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A sharp decline in favorable views of the ‘big guy’

DISCUSSIONS | June 05, 2006

Claudia Antunes, Rio

2006 Nieman fellow; deputy bureau chief in Rio for Folha de Sao Paolo

The feelings of the Brazilians towards the United States are ambiguous. On one side, it’s imagined as a country of endless wealth, where you can get rich if you work hard enough; on the other, it’s considered the “big guy”, the bully Northern nation that out of sheer force can do whatever it wants.

Both extremes are quite instinctive and there is a whole spectrum between them, but little accurate knowledge about America’s history and institutions – in spite of the extensive coverage the local press devotes to events in the U.S. and about the role of the U.S. in the world.        

Hollywood blockbusters and TV series, with their emphasis on consumerism and solitary heroes, have contributed more to shape the image of America in Brazil than the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. In Barra da Tijuca, an affluent neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, a replica of the Statue of Liberty adorns the entrance to a shopping mall named “New York City Center.” Among urban youths, the influence of pop music, from the big bands to rock and rap, has been remarkable for decades. 

The balance between positive and negative perceptions of America changes with historical circumstances and may be influenced by the charisma of American presidents. Bill Clinton, for instance, was cheered when he visited the country at the end of the 90s: usually less stringent in relation to the private lives of politicians, Brazilians sympathized with him because of the crisis he confronted due to the affair Monica Lewinsky – which doesn’t mean that the policies his administration promoted, especially through the international financial institutions, had general approval.

Inside academic circles and on the left of the political spectrum, there remains a strong anti-Americanism derived from the series of U.S. interventions against leftist and nationalist governments in Latin America, a memory that the end of the Cold War has not buried. Within financial and business circles, and among another wide range of intellectuals and politicians, there is a good amount of people who share American ideas in what concerns the stability of the political system and free market economics. Many of them graduated from American universities.

The policies adopted by the government of George W. Bush, before and after 9/11, caused a growth of negative perceptions of the U.S. – the Latinobarometro poll showed a decline of more than 40 points, between 2000 and 2003, in the percentage of Brazilians who had a favorable or very favorable opinion of America. Suspicions of fraud in the 2000 election were a defining point. Later events resonate differently within different sectors of the population. The decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, for instance, hurt the image of the U.S. among those who shape public opinion, and the invasion of Iraq was met by a widespread condemnation.

In addition, restrictions on travel to the U.S. and on immigration had an immediate negative impact on the poor and the middle class. For decades, Brazilians have needed a visa to enter the U.S., but since 9/11 there have been cases of Brazilians refused entry even with a visa. Also, as part of the security measures adopted at the time, Brazilians were among the foreigners that had to be photographed and have their digital impressions taken at their port of entry in the U.S. Of course, we have our "nationalistic" fevers as well, and most Brazilians supported our government's decision to do the same to American tourists. Isn't that terrible for the relationship between the two peoples? It also takes longer and has become much harder to get a visa to travel to the U.S. 

Perhaps the most important effect of these steps was to undermine the arguments of those in Brazil who want the priority of the country’s foreign policy to be the relationship with the U.S., be it on trade, diplomatic or political issues. Either because the current American administration seemed to reinforce protectionism at the World Trade Organization or because weapons of mass destruction never materialized in Iraq, the confidence needed to justify such alignment was eroded.    




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