Latin America & Caribbean

Obama woos Brazil in bid to build better ties

President Obama and his family visit the Christ the Redeemer statue
Image caption The Obama family visited one of Rio de Janeiro's most famous landmarks

Disappointment showed on the faces of many people in Rio de Janeiro's Cinelandia Square as they waited in the hot sun outside the Municipal Theatre, where US President Barack Obama was inside giving a speech to 2,000 selected guests.

During the weeks before Mr Obama's visit to Brazil, it was widely thought that he would talk directly to the people from the square, with Brazilians eager to hear the first African-American leader of the United States.

But on the eve of his arrival, the Americans decided to move the event inside the theatre because of "a number of concerns", according to White House officials.

"I am very disappointed that he is not going to speak to the public. I would like to see him because I think he is a great political figure and I am a big fan," said Cristina Martins, who stood in the square with hundreds of other people trying to catch a glimpse of President Obama.

There were some small but noisy protests, organised by members of left-wing groups who accuse the Americans of being interested primarily in exploiting Brazil's resources, such as the recently found offshore oil reserves.

But most people seemed happy to see the US president visiting Brazil and acknowledging the growing importance of the South American country on the world stage.

"Those who argue that democracy stands in the way of economic progress must contend with the example of Brazil," said President Obama in his speech. "Let us stand together not as senior and junior partners but as equal partners."

Symbolic success

It seems that a door has been opened to rebuild the US-Brazilian relations that had in recent years become strained over a number of issues, ranging from Iran's nuclear ambitions to currency imbalances.

"The first two years of the Obama administration were clogged with other priorities, domestic and international, but with respect to Brazil relations really did sour over Iran, Honduras and bases in Colombia. A very ideological tone set in," says Julia Sweig, from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image caption President Obama praised Brazil's efforts to lift people out of poverty

Ms Sweig says that the visit, just three months into the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, showed the US administration's willingness to put the bilateral relationship back on track.

"My sense is that Presidents Obama and Rousseff have an interest in improving the dynamic and doing it soon," said Ms Sweig.

Brazil and the US will have to work hard to translate their goodwill into results - particularly to achieve an increase in bilateral trade. But in Brazil, the visit of the US president has at least been a symbolic success.

The image of a female president and an African-American one greeting each other as the heads of state of the two largest economies in the Americas is in itself a mark of how much the world has changed.

Drug lords

But there is still a long way to go: the only time Barack Obama saw a sizeable number of Afro-Brazilians was on his visit to the Cidade de Deus slum, made famous by the movie City of God.

The City of God is one of the poorest districts of Rio de Janeiro and also has one of the largest black populations in the city.

"It's great to have Barack Obama visiting our community. It's very important for black Brazilians to see this," said student Pablo Mota, who posed for visiting photographers and camera crews, proudly showing off his Vote Obama T-shirt.

Image caption Most Cidade de Deus residents were keen to catch a glimpse of the US president

"I bought this T-shirt when Obama was running for president. I think he's helped a lot of people in the United States and will also help people here in Brazil," he said.

Only a few years ago it would have been impossible for any outsider - let alone an American president - to visit Cidade de Deus safely.

This was a community that for decades was dominated by drug lords, before the government took over and implemented what is known as a "pacification" programme, involving the deployment of large numbers of police.

It is also a place where it is possible to see up close the social mobility that over the past few years has raised millions of people out of poverty into a newly expanded lower middle class.

"The millions in this country who have climbed from poverty into the middle class did not do so in a closed economy controlled by the state. You're prospering as a free people with open markets and a government that answers to its citizens," said Mr Obama in his speech at the Municipal Theatre.

Long relationship

Hopes in the US are that Brazil's boom may now help to bring the US economy back from recession.

Mr Obama clearly said, for example, that the US wanted to be a major client of Brazil in the energy markets and that American companies were ready to take part in the major infrastructure works that Brazil needs before it hosts the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Image caption President Obama's talks with President Rousseff focused on trade

"The Americans may have been taken over by China as Brazil's main trading partner but the US remains the biggest foreign direct investor in the Brazilian economy. This is a relationship that goes back two centuries," said Gabriel Ricco, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil.

Brazilians, for their part, hope to export more to the US market.

"I think that ending the US subsidies to agriculture would be the single most important measure to Brazil right now," said Mr Ricco.

Now that the two countries have established better channels of communication, the real test will be how much each country is willing to concede in order to achieve their stated goals.

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