President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to arrive Saturday in Brazil on Saturday, on the president's first trip to South and Central America that will also take him to Chile and El Salvador. Obama will recognize the consolidation of democracies in the region, and reassure Latin America that the U.S. intends to step up its economic engagement.
The president has described the trip as an effort to forge "new alliances" across the Americas, and White House officials say agreements can be expected at each stop in areas such as energy, economic growth and security.
The Obamas first stop is Brazil, the world's 7th largest economy with a growing middle class, but which like other countries in the region continues to grapple with legacies of social injustice and poverty.
A a news conference last month with Brazil's foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the two countries are cooperating closely on food security, human rights, clean energy, global inequality and other issues.
"Brazil and the United States seek to promote open and accountable government, civil rights, a vibrant civil society, and social inclusion."
Louis Goodman, Dean of the School of International Service at The American University in Washington, D.C., said Obama should be effective in the messages he delivers, particularly as the first African-American U.S. president and a symbol of America's acceptance of diversity.
"People want to feel that the U.S. stands for diversity. They could not always be sure of that. Some of our foreign policy moves in the past suggested that we wanted things in a cookie-cutter image. And the fact that we have an African-American president who has a foreign policy style that lets other countries have their own processes is very, very well received."
Obama meets with President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first woman head of state, and delivers a speech to the people of Brazil from Rio de Janeiro. Brazil will host the Olympic Games there in 2016, and the World Cup in 2014.
Discussions with Rousseff, and meetings with Brazilian and American business executives, will focus on investment opportunities in areas such as as renewable energy, science and technology, education and innovation. These are all priorities for Obama's job-creation agenda back home.
White House officials say Obama also likely will raise Brazil's discovery several years ago of major offshore oil and natural gas deposits, something he mentioned in a recent news conference about rising energy prices.
"When it comes to imported oil, we are strengthening our key energy relationships with other producer nations, something that I will discuss with President Rousseff when I visit Brazil."
Other likely topics are political upheaval in the Middle East, and Brazil's desire to become a permanent member of an expanded U.N. Security Council.
At a recent panel discussion in Washington, Brazil's ambassador Mauro Vieira, said Brazil and the U.S. have their differences but this is Obama's opportunity to reach out to Brazil and the entire region.
"The important thing about this trip, the trip and the visit itself, is the desire of the American government itself to reach out to the region and to discuss very broad and very wide agenda with every country," said Vieira.
In Chile, Obama meets with President Sebastian Pinera, the first conservative head of state since the end of the Pinochet era, and will deliver what the White House calls a major policy speech about the U.S. relationship with Latin America.
Roberto Matus, deputy chief of mission at Chile's embassy in Washington, said it will be an opportunity to lay out a clear American vision for an equal partnership.
"We should recognize the differences of the countries, respect the specificities of development and models of development of each country, and from there try to build a forward-looking vision, a partnership on how Latin America is a global player and how Latin America should be present in this area," said Matus.
In El Salvador, Obama will discuss counter-narcotics efforts, trade, and immigration with President Mauricio Funes, a former member of the leftist Farabundo Marti guerrilla movement, who now heads a center-left government.
El Salvador's ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Altschul, said the battle against organized crime and drug traffickers requires a unified regional response. "They don't respect borders, they don't respect laws, they don't respect anything. And that is why it is a regional problem and therefore the solution has to be regional"
Back home, Obama faces criticism that he has been slow to help the U.S. seize opportunities in Latin America, and compete with China and others for influence.
U.S. lawmakers have questioned why free trade pacts signed, but then re-negotiated with Colombia and Panama - both left off Obama's itinerary - have not yet been sent to Congress.
The president has said he is committed to moving both pacts to congressional approval as soon as possible. Among impatient lawmakers is Republican Representative Connie Mack who heads the House of Representatives Committee on Western Hemisphere Affairs.
"The administration's lack of action is killing U.S. jobs. The failure to move forward on our promises is hurting important allies in the region."
Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Council of the Americas, said Obama must persuade Latin America that the U.S. is its best partner, though others are knocking at its door.
"We can put names on those opportunities - China, Canada - certainly rising Brazil, and intra-regional trade and relationships, and I think we can no longer assume that we are the only game in town, if we ever were," said Farnsworth.
There also is continuing criticism, especially from Cuban-American lawmakers, of administration policy on Cuba. There is concern about Honduras, and the domestic and regional policies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, including his embrace of Iran's government.
Where Chavez is concerned, Goodman said that positive messages Obama delivers on his trip should speak for themselves. "By visiting two countries that are economic success, Brazil and Chile, and two countries that don't behave in an erratic way on the international scene, Brazil and Chile, he will be sending a message that this is what the United States wants to relate to."
The president is scheduled to arrive back in Washington next Wednesday.
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