President Obama arrived on Saturday morning for his first visit to South America, a trip that he hopes will buttress the U.S. economic recovery while also sending a strong signal that Washington is ready to work with a resurgent Latin America that is increasingly eager to flex its newfound economic and political muscle.
The president will meet in Brasilia for talks with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. One emphasis will be on helping American businesses snare a big share of the lucrative contracts for building the infrastructure that the country will need to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
The two presidents' meetings carry both symbolic and geopolitical import. U.S. Ambassador to Brazil James Shannon has stressed the “symbolic meaning” of the first African-American president of the United States meeting with the first woman president of South America’s largest country.
The Brazilians are also celebrating the symbolism of Obama’s planned visit to a “favela,” one of the “squatter slums” that the government has struggled to pacify and rid of crime.
Beyond symbolism, though, is the hard reality of Brazil’s emergence as a global player. Obama recognized that when he made the early decision to give preference to the Group of 20 organization over the smaller G-8, dominated by the United States and the traditional industrialized democracies that have run the world economy for many years. The White House has argued that the G-20’s dominance simply reflects the reality that Brazil is now the seventh-largest economy in the world, having surpassed G-8 countries such as Britain, Italy, France, and Canada.
Brazil is a large supplier of food to the United States and, with its newly discovered and massive oil reserves, could also become a supplier of oil and gas. Additionally, the White House sees Brazil as potentially playing a big role in Obama’s goal of doubling U.S. exports.
The president will speak in Brazil to the leaders of 500 large corporations, including the executives of 60 U.S. companies who will travel there. He also is bringing a large contingent of Cabinet officers. “In Brazil, the private conversation is going to be about business, business, business,” said Ted Piccone, who was a State Department and National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration.
The White House hopes that this emphasis will show Obama working for American jobs even while he is out of the country. “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 Mike Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.
“Kicking this off in Brazil is sending a number of signals,” said Julia Sweig, senior fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “One is that the administration seems to understand the importance of Brazil, not just as the strategic anchor of South America but also as a very important potential global player and global partner for the United States on a bunch of issues – climate change, financial architecture, dealing with China’s artificially low currency, cooperation in Africa.”
For the first time in the past two decades, a presidential trip to the region will not be primarily about free trade, which both President Clinton and President George W. Bush championed on their journeys. In part, that is because Obama has failed to push already-negotiated free trade treaties with Colombia and Panama.
The subject is expected to come up, though, when the president moves on from Brazil to the next two stops on the Latin American tour – Chile and El Salvador.
In Chile, which has perhaps the most advanced economy on the continent, the talk will be about deepening bilateral ties. In El Salvador, the conversation “is going to be quite different,” Piccone said. There, the agenda will be dominated by the crime and violence exploding as the Mexican government has forced the drug cartels out of its country.
Additionally, Obama’s visit to El Salvador is seen as sending a strong signal to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. “Obama is signaling that he can have a good working relationship with a leftist, so that Hugo Chavez takes note of that,” Piccone said. “And that isolates Hugo Chavez, because all the countries are going to understand the message, especially Ecuador and Bolivia.”
The president will return to Washington on Wednesday.
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