever to postpone a state visit to the United States of America. Given that state visits are the highest form of diplomatic contact between two nations and Washington usually reserves them for its closest strategic partners, Ms Rousseff’s decision could only be interpreted as a major snub.
The rebuff was prompted by revelations in documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had eavesdropped electronically on her private communications and had also targeted Brazilian diplomatic missions and strategic industries. Many analysts in the USA, however, sought to downplay the postponement as a symbolic move on the diplomatic chessboard. After all, didn’t US President Barack Obama do the same thing to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month? But they underestimated the depth of Ms Rousseff’s displeasure.
On Tuesday, in making the opening address of the United Nations General Assembly and speaking just before President Obama, President Rousseff delivered an angry and uncompromising denunciation of US economic espionage in her country. Calling spying among friendly nations “totally unacceptable,” she stated: “Meddling in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations.” Arguing that a sovereign nation should never assert itself to the detriment of another, she added: “The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.” Brazil, Ms Rousseff announced, would now adopt legislation and technology to protect it from illegal interception of communications, even as she called on the UN to oversee a new global legal system to govern the internet, whilst guaranteeing freedom of expression, individual privacy and respect for human rights.
The General Assembly statement leaves no room for doubt as to where Ms Rousseff stands on the issue. Her overall response, moreover, reasserts the principle of reciprocity in international relations as still having some validity, even in asymmetrical relationships, and provides some reassurance that notions of global governance do not rely solely on the interests of the world’s only superpower.
But this is not the first time that Brazil, the dominant South American economy and a member of the G20, has stood up to the colossus of the north. When, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, the USA introduced biometric screening for visitors, turning down Brazil’s request to have its citizens exempted from this measure, Brazil implemented, in 2004, a similar programme of fingerprinting and photographing American citizens entering its territory.
Of course, not every country has the capacity to reciprocate in the Brazilian manner and not every mouse can roar. But there are ways of preserving national pride without being completely cowed by other countries’ superior economic and military power.
In 2007, for example, President Evo Morales approved a decree requiring American citizens to obtain visas to enter Bolivia, as “a matter of reciprocity.” Although critics charged that the country’s tourism industry would suffer, Mr Morales stood firm, declaring, “We are a small country but we have the same dignity as any other.”
The point, as senior government officials were at pains to point out, was why should Bolivians be subjected to lengthy and onerous processes to apply for a visa to visit the USA, including presenting work letters, proof of residency, bank accounts and police records, without requiring American citizens to obtain a visa for travel to Bolivia?
It is a question that we in Guyana might well ask ourselves with regard to the USA, Canada and the European Union, in particular, for numerous are the tales of indignities heaped upon our citizens seeking visas at foreign embassies and on arrival at foreign airports. But we generally have to grin and bear it, all because we are a small, underdeveloped country, perhaps lacking in self-esteem.
Notwithstanding our need for foreign investment and tourism, perhaps it is time that we put in place measures, based on principle rather than pique, to regain a certain degree of respect and maintain a modicum of national pride. And even if we do not have the institutional capacity to issue visas abroad because of our limited number of consulates, we should at least explore systems, using the internet, to grant visas on arrival for those nationals of countries that require our citizens to apply for visas, charging them the equivalent of what our people are charged. Now that would be a reasonably fair measure of reciprocity.