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John Kerry Tries To Smooth Things Over With Brazil, Colombia


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

John Kerry is on his first trip to South America as secretary of State, arriving in Brazil this morning after a day in Colombia. Colombia is emerging from decades of war, fighting an insurgency as well as combating drug trafficking, all with the help of billions in aid from the U.S.

Brazil is the continent's economic power, and that's where NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is based. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: So much of Kerry's focus seems to be these days on the Middle East. Why go to South America now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, ostensibly visit to two big allies. But clearly it's also an attempt to smooth over ruffled feathers over revelations by Edward Snowden that the U.S. is spying on its allies in Latin America. Countries in the region have asked for clarifications. Yesterday in Colombia - which is a strong U.S. ally - both parties downplayed the impact of these revelations, Kerry saying it was a small part of what was discussed.

But beyond these NSA revelations, the U.S. has been making a push here in Brazil for closer ties. We've had Vice President Joe Biden visit here recently. A lot of other mid-level and senior level representatives have come as well. Dilma Rousseff, the president, is headed to the United States in October, and the first state visit to the U.S. by a Brazilian president since the mid 1990s. So the U.S. is certainly focused on its Brazil ties right now.

MONTAGNE: And just back to the Snowden affair for a moment, it seemed to hit a nerve in Latin America. Why exactly?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, sovereignty is a huge deal here when it comes to the United States. Let's not forget the long and bloody history of U.S. intervention in the region. It's also an issue because many of the countries that were spied on are allies. Lastly, we have what happened to Evo Morales's plane. The U.S. had a sitting president's plane effectively grounded because it though Edward Snowden was on board. So heavy-handed tactics for sure that didn't go down well here.

MONTAGNE: Now, South America has changed a lot in recent years. They economies there are better. There's a new generation of leaders. How has that affected regional politics?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, we have a region that has seen a lot of growth. Even though Brazil is slowing down, Panama, Mexico, Peru are all doing really well. Add to that a decade when we've seen an increasing regional cooperation here - in the way of trade groups and political groups. This is not a region anymore that automatically looks to the U.S. first. In fact, it hasn't been for quite some time.

Look at Brazil with its huge economic ties to China and its growing influence in Africa. We have leftist leaders here with their own stances, many of them anti-American. But even U.S. allies in the region are charting their own courses - certainly economically. Many people here feel very resentful of bodies like the International Monetary Fund, for example, and the outsized role they played here for many years.

MONTAGNE: Well, as you said, the U.S. also used to dominate there both economically and politically. So these changes, what have they meant for U.S. influence?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you only have to look at what happened during the Snowden affair. The U.S. brought pressure to bear on Latin American countries not to accept him. And with the exception of Venezuela, none of them really did, despite offers from Bolivia and Nicaragua - which were more theater than anything else. Joe Biden called President Rafael Correa of Ecuador personally, and Ecuador decided not to take him in. So the U.S., you know, still has a lot of clout here.

That said, we are seeing a really important shift. Look what just happened in Uruguay. They decided that the U.S.-led war on drugs is a failure. That is a central part of U.S. policy in the region. And they are in the process now having the cultivation, sale and distribution of marijuana be controlled by their government. They're looking for Latin American answers to Latin American problems, and that's new.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, in turn the U.S. focus seems to be more away from the region.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is no question about that. But as Gregory Weeks from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte told me, the U.S. has no grand strategy for Latin America, he said - and that's not a bad thing. If we think of times when the U.S. has been focused on Latin America, it's not necessarily good for the region.

But listen, there are a lot of ties here: economic, political, military, the busiest U.S. consulate in the world is here in Sao Paula. They're giving over a million Brazilians visas to the U.S. a year. The relationship between the U.S. and the region has many, many strands.

MONTAGNE: Lourdes, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia Navarro, speaking to us from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.