BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — President Barack Obama landed in Brazil's highland capital of Brasilia 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 despite urgent issues back in the United States, including the possibility of U.S. military action against the regime of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
Obama singled out the economic benefits of the trip, noting the rapid growth of Brazil and Chile, the second country on his itinerary. In his Saturday radio and internet address Obama noted that the United States exports more than three times as much to Latin America than to China.
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.
"What is clear is that in an increasingly global economy, our partnership with these nations is only going to become more vital," Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
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.
Obama departed Washington just hours after endorsing military action against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, 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.
For Obama, 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.
"This is a very pragmatic woman," said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. "She is very much a manager, which Lula never was. I don't think she's going to spend a lot time digging up the past."
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.
"Consider the political circumstances that you are faced nowadays with the Arabian countries," said Gabriel Rico, president of the American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Brazil is a very important candidate to supply the United States in terms of oil."
China has already established a toehold for the oil. Under agreements signed in 2009, Brazil's state-run energy company received a 10-year, $10 billion loan. China's state-owned refiner Sinopec would receive 200,000 barrels a day over the decade.
Brazil is also a giant agricultural exporter, competing head-to-head with the United States. Its commercial cattle herd of 170 million head is the largest in the world and is 50 percent larger than the United States' herd.
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, followed by the joint press conference 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. Another larger group will also travel to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo.
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.
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