Obama to focus on economic issues, repairing relations in Brazil trip

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By Juan Forero and Perry Bacon Jr.
Friday, March 18, 2011; 7:50 AM

RIO DE JANEIRO - Shortly after taking office, President Obama declared Brazil's charismatic president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva "the most popular politician on Earth." And Lula said he was "a fan" of Obama's.

The relationship held the promise of a closer alliance between Washington and Brasilia. But it soon soured, with Lula saying at the end of his term that the United States behaved as an "empire" and that "nothing had changed" under Obama.

Now, Obama and Brazil's new President Dilma Rousseff will try to repair at times strained relations between the two countries as the U.S. president arrives for a two-day state visit before flying to Chile, a close U.S. ally, and El Salvador, where drug-related violence is rising.

"There's positive interest on both sides in starting over," said Julia Sweig, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently met with officials in the new government in Brazil. "Now they have to translate that optimism and goodwill to figure out what they can do together that's in both of their interests, and how to mitigate the tensions that will naturally arise."

The trip will be Obama's first to South America as president. Even as the crisis in Japan and unrest in the Middle East dominate Obama's national security briefings, administration officials decided not to cancel the president's trip but instead cast it as a way to renew relations with a region that is an emerging market for U.S.-made goods.

The trip is in part a kind of box-checking exercise, as the Obama administration had wanted to make a major trip to this region in Obama's first term. But White House officials said they would use Obama's visit to the three countries, particularly Brazil, to emphasize economic issues, in a nod to a U.S. electorate concerned about high unemployment.

On Saturday in Brasilia, Brazil's capital, Obama will attend a meeting of chief executives of companies from both countries and speak at a business forum.

Administration officials are also likely to privately press Brazil and the rest of South America to get involved in the U.S. effort to change how China values its currency. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was in Sao Paulo discussing the issue last month.

"This trip fundamentally is about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States," said Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.

Veering from Lula's model

Brazil is the most influential country in this region, and U.S. officials, while playing down any tensions with Lula, have expressed optimism about establishing close ties with Rousseff. The 63-year-old economist, who had once been in a guerrilla group, was brutally tortured by Brazil's dictatorship in 1970 and later became Lula's protege, serving as energy minister and then chief of staff.

A month before her Jan. 1 inauguration, Rousseff suggested she could veer from Lula's model in dealing with the United States. Lula would not support a U.S. plan last year to impose U.N. sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program or a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution that condemned Iranian practices on human rights.

Although she is unlikely to support sanctions, the new president told The Washington Post in an interview in December that she disagreed with Lula's position on Iran's human rights record and that her government would "forge closer ties with the U.S."


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