By Andres Oppenheimer

When President Barack Obama welcomes Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the White House on April 9, both leaders will say that their countries' bilateral ties are better than ever, and growing steadily. But don't believe the official story.

Brazilian officials are miffed by the fact that despite Brazil's emergence as a global power, the White House has not granted Rousseff's trip to Washington the status of "state visit," the highest-level diplomatic distinction for such trips. State visits generally come along with a black-tie state dinner at the White House, a formal address by the visiting leader to Congress, and week-long cultural events.

The White House's explanation was that, because this is an election year in the United States, Obama does not grant state visits. But the Brazilian press was quick to note that British Prime Minister David Cameron is in Washington on a state visit two weeks before Rousseff's trip.

An article in Friday's O Estado de Sao Paulo, under the headline "Dilma will be welcomed by Obama without a state visitor's honors," noted that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were granted state visits to Washington in 2011 and 2009, respectively. Not mentioned in the story, but perhaps harder to swallow for Brazilian officials, was that Mexico's President Felipe Calderón made a state visit to Washington in 2010.

"Ninety-five percent of international relations is symbolic, and state visits are important," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter American Dialogue think tank, at Monday's conference on Brazil-U.S. Relations at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. "The fact is that Brazil wanted this to be a state visit, and that they felt a bit insulted."

Carl Meacham, a top staffer of the Republican minority at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the conference that the Obama administration's handling of the Rousseff visit reflects the fact that -- despite Brazil's status as the world's sixth-largest economy and its recent discovery of massive oil reserves -- "Brazil is not viewed as a first- or second-tier issue for U.S. foreign policy within the White House."

Diplomatic niceties aside, there are several other issues that are raising bilateral tensions. Among them:

- Brazilians are taken aback by the U.S. Air Force's unexpected Feb. 28 decision to cancel a $355 million contract to buy 20 military planes from Brazil's giant Embraer aircraft company, citing technical problems with the documents presented by the company. The contract had been objected in U.S. courts by a competing firm, Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft.

- Brazilian officials are concerned by a Florida Legislature decision earlier this month to prohibit local governments from contracting firms that do business with Cuba, which could prevent Brazil's Odebrecht company from building a $700 million hotel, office and shopping complex on Miami International Airport's grounds.

- Brazilians have long been irked by the fact that when Obama visited India in 2010, he openly supported India's quest for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. By comparison, when he went to Brazil last year, Obama merely expressed his "appreciation" for Brazil's desire to obtain that seat.

- While the United States has a "strategic dialogue" -- a regular meeting at the ministerial level to advance common agendas -- with China and India, and a nuclear technology exchange program with India, it does not have a similar agreement with Brazil.

- U.S. officials, in turn, are frustrated by Brazil's alignment with some of the world's worst dictatorships, especially Iran. While U.S. officials like Rousseff better than her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, they were dismayed when she criticized human-rights abuses at the U.S. Guantánamo base during her recent visit to Cuba, but didn't utter a word about human rights on the island.

My opinion: The fact that Rousseff will go ahead with her visit to Washington despite not being granted a state visit proves that she is eager to improve U.S.-Brazilian ties. She knows that Brazil is too dependent on raw-material exports to China, and badly needs to increase its exports of manufactured goods to the United States.



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