Obama lands in Brazil to kick off Latin American tour

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 3:52 PM

By Matt Spetalnick

BRASILIA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama arrived in Brazil on Saturday on a mission to reassert U.S. interests in Latin America's fast-growing economies while grappling with global crises raging from Libya to Japan.

Obama's visit to the region's economic powerhouse is 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 and is pitched as a push for U.S. exports and jobs, despite an array of international troubles that may overshadow his travels.

"I want to open more markets around the world so that American companies can do more business and hire more of our people," Obama said in his weekly address on Saturday.

Obama will seek to reinforce hemispheric ties that have become frayed at the edges but his attention is sure to be divided.

Senior aides will be with him at every stop to help him stay on top of events as the United States works with allies against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and charts a response to Japan's nuclear crisis. Republican critics have accused the president of a failure to lead amid the 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 in Brasilia after the overnight flight. He moves quickly to fence-mending talks with President Dilma Rousseff and then addresses business leaders from both countries.

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.

U.S. officials have made clear 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.

(Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Raymond Colitt in Brasilia and Stuart Grudgings in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by John O'Callaghan)