BRASÍLIA — Liliana Ayalde couldn't have picked a worse time to start her job as U.S. ambassador to Brazil.
Ayalde, a career diplomat who spent most of her 30 years focused on Latin America, was excited about her first opportunity to serve in Brazil, the biggest country — both geographically and economically — in the region. But she arrived in the capital of Brasília on Sept. 16, just days after documents released by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had monitored the communications of several heads of state, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Ayalde hadn't even left the airport in Brasília when she was confronted by reporters asking about the scandal. The next day, she helped coordinate the phone call between President Obama and Rousseff that ended with the cancellation of Brazil's planned state visit to Washington.
"When I first was offered the opportunity, I was delighted and very honored because we were at the height of our partnership on a broad array of different dialogues — anything from energy, education, commercial matters. Just an amazing variety of common interests," Ayalde said last week. "Little did I know."
Monday marks a key moment toward mending that tattered relationship, when Vice President Biden visits Brazil to watch the U.S. national team's first World Cup match in Natal. Biden will use the trip to meet with Rousseff, marking the highest-level meeting between the two countries since September's NSA revelations.
Given how difficult the past nine months have been, it will take more than one meeting to set things straight.
The United States and Brazil have long had a complicated relationship. As the two biggest economies in the Western Hemisphere, their governments have worked closely on a wide array of economic and political issues. That relationship has been strained frequently in recent years, given Brazil's close relationship with American adversaries Cuba and Venezuela, Brazil's refusal to assist in the U.S. war in Iraq, and other issues.
As Brazil's economy and influence have continued to grow, some think the country has positioned itself as more of a competitor to the U.S., not a close ally.
"It's very clear that they see their influence in the region inversely proportional to U.S. interests," said Frank Mora, who was the Defense Department's assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere until last year. "In their minds, if U.S. influence in the region is increasing, that means they're decreasing."
That could help explain why Brazil reacted so forcefully to the Snowden disclosures while other countries, such as Mexico, quickly moved past it, said Mora, who's now the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. Not only did Rousseff call off the state visit to Washington, but she took to the podium at the United Nations and accused the U.S. of a "violation of human rights."
While that may seem like diplomatic theater, it had a real, practical effect on the ability of the two countries — and their citizens — to work together. As Mora put it, "Everything froze."
Otto Reich, a former U.S. State Department official, said the high-level tension between the two countries suddenly hampered the day-to-day work needed to resolve issues facing tourists, businesspeople and government officials trying to work in both Brazil and the U.S. He said the reaction by the Brazilians to the NSA leak showed just how tenuous their friendship with the U.S. has always been.
"I'm not an apologist for (the Obama) administration, but this was not their fault," said Reich, who served in various roles under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. "The Brazilians completely overreacted."
Ayalde said many issues became impossible to resolve in the months following her arrival. She said they were unable to make progress on basic consular services that ease the process for people to travel to each country for business. Military sales between the two countries were put on hold. Information-sharing stalled. Even the annual meeting of the U.S. Brazil CEO Forum — a collection of government officials and a dozen CEOs from each country — was left in limbo.
"People didn't have the clear signal that it was OK to engage on these issues," Ayalde said.
She said she's seen progress in the past few months. The word "Snowden" rarely comes up anymore when talking to government officials or regular Brazilians, she said.
And despite the suspicious mood of her counterparts in the early months of her tenure, Ayalde said the two sides are finally coming together on economic, energy, transportation and all the other issues the two countries need to move forward.
"Yes, they (Brazilians) see themselves as a regional player and a global player. Sometimes they go about things in a different way and see things differently, and that gets us aggravated," Ayalde said. "But it's not a zero-sum game. These are tough issues, and we may not always see eye to eye, but that's our job as diplomats, to find those spaces where we do agree. And we are in agreement on a lot of things."