Obama's trip seeks to engage with Latin America

President Barack Obama walks out of the Oval Office to deliver remarks on Japan in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington , Thursday, March, 17, 2011. (AP Photo)
President Barack Obama walks out of the Oval Office to deliver remarks on Japan in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington , Thursday, March, 17, 2011. (AP Photo) (AP)
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The Associated Press
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 12:14 AM

BRASILIA, Brazil -- It lacks the urgency of a nuclear crisis in Japan, or fighting in Libya or the threat of a government shutdown at home. But President Barack Obama embarks Friday on a trip to Latin America that many in the hemisphere consider long overdue and that the White House believes will help restore U.S. influence in the region.

Over the next five days, Obama is to visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in what his aides cast as a mission to build job-creating opportunities for the United States and to address regional security concerns.

The trip is also an effort to solidify relationships that have slipped two years after Obama declared "a new chapter of engagement" with the region.

In that time, China has expanded its economic footprint in the region and has surpassed the United States as Brazil's top trade partner.

Despite the competing, pressing demands on the president, the White House has been determined to proceed with the trip, emphasizing the potential of the burgeoning region for U.S. economic growth.

"In this increasingly interconnected and fiercely competitive world, our top priority has to be creating and sustaining new jobs and new opportunities for our people," Obama wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today. "We've got to keep competing for every new job, every new industry and every new market in the 21st century."

Obama's planned departure Friday was coming a day after the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

In Latin America, Obama will meet with recently elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

"Something remarkable has been happening in the region," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday, noting that Obama's trip comes on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress that aimed to spur development across Latin America.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, Clinton noted that, taken as a whole, the Latin American economy is almost three times greater than India's or Russia's and not far behind that of China or Japan. Tens of millions are joining the middle class and the close proximity of the region to the U.S. creates tremendous opportunities for new business, she said.

Each country offers Obama a different look at a diverse hemisphere. Yet in selecting those three, he is reaching out to nations whose political leaders have displayed a pragmatic governing style and where anti-Americanism is on the wane. As such they stand in stark contrast to Venezuela and Bolivia, led by leftist populists known for agitating against the United States.

At the same time, in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, Obama's showcasing democracies that have emerged from turbulent pasts and that, in his administration's view, serve as examples of a pathway out of the current upheaval in the Middle East.

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