Obama will head to Brazil to start Latin triple visit

President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive Saturday in Brazil to start a five-day Latin America trip also taking him to Chile and El Salvador. Obama wants to send the message the United States intends to step up its engagement, while respecting the political, economic and social agendas governments are pursuing in the region.

The president announced his Latin America trip during his State of the Union Address to Congress in January. “This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador to forge new alliances across the Americas,”

It will be his first visit to South and Central America, a region of broad political and economic diversity, and the focus of fierce global competition for investment, exports, and influence.

Preparations have been under way for months. In February, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner visited economic powerhouse Brazil, the largest country on the continent and the world’s 7th-largest economy.

After talks in Washington with Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton previewed some of the Obama agenda.

“We are cooperating closely and our bilateral work on issues and global challenges, including food security and human rights, and clean energy and global inequality, is key to both of us and we will explore even additional ways to pursue our common interests and our common values,”she said.

Themes in all three countries include the consolidation of democracy, open and accountable government, civil rights, gender equality, and social inclusion.

In Rio de Janeiro, President Obama will address the people of Brazil. He is also expected to visit a favela, one of the squatter slums Brazil’s government has been trying to wrest from the control of criminal and drug gangs.

School of International Service Dean Louis Goodman, of the The American University in Washington says the first African-American president of the United States should be able to deliver an effective message to Latin American countries still struggling with a past marked by social inequalities.

Obama’s discussions with President Dilma Rousseff and American and Brazilian business executives will focus on areas of opportunity in renewable and sustainable energy, science and technology, education and innovation, also key priorities for Mr. Obama in the U.S. economic recovery.

Major oil and natural gas finds in Brazil are also of interest to the United States, something Obama mentioned in a recent news conference about rising energy prices.

Brazil’s ambassador in Washington, Mauricio Vieira, says his government seeks more balance in bilateral trade, and mentions differences on global-trade issues. But he says the important thing is that both sides continue talking.

“We discuss all issues, those which we agree, and even those in which we do not agree completely, but the important thing is not agreeing always, the important thing is to discuss, to have an open dialogue and to find ways to have a consensus on a very wide agenda,”he said.

Obama’s visit to Chile is aimed at spotlighting that country as a model for economic reform and political stability.

After a meeting with President Sebastian Pinera, Chile’s first conservative leader since the end of the Pinochet era in 1990, Obama will deliver what the White House calls a broad policy speech about the U.S. relationship with Latin America.

In El Salvador, Obama will meet with President Mauricio Funes, who heads a center-left government, and is seen as a strong partner, especially in regional counter-narcotics efforts. They will also discuss immigration issues.

President Obama’s trip comes as critics assert the U.S. is losing out on opportunities for economic influence to China, which has emerged as the lead trading partner for Brazil, and in this hemisphere, to Canada.

Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth says Latin America has other opportunities, and the United States needs to be fully engaged in a region that is now an engine of global economic recovery.

Back home, Obama faces intensified pressure from the U.S. Congress to finalize free-trade agreements with Panama and with Colombia, which were left off his Latin America itinerary.

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