RIO DE JANEIRO - President Barack Obama, slipping from economic pitchman to grand tourist, is immersing himself in the sights and sounds of boisterous Rio de Janeiro even as he juggles the demands of U.S. military action in faraway Libya.
A day after authorizing missile strikes to help enforce an internationally backed no-fly zone over Libya, Obama travels the next leg of his Latin American tour to this vibrant city, where he intends to use his popularity to declare a cultural kinship between the U.S. and Brazil.
The five-day Latin American trip -- with Chile and El Salvador also on the itinerary -- aims to cast Obama and the United States as attentive neighbors from the north, eager to capitalize on the region’s economic successes while addressing common security concerns. From the start, however, Obama’s attention has been divided. He’s been forced to shuttle from meetings with President Dilma Rousseff and Brazilian and U.S. executives, to briefings and secure calls with his national security team.
With the conflict in North Africa sure to continue to intrude, Obama was scheduled on Sunday to tour the shantytown known as City of God, one of more than 1,000 slums that dot the urban hills surrounding the city but also one that has become part of an ambitious “pacification” program aimed at reducing violence in Rio.
He then was scheduled to deliver a speech, promoted as an address to the Brazilian people, inside the Theatro Municipal performance hall that sits on Cinelandia Plaza, a historic square that was the scene of a 1984 protest that set the stage for the eventual end of a 20-year military dictatorship.
The speech was originally billed as an outdoor event on the plaza open to all, but U.S. officials decided at the last minute to move the speech inside the theater and make it invitation-only “due to a number of concerns,” the U.S. Embassy said in a news release issued Friday. Scaffolding for the stage on which Obama was to speak was quickly removed from the square.
The president will end his stay in Rio with a nighttime walking tour of Corcovado Mountain to the Christ the Redeemer Statue, the very symbol of the city.
Daniel Restrepo, a White House national security adviser, said the shantytown tour, the speech and the visit to the iconic statue “underscore the connection between the United States and Brazil at the most basic level.”
Restrepo said the dual image of Obama touring Rio while directing military operations elsewhere illustrated his commitment to reaching out to Latin American neighbors. He said it was important for the president to pay attention to all U.S. relationships.
“Making sure that we’re staying vigilant and the president is working those issues while he’s working a whole range of issues is not an incongruous message,” Restrepo said.
Rousseff displayed no hint that Obama’s multitasking was diluting the impact of his visit. She expressed personal delight that Obama had placed Brazil first in his tour of the region and that he had chosen to visit so early in her administration. She took note that she was the first female president of Brazil, hosting the first African American president.
“And this is even more important and has a greater significance when we remember that the U.S. and Brazil are the two countries that have the largest black population outside Africa,” she said.
Indeed, Obama commands significant attention, even affection, in Brazil. In the capital, Brasilia, children greeted Obama with hugs and tears as they waved U.S. and Brazilian flags.
Still, Rousseff also did not hide her frustration at not getting Obama’s endorsement for a highly sought permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council. Brazil now holds a rotating seat, and Rousseff’s renewed request for a permanent seat came two days after Brazil abstained from voting on the U.S.-backed resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The two leaders did sign agreements on trade and economic cooperation, an early step toward a free-trade relationship, and approved a deal for expanded air service between the two countries.
Obama departs Brazil on Sunday and heads for Chile. On Tuesday he goes to El Salvador.
The president is traveling with his wife, Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robinson.
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks contributed to this report.
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