President Barack Obama's sustained trip to Latin America will have a central political goal for the White House: showing that the forces of anti-Americanism are shrinking while the influence of the United States as a hemispheric partner is rising, senior aides to the president said Wednesday.
Obama leaves Friday night for a trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador that will have him in South America and Central America for essentially five days. Beyond the specific economic, energy and security themes of his agenda is an overarching effort to show that Obama is engaged with the countries of his neighborhood _ and, in turn, why that matters to the United States.
Presidential aides were blunt Wednesday in describing the trip as a message to the regional nemeses of the United States, mainly Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose anti-U.S. position and harsh rhetoric have been defining features of his presidency.
Daniel Restrepo, Obama's senior adviser on Latin America, said the president's trip will underline "the restoration of American influence and appeal in the Americas, and the effect that that has had in diminishing the space for those who try to make a living politically on an anti-American sentiment."
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes added that Obama is popular in the region and that views of the U.S. are more positive, which encourages other nations to cooperate on the issues the United States cares about most. "It shifts the dynamic in the region, whereby we're not stuck in the same debate about something that happened decades ago," he said.
But Obama is also fighting a perception that he has not been as hands-on with the region as promised in April 2009, when he spoke at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago and said he was launching "a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained." He used that brief trip to say the U.S. was an equal partner in the region, not a senior partner.
Until that visit, Obama had never been south of Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. His travels to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador will be his first ever to those nations, aides said.
The White House is determined to show that the United States has a jobs-creating interest in bolstering its relations with other nations in the Americas. And Obama's advisers have shown no sign that the president will shorten or postpone this trip even as the Japanese nuclear crisis and worsening internal war in Libya spiral onward.
Obama will draw direct connections to the unrest in the Middle East, holding up Brazil and Chile as examples of nations that shifted from authoritarianism to democracy. And he will split his time between the policy and the personal. He will give speeches to business leaders but also the broader public, and spend time touring local sites as well as enjoying official dinners.
"We believe that it's imperative that the United States not disengage from these regions," Rhodes said. "There's a cost to disengagement. This has been a message I think we've delivered on why we've been so focused on Asia, for instance, and it's certainly true of Latin America. When we disengage, our ability to advance partnerships that serve our interest suffers."
As for concrete deals that may emerge, Rhodes said there will be some on energy and economy, but nothing "transformative."
A potential nuclear accord between the United States and Chile was still in doubt as the weekend neared.
Obama will be traveling with first lady Michelle Obama, their daughters, Sasha and Malia, and Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robison. Michelle Obama will also be holding separate events in each country, emphasizing education and community service.
The president begins in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, where he will arrive on Saturday after an overnight flight. He will meet with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and give a speech to corporate executives from the host country and the United States. Both presidents will take questions from reporters, as Obama plans to do in each of the three countries.
Obama also will spend time in Rio de Janeiro, where he will visit the famous Christ the Redeemer statue.
In Santiago, Chile, on Monday, Obama will meet with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and give the main speech of the trip about his doctrine toward Latin America. Obama has no plans to meet with the coal miners in Chile who were rescued last year after being marooned by a mine collapse for more than two months.
Obama ends his trip in San Salvador, El Salvador, where he will meet with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes on Tuesday and tour local sites on Wednesday before heading home.