STATE DEPARTMENT— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is spending the start of his week in Colombia and Brazil, as part of the Obama administration's efforts to boost ties with Latin America. But those relationships have been clouded recently by South American concerns about U.S. surveillance programs reported to have targeted communications across the region.
Secretary Kerry began his first visit to South America as the United States' top diplomat in Colombia.
One of his first stops: a sports program for soldiers and police wounded by landmines in Colombia’s long-running war with the Western Hemisphere's most dangerous rebel group - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - currently in peace talks with the government.
“We will do everything possible that we can do to try to be helpful, to support this program and other programs and ultimately to try to help bring peace in Colombia,” Kerry said.
It is that spirit of cooperation the U.S. has been promoting with many South American countries. But reports that the U.S. government surveillance programs leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden included monitoring of emails and telephone calls in Latin America have complicated those relationships
Last week, Brazil's Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota and his counterparts from Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela went to the United Nations to voice their “indignation” about the spy program to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Venezuela’s foreign minister Elias Jaua spoke for the group.
He said the South American countries expressed their concern over what he called the "grave implications that the illegal procedures" carried out by the U.S. government have on the "political stability of the countries and on mutual trust necessary in the international community."
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he is seeking clarification from the U.S. about its intelligence gathering, while Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff said her country does not agree at all with such interference.
Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Brazilians’ concerns date back to the Cold War era, when the U.S supported authoritarian regimes in Latin America.
“The involvement of the United States in support of some of these governments that used questionable methods, that used torture, is sort of present in the minds of many Brazilians, and what they attach this whole issue of surveillance to is the United States acting as a big brother," stated Meacham. "And they would say, 'On the one hand, you have the president of the United States that wants to reach out and be nice and develop a closer relationship,' but on the other hand, they would say that, 'If you're trying to develop a closer relationship with us, why are you spying on us?'”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday the administration has been clear that it will continue discussing with foreign partners the issues raised by the NSA disclosures, but that those issues should not “overshadow” the important work the U.S. has to do with those nations.
“We believe it’s important that this discussion, while in and of itself is important, but 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 on a host of other issues as well,” said Harf.
Meacham said the real issue is that the U.S. got caught, not that it is doing anything different in terms of surveillance than other countries, including Brazil. "Compared to a lot of the countries that are being highlighted - Chinese, the Russians, countries where Mr. Snowden has taken asylum, these are countries that have far worse records with democracy and human rights than the United States," he said.
And he said the current resentment is likely to pass. "I don’t think it’s going to have a long-lasting damaging effect. I think that the United States continues to be the biggest market, and the United States continues to be a country that is promoting democracy and human rights, and I would put the United States against any of these countries with regards to their records on human rights and democracy," Meacham stated. "But I do think in the short term, it will make for some tense meetings, particularly in Brazil."
Kerry visits Brazil Tuesday, where he is likely to address the international surveillance concerns.
On Monday, President Barack Obama directed U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper to form a group to review the way the nation conducts such monitoring. He said the group should assess whether, in light of advancements in communication technologies, the U.S. employs its intelligence gathering capabilities in the best way for its national security and foreign policy, while appropriately accounting for other considerations, including the "need to maintain the public trust."