In 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was furious at the United States.
Reports surfaced that United States government agencies had spied on both her personal communications as well as those of various other high-profile Brazilians. In retaliation, she canceled a state visit to the U.S, defying her northern neighbor. Rouseff also gave an indignant speech on the subject, stating that “without respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for relationships among nations.”
Domestically, the move played out well for her, showing the president standing up to the United States as a symbol of strength and defiance.
Less than two years later, however, Rousseff is singing a different tune.
Last month, with 68 percent of Brazilians saying they believe that her government is either “bad or terrible,” she returned to the U.S. for an official state visit. On June 30, Rousseff tried a different tactic to bolster her credentials at home — instead of defying the U.S., she signed a series of agreements to address global climate change.
Among other provisions, both nations committed to increase the use of wind and solar energy to 20 percent of their nation’s production by 2030. Brazil further committed to restore about 30 million acres of Amazon rainforest in the country.
While Presidents Rousseff and Obama focused on environmental issues, a group of human rights activists used the high-profile state visit to promote a different cause — Brazil’s capacity to take in detainees that are still in captivity at the United States prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to close Guantánamo has still not been achieved. Despite signing an order on his first day in office to close the facility, legal and political issues have prevented him from carrying out this directive.
One major stumbling block has been other countries’ unwillingness to take in former detainees — and Brazil has been among those rebuffing U.S. efforts. Wikileaks released documents in 2010 revealing that Brazil had repeatedly turned down these requests on the basis that the men were not official refugees and therefore, Brazil could not legally accept them as such.
A personal connection
Human rights groups have acknowledged that Rousseff might have a particular stake in the issue — she was tortured for her membership in leftist groups during Brazil’s Cold War-era military government. For three years in the early 1970s, she remained behind bars.
The recent Brazilian Truth Commission report implicated the U.S. in these actions as well, since more than 300 soldiers from the South American country were trained by their northern neighbors in theory and practice. For that reason, Rousseff has a particular interest in preventing future abuses.
Human rights groups are targeting Rousseff to reevaluate Brazil’s stance on accepting detainees. On June 26, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Brazil’s Conectas Direitos Humanos and the U.K.-based Reprieve sent a letter to President Obama urging him to discuss the issue with Rousseff during her state visit. They argued that Brazil was an ideal location since Brazil, as a major South American power, could take substantial leadership on the issue of detainees who have long been cleared for release but have been unable to find a country to relocate to.
Brazil would not be the first South American nation to accept detainees. In December 2014, six former detainees were released to Uruguay to begin a new life. However, their integration has not been entirely smooth. While one wed an Uruguayan woman in early June, four others spent most of the spring camped out in front of the U.S. embassy protesting some of the terms they received in exchange for permanent asylum. Their demands included more resources for rehabilitation, housing and help with getting their families to Uruguay.
Despite the difficulties that have arisen in Uruguay, these human rights groups remain aligned with what seem to be Obama’s current administrative priorities.
In Obama’s final 18 months in office, he appears to be reinvigorating his initial promise to close the prison. On June 30, the day of Rousseff’s visit, he announced an appointment of a new position in the State Department, Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure. The new envoy is Lee Wolosky, who will lead the effort after working as an attorney serving the National Security Council as Director for Transnational Threats. However, as of his appointment he still had never visited the facility, and many have pointed out the substantial obstacles that stand in his way.
Neither Obama nor Rousseff has issued an official response to the idea of Brazil accepting detainees, but as long as men remain at Guantánamo, the debate is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.