Elizabeth Bagley was able to hit the ground running when she was appointed the U.S. ambassador to Brazil at the beginning of this year, because of her first posting as U.S. ambassador to Portugal 25 years ago.
Unlike Portugal, a small European nation with a stable government and few pressing issues, Brazil looms large in the Americas and its place in the world.
“This is a very consequential appointment,” Bagley said from her Eel Point Road home in early July. “We have a solid agenda of important issues to address.”
They include initiatives to slow climate change, create sustainable jobs for farmers currently reliant on the resources of the Amazon, bring the working poor up to middle-class living standards, revive a CEO forum that brings in leaders from developed nations as part of a global labor initiative, and combat violence against women and sex trafficking, just for starters.
Home to the Amazon, which is often described by environmentalists as the “lungs of the planet,” due to the rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, the region has been under attack from agribusinesses which have been clear-cutting the area at an alarming rate for timber, planting of crops and grazing of cattle. Preserving the Amazon is key to slowing climate change, and it’s tops on the agenda of Bagley.
The 2002 election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula, encourages Bagley, who sees some alignment between the goals of both Brazil and the U.S.
Still, she admits she has a very narrow window in which to accomplish her goals and the goals of the president.
“All ambassadors serve as the representative of the president of the United States. Postings are generally for three years, but I’d be fine with two,” she said, noting that the 2024 U.S. presidential election could be the deciding factor on the length of her service if a Republican takes office.
Politics, in fact, delayed her taking her current post. Her appointment to be the ambassador to Portugal in 1995 sailed through its Senate confirmation.
“That appointment? It was a lovefest. I had Ted Kennedy on the Democratic side and Jesse Helms (then hard-right Republican Senator from North Carolina) both supporting me,” Bagley said.
“One day I got a call from Jesse Helms inviting me to come meet the Republicans on the committee. I said, ‘But I don’t even know you,’ and he said, ‘But I know your husband.’ As they say, all politics are local.”
Her husband was Smith Bagley, born in Raleigh, N.C. in 1935 and heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune. Before he died of a stroke in December 2009, he was very active in campaigning and fundraising for the Democratic party and particularly the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama. Smith and Elizabeth Bagley were married for 26 years.
This time around the political climate was very different. Bipartisanship was dead. Democrats had opposed several of the candidates President Donald Trump had proposed for ambassadorships during his administration. When Bagley’s name was presented for an ambassadorship, it was payback time.
“When my name came up for an appointment some of the Republicans said she’s a big Democratic fish and were going to get me. It took awhile to get some of my Republican friends to talk to their friends and get my appointment moving forward,” she said.
Bagley was officially appointed U.S. ambassador to Brazil in December 2022 and landed in Brazil Feb. 1. Two days later she met with Brazil’s President Lula.
The accelerated timeline for introducing herself to Lula was essential, because on Feb. 10 she needed to be back in Washington, D.C. for a meeting between the Brazilian president and the American president.
Bagley was on the island for just six days in early July, before heading back to the embassy in Brasilia, the capital, and then Washington, D.C. for the birth of her first grandchild at the end of the month. It will be her only visit to the island this year.
While Bagley, and her late husband have been large donors to the Democratic Party over the years, she has a solid background of diplomacy that includes 20 years working in the state department.
“I’m non-career in the foreign service, but I’ve made a career out of diplomacy and the state department, plus I’m a lawyer,” Bagley said of her credentials.
Her career has included senior advisor to secretaries of state John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. She has served as special representative to the United Nations General Assembly and special representative for global partnerships.
Her experience in diplomacy will be useful in navigating the political culture of Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest country in terms of area, and seventh in population with 220 million people.
“Politics there is tricky,” Bagley said. “They have so many political parties (27) and that’s the biggest factor with the corruption issue. They need to form coalitions all the time, so they buy off companies – it’s rampant throughout Brazil, and a lot of South America and Africa, too.”
In addition to the embassy in Brasilia, Bagley oversees four U.S. consulates across the country: Porto Alegre in the south, Recife in the north, Rio de Janeiro, the former capital, and Sao Paolo, the country’s financial center and most populous city with over 22 million people.
But her home base is the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, an enormous walled compound, which in just five months she has made home.
Bagley brought in seven pieces of Brazilian art from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and an enormous mural, “Brazil,” by seminal pop artist James Rosenquist.
She also changed the color palette inside the embassy from drab browns to vibrant greens and turquoise, and had bougainvillea and other native plants brought in.
Bagley, now 71, is excited about a new challenge at this stage in her career.
“I looked at everything and thought it was meant to be. I know it’s complicated, but I want to make a difference,” she said. “I’ve always been drawn to Brazil, and when I was ambassador to Portugal, many of my friends in Lisbon were Brazilian. I love the culture and the music and the people.”