By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama headed for Brazil on Friday on a mission to reassert U.S. interests in Latin America's fast-growing economies even as he grapples with global crises raging from Libya to Japan.
Obama's visit to the region's economic powerhouse will be the centerpiece of his effort to re-engage with neighbors no longer content with being relegated to Washington's "backyard" and where the United States faces rising competition from China.
He decided to stick with his five-day itinerary, which will also take him to Chile and El Salvador, despite the dizzying array of international troubles that will follow him south of the border and may overshadow his travels.
While Obama will seek to reinforce hemispheric ties that have become frayed at the edges, his attention is sure to be divided.
Senior aides will be with him at every stop, scrambling to help him stay on top of events as the United States works with allies on possible military action against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and charts a response to Japan's unfolding nuclear disaster. Republican critics have accused the president of a failure to lead amid global turmoil.
The White House has justified Obama's trip in large part for its potential dividends of boosting U.S. exports to help create American jobs, considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.
Latin America wants the respect it feels it deserves from Washington for its increasingly vibrant economic development, including growth outstripping the sluggish U.S. recovery.
Obama will face a packed schedule when he lands in the capital, Brasilia, after an overnight flight. He moves quickly to fence-mending talks with President Dilma Rousseff and then addresses business leaders from both countries.
"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 said in an op-ed piece in USA Today previewing his trip. "That's one of the reasons I will travel to Latin America."
But a blunt assertion by a senior Obama adviser this week that the trip was "fundamentally" about export promotion irritated some officials in Brazil, where many are proud of the South American giant's increasing role on the world stage.
EASING STRAINS OF LULA ERA
U.S. officials have made clear that Obama also wants to take advantage of a chance to repair diplomatic ties since Rousseff took office in January. Tensions rose under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva over, among other things, Brazil's overtures to Iran.
Rousseff, a pragmatic leftist, has veered back toward Washington and away from anti-U.S. leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, but she will likely insist on concrete results.
"We want a relationship among equals," Brazil's Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said on Thursday.
Expectations are low, however, for breakthroughs on key differences over high U.S. tariffs on imports of Brazilian ethanol and on Brazil's reluctance to allow greater access to its own consumer market. But modest progress is likely on a trade and investment framework and a bilateral tax treaty.
However, with key disputes unlikely to be resolved, the presidents will not be subjected to prying questions from the press to explain why.
A news conference planned after their talks was scratched at Brazil's request and the leaders will make statements instead, a U.S. official said. There was no immediate word on the reason for the cancellation.
China will be up for discussion in Brazil, where Beijing -- -- with its appetite for raw materials -- has leapfrogged the United States as the top trading partner. Obama and Rousseff may also share their concerns over China's currency valuation.
Obama hopes to regain the initiative on trade in his first trip to Latin American in nearly two years, but his message could be undercut by his failure so far to win congressional approval of trade pacts with Colombia and Panama.
Washington's history with Latin America ranges from heavy-handed use of U.S. power for much of the 20th century to a situation of near-neglect at times during the past decade.
Though the U.S. image has improved from the lows of the Bush era and Obama remains personally popular in the region, hopes for significant easing of the U.S. embargo on communist Cuba and reform of immigration laws have yet to materialize.
However, Obama aides insist the goodwill generated by his trip will signal to Havana and Caracas that their anti-American message is not resonating in the broader region.
In a nod to events elsewhere, Obama will use his visits to Brazil, economic success story Chile and tiny El Salvador to hold up Latin America's democratic transitions as models for reform efforts spreading in the Middle East and North Africa.
With the world lurching from one crisis to another, he can also expect criticism from conservative pundits at home when he takes time out from his schedule. In Rio de Janeiro, the only sightseeing on tap for now is a family visit to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks the city's spectacular beaches and hills.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Raymond Colitt in Brasilia and Stuart Grudgings in Rio de Janeiro. Editing by Christopher Wilson)