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Concerns Over Surveillance Cloud Kerry Visit to Colombia, Brazil

  • Alex Villarreal

John Kerry made his first trip to South America as U.S. Secretary of State this week. His goal was to boost ties while he sought to temper concern about U.S. surveillance activities in the region. Details leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden have complicated U.S. relationships in Latin America and beyond.

Kerry's first stop was Colombia.

After a show of support for the nation's war wounded, Kerry and Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Holguin pledged cooperation and understanding - even on the issue of spying.

“This was, in fact, a very small part of the overall conversation, and one in which I am confident that I was able to explain thoroughly, precisely, how this has received the support of all three branches of our government," said Kerry.

Holguin said her country got “the necessary assurances” from the U.S. about its reported monitoring of phone calls and emails in Latin America.

But Kerry faced a bigger test in Brazil, where Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota warned of a loss of trust if U.S. explanations about its surveillance programs are not satisfactory.

"We need to stop practices that violate sovereignty and the relationships of trust between states, and violations of individual freedoms which our countries praise so much," said Patriota.

Carl Meacham, Americas director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says for Brazil, China, Russia and other countries, that stance is hypocritical.

“All of these countries are involved in intelligence gathering to protect their interests, to advance their interests and to get an edge on competitors," said Meacham.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says the administration will continue discussing with foreign partners the issues raised by the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But, she says, that shouldn't overshadow the work the U.S. needs to do with those nations.

“It shouldn’t detract from the broad bilateral relationships we have around the world with a variety of countries that we work with both on security cooperation, but a host of other issues as well," said Harf.

It's a goal that will be tested when Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff travels to Washington in October on a state visit - the only such visit of a foreign head of state this year.