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Mexico & Brazil: Why U.S. Spying Stings So Much

After the NSA snooping, why are politicians and citizens all across Latin America so dismayed?

September 10, 2013

Credit: Nils Petersen -

There seems to be no end to the series of profound embarrassments resulting from the NSA-related international spying operations of the U.S. government.

The latest revelations to become public knowledge via the Snowden/Greenwald tag team concern snooping on Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and state firms, as well as on Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s then-President to be.

These actions have created quite a backlash in Latin America’s two biggest economies, which are otherwise always quickly heralded in Washington as “close U.S. allies.”

The key question is: Why is there such a sense of revulsion not just among the politicians and citizens of these two countries, but all across Latin America?

Instead of answering that crucial question, official Washington and its surrogates in the think tank world basically try to wash their hands of it. They are very busy circulating a variety of alternating explanations that are often mutually exclusive.

Some in Washington declare this “business as usual.” “Everybody does it,” so there’s no reason to overreact. Others say it was a “regrettable incident,” but that “no harm was intended.” Why not move on with our good neighborly relations?

Here are three reasons for why not: First, the freewheeling way in which the U.S. government has interfered in these two countries’ operations reeks of extreme arrogance. Even after the fact, Washington operates with an incredible sense of impunity. It clearly sees itself as above any and all applicable laws and customs.

Second, in Brazil’s case, the U.S. also engaged in industrial espionage. Petrobras, the state oil company, had major “deep oil” finds that could have unsettled global markets. The interests of the U.S. oil majors were clearly affected.

But the third reason is the most troubling of all – and it shows, in the most charitable interpretation, complete U.S. ignorance of still very recent forces of history.

The snooping done by the U.S. government reminds the leaders of these still budding democracies, keen at work on important democratic transformations of their respective countries, of some of the darkest chapters not just of their own countries, but of their own personal past.

In fact, there is an autobiographical dimension to this in Brazil’s case. President Rousseff and her team remember the times of the military dictatorships well. They were often student leaders back then.

Now that they have reached the pinnacle of power in their own country, they have a certain sense of déjà vu. They are no longer bugged by the generals, but by the Americans. That’s hardly any comfort. In fact, the interesting question is what they may personally find more affronting.

The precise technological means employed by the government-sponsored invaders of privacy may have changed. And the U.S. government will claim that it has a nobler intent than the generals back then.

But one crucial fact cannot be denied: The in-country actions of the U.S. government display an above-the-law spirit which characterized the military dictatorships that used to run Brazil and Mexico.

Whenever it was convenient to the reactionary politicians of those countries and their military sidekicks, they would come down hard, spying on what were then “student leaders.”

That the U.S. government, in its facile effort to wipe its hands of the acts of profound intrusion, is caught unawares of that treacherous historical parallel is perhaps the biggest shock of this entire snooping affair.

This is all the more unbelievable, as U.S. officials ought to be plenty sensitive to the issue. After all, it was their predecessors in the U.S. government who were often active enablers of, if not collaborators with, those Latin American dictators and their ruthless democracy oppression teams.

One thing is for sure: Ignorance of history is no defense any longer, not even for U.S. diplomats. They can just look it all up on Wikipedia.


Ignorance of history is no longer a valid defense, not even for U.S. diplomats.

The U.S. displays a sense of impunity similar to former military dictatorships in Brazil and Mexico.

President Rousseff and her team have an ominous sense of déjà vu.

Brazil’s leaders are no longer bugged by the generals, but by the Americans.

That the U.S. government is caught unawares of that historical parallel is the biggest shock.

The U.S. also engaged in industrial espionage on Petrobras. The interests of U.S. oil majors were at stake.