Obama visits Brazil with Libya on his mind

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Juan Forero
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 3:39 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO - With a crisis in Libya competing for his time, President Obama stuck to the agenda of his state tour of Brazil, arriving Sunday morning in a once-notorious slum that Brazilian officials now hold up as a symbol of a rejuvenated country.

"Welcome Obama," a group of small children said in heavily accented English after the president and his entourage arrived in City of God, made famous by a 2002 Brazilian film of the same name. Obama kicked a soccer ball with pint-sized boys and swayed to the beat of a samba performance at a makeshift community center.

Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, accompanied the president as he got a first-hand look at a neighborhood long battered by crime and poverty but that, like Brazil itself, is now on the rise. Indeed, Brazilian officials have been eager to show how a new police initiative and the country's strong economic growth have improved life even for the country's disenfranchised.

It was the president's first stop in a day in which the administration hoped to emphasize its commitment to building economic and diplomatic ties to Latin America's biggest country. But never far from Obama's mind was Libya, where American and European air strikes were launched against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's forces Saturday.

Obama was expected to huddle throughout the day to discuss the crisis, as Gaddafi remained defiant and pledged to retaliate against the West.

The operations against Libya's strongman encroached on what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized as a vital trip for American diplomacy - a tour designed to improve sometimes strained relations with Brazil, the world's seventh-largest economy and an important market for American products.

"Obviously, there is a lot going on around the world and much that demands our urgent attention," Clinton said Friday in Washington, before traveling to Paris to discuss military actions against Libya with American allies. "But as I often say, we have to deal with both the urgent and the important at the same time."

So on Saturday, Obama met in Brasilia, this country's capital deep in the interior, with Brazil's new president, Dilma Rousseff. Both Rousseff and Obama have expressed interest in improving relations, and the two leaders signed preliminary trade agreements.

Brazil is interested in stepping up its exports to the United States, from agricultural products to manufactured goods.

American companies are interested in lucrative contracts that will be awarded ahead of the 2016 Olympics here in Rio, as well as the investments that will become available as Brazil works to develop deep-sea oil reserves off Rio's coast. The White House also said Obama talked up Boeing F-18 jet fighters to Rousseff, as Brazil weighs updating its air force fleet.

Still, there is disharmony on various important issues. Rousseff, in public comments, gently chided the United States for its protectionist policies. And Obama did not endorse Brazil for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, a major initiative of Brazilian diplomacy.

It also appears the United States will be unable to prod Brazil to share Washington's efforts to isolate Iran, as that country moves forward with its nuclear program. "I don't think our position is going to change dramatically," said Marcos Guterman, a Brazilian historian who blogs about international affairs for "O Estado," a Sao Paulo newspaper.

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