BRASILIA, Brazil – President Barack Obama arrived in Brazil on Saturday for the start of a three-country, five-day tour of Latin America to promote greater economic ties and improved regional security. The trip comes against the backdrop of urgent issues elsewhere in the world, including the possibility of U.S. military action against the regime of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
Obama had his whole family in tow as he emerged from Air Force One into a mix of sunshine and raindrops in the highland capital of Brasilia early Saturday. First lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha and the girls' grandmother and godmother accompanied the president on the nearly 9-hour flight from Washington, and through a receiving line of Brazilian and U.S. officials. Later in the morning the president and first lady were to participate in an official arrival ceremony at the presidential palace.
In his Saturday radio and Internet address Obama singled out the economic benefits of the trip, noting the rapid growth of Brazil and Chile, the second country on his itinerary. Obama said that the United States exports more than three times as much to Latin America than to China.
"What is clear is that in an increasingly global economy, our partnership with these nations is only going to become more vital," the president said.
Brazil stands out for its strategic and economic importance to the United States. As the world's seventh-largest economy, it is a member of an exclusive club of influential developing nations along with Russia, India and China, collectively known in economic circles as the BRIC nations. Obama is looking to reset the U.S. relationship with Brazil, an emerging economic power that even without being hostile has annoyed Washington with its independent ways.
After Brazil, Obama travels to Chile, which has established itself as one of the wealthier nations in South America. His third and final stop is in El Salvador.
The trip risks being overshadowed by ominous developments in earthquake-ravaged Japan, where officials struggled to prevent a meltdown at a damaged nuclear power plant, and in Libya, where a defiant Gadhafi warned international troops Saturday that they would regret intervening. Obama departed Washington just hours after endorsing military action against the strongman's regime, leaving an array of military might at the ready and raising the prospect that he would have to authorize military action from a foreign land. Leaders from the Arab world, Africa, the United States and other Western powers were holding urgent talks in Paris on Saturday over possible military action.
Obama opted to depart for Brazil on schedule despite those international crises. For the president, the visit represents a chance to engage with newly elected President Dilma Rousseff and get a firsthand assessment of what administration officials believe is her practical approach to governance and foreign relations after eight years of the flamboyant Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Lula, as he was commonly known, infuriated U.S. officials in the last two years of his presidency by attempting his own personal diplomacy with Iran and refusing to condemn Iran's human rights abuses. Rousseff, though hand-picked by Lula as his successor, has signaled that she will ease back from that approach.
Still, Rousseff showed no qualms about distancing Brazil from the United States over Libya. As a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Brazil was one of five countries that abstained from the vote Thursday that authorized a no-fly zone over Libyan air space.
And she has not entirely abandoned the idea of maintaining a dialogue with Iran.
Nevertheless, the White House is expressing high hopes. White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, "She has been very positive about the type of relationship that she wants to pursue with the United States."
Rousseff, a left-of-center politician, is a former guerrilla, torture victim and economist. Before becoming Brazil's first female president, she served as Lula's chief of staff.
The White House had initially said Rousseff and Obama would take questions from reporters after their meeting Saturday. But the schedule now says they will merely make remarks to the media. A U.S. official said the Brazilians did not want to take questions.
The trip comes as China has surpassed the United States as Brazil's top trading partner and in the wake of recent discoveries of vast oil reserves off the Brazilian coast. The reserves — estimated at between 30 billion and 80 billion barrels — place Brazil in the top 10 countries in the world in reserves. Since Brazil is energy self-sufficient, that oil would all be available for export.
Brazil is also a giant agricultural exporter, competing head-to-head with the United States.
Obama arrives bearing no major policy gifts. And he's not likely to deliver on two of Brazil's top wishes — an endorsement for Brazil to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a relaxation of tariffs on Brazilian ethanol. The United States and Brazil are the world's largest ethanol producers.
Obama's Saturday stay in the Brazilian capital, a city merely 50 years old, is all business. He will meet with Rousseff and deliver an address to a meeting of executives from Brazil and the United States.
The chief executive session is designed to illustrate the commercial opportunities for the United States in Brazil. American officials and business leaders point to the opportunities presented by the infrastructure challenges Brazil faces in its role as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
The CEO session will include a number of executives from American corporations, including International Paper, Cargill, Citigroup and Coca-Cola.
Business leaders and trade experts said Obama and Rousseff could make strides toward a trade and economic cooperation agreement, typically a first step toward forging a free trade agreement.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on Friday suggested Obama propose a tax treaty with Brazil that, among other things, would reduce double taxation for companies that do business in both nations. Brazil is the largest economy with which the United States does not have a bilateral tax treaty.