Obama To Visit Rising Economic Power Brazil

President Obama heads off on a trip to Latin America this weekend. He's due to visit Chile, El Salvador and Brazil — a growing economic and political powerhouse that is looking for a new relationship with the United States.

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Most of President Obama's foreign attention has lately been focused east to the devastation in Japan and revolts across the Arab world. Now he's turning south. He leaves tomorrow for his first presidential visit to Latin America. His wife and daughters will join him on the five-day trip.

NPR's Ari Shapiro will be traveling with the president and he has this preview.

ARI SHAPIRO: This is President Obama's first foreign trip of the year and it sticks to one overarching theme of his presidency. He spends more of his time abroad in emerging democracies than in well-established world powers.

Although with Brazil, the term emerging may no longer apply. By almost any measure Brazil has emerged. It's the seventh richest country in the world, with steady growth, huge supply of oil, and cash reserves in the bank.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Brazil's foreign secretary here in Washington last month.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): Brazil has enormous credibility when it comes to development. And the United States supports what Brazil is doing in reaching out around the world. In fact, the foreign minister told me that Brazil has opened 50 new embassies in recent years.

SHAPIRO: President Obama wants to double American exports by 2015, and trade with Latin America can help reach that goal. The region came through the economic recession better than most of Europe. And now those countries are ready to buy, says White House economic advisor Mike Froman.

Mr. MIKE FROMAN (White House Economic Advisor): As countries like Brazil see great masses of their population enter the middle class, that's a market for us. It's a stable economy.

SHAPIRO: In the capital Brasilia, President Obama will address a summit of American and Brazilian CEOs. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner visited Brazil last month. And when he came back, he told reporters at a Bloomberg breakfast that the U.S. could benefit tremendously from working with our southern neighbors.

Secretary TIMOTHY GEITHNER (Treasury Department): All the world's attention for such a long period of time has been dominated by what's happening in China, India, and Asia, and it really is unbelievable how much progress Brazil has made. It's very impressive, very promising, and we'll have a big economic stake in being a bigger part of that.

SHAPIRO: From Brasilia, the first family will fly to Rio de Janeiro. They'll visit tourist sites, including the iconic Christ Redeemer statue, and Mr. Obama will deliver a speech to the people of Brazil.

Then Air Force One heads farther south, to a country that has arrived in a different way. Chile survived a huge 8.8 magnitude earthquake and tsunami a year ago. The President will talk about lessons Japan might take from Chile. He could also meet with some of the miners who were pulled from the earth alive last fall.

In Santiago, the president will give a broad speech outlining his view of the U.S. relationship with Latin America. White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes says Mr. Obama will connect Chile's transition to democracy in the 1980s with the upheaval in the Mideast today.

Mr. BEN RHODES (White House Deputy National Security Advisor): Chile demonstrated very successfully that despite the extraordinary challenges, it is possible for a country to undergo a transition that not only leads to a more democratic country but a more successful one, one that enjoys greater economic growth, better relations with the world and the international community.

SHAPIRO: El Salvador is the last stop on this trip, where the President's focus will shift to security. Kevin Casas-Zamora is the former vice president of neighboring Costa Rica.

Former Vice President KEVIN CASAS-ZAMORA (Costa Rica): Just last year, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, each of them, each of these countries, had more murders than the 27 countries of the European Union combined. So the situation is pretty dire.

SHAPIRO: Most of that violence is linked to the drug trade. The President will also discuss immigration in El Salvador. About one and a half million Salvadorans live in the U.S., and roughly a third of them are illegal.

President Obama says he wants to overhaul America's immigration policy. But he can't do that without cooperation from Congress. In fact, most of the subjects he's discussing on this trip require lawmakers to help him out.

So nobody's expecting the president to come home with a fistful of concrete accomplishments. This trip is more about process than results. Still, as one Latin America expert put it: In diplomacy, symbolism is substance.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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