Obama thrills Brazil slum residents with visit

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 4:11 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO -- President Barack Obama didn't just take in Rio's famous tourist sites during his visit Sunday, instead making his first stop a notorious slum where police recently wrested control from a violent drug gang.

Residents crowded sidewalks, rooftops and balconies to wave as Obama's shining black limousine rolled through the narrow streets. The luxurious vehicle contrasted sharply with the poverty in Cidade de Deus, or City of God, made famous by an Oscar-nominated movie of the same name.

At a community center, the president shed his coat and tie, rolled up his sleeves and dribbled a soccer ball one-on-one with a delighted boy. Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia also kicked a ball around with the kids.

Obama then walked out to the street and waved to throngs of cheering residents. Dozens of young children pressed up against a chain-link fence trying to get a glimpse of the U.S. president, as armed guards stood watch on the metal roofs of jumbled shacks.

In this nation of 190 million where half the population is black, Obama's election is an inspiration for many, said Ana Luiza Paradiso, a 40-year-old housewife.

"He opened a path for us," Paradiso said. "The fact that he is black lets other people dream. We have a real connection, real empathy for Obama."

Obama is on a five-day tour of Latin America that began Saturday in Brasilia, the capital.

Advisers said the Rio slum tour was designed to call attention to his push for reducing violence, a major concern for Latin American countries wrestling with drug gang wars and lingering poverty.

City of God gained worldwide notoriety after the 2002 film, which told of the slum's transformation over five decades from a government-planned housing project for the poor to a violent haven for cocaine gangs. The same story has been repeated in hundreds of Rio slums.

In 2009, however, City of God became part of an ambitious police "pacification" program, in which security forces clear heavily armed gangs from slums and establish a police presence. The program aims to reduce violence in Rio before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games and improve the lives of shantytown residents by bringing in basic services.

Noemia Marinho, a 40-year-old lingerie saleswoman who lives in the slum and got her hair done just for the presidential visit, said she hopes Obama's presence inspires Brazil to pay more attention to her neighborhood.

"He is thinking of Rio as more than just the Christ and Copacabana," Marinho said, referring to the city's iconic hilltop statue and world-famous beach. "Maybe our government will look to us more as well."


Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.

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