Brazilians Welcome Obama As Their Own

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Barack Obama impersonator Rinaldo Americo poses for photos with tourists in Cinelandia Square, where the real President Obama will be giving a speech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. i

Barack Obama impersonator Rinaldo Americo poses for photos with tourists in Cinelandia Square, where the real President Obama will be giving a speech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Felipe Dana/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Felipe Dana/AP
Barack Obama impersonator Rinaldo Americo poses for photos with tourists in Cinelandia Square, where the real President Obama will be giving a speech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Barack Obama impersonator Rinaldo Americo poses for photos with tourists in Cinelandia Square, where the real President Obama will be giving a speech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Felipe Dana/AP
Sugarloaf Mountain rises out of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. i

Sugarloaf Mountain rises out of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Felipe Dana/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Felipe Dana/AP
Sugarloaf Mountain rises out of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Sugarloaf Mountain rises out of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Felipe Dana/AP

When President Obama arrives in Brazil this weekend, there'll be talk of trade and geopolitics with the new president, Dilma Rousseff. There'll also be plenty of excitement, Brazilians say, about the arrival of the black man who became leader of the world's superpower.

When Obama comes to Brazil, he'll see wonders like the world-famous Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio. The sights are beguiling, but Brazil's people are hoping to catch their own glimpse of the very important visitor.

People like Dilci Aguiar de Paula, who sells t-shirts to tourists at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. She's black, like half of Brazil's nearly 200 million people, and says she's excited about Obama's arrival.

"Everyone likes him as president — a black president," she says. "He looks more Brazilian than American."

A Multicultural Country

Many Brazilians see a bit of themselves in the American president. Brazil was settled by waves of European immigrants and millions of African slaves brought there in chains. Their descendants make up the second-largest black population in the world after Nigeria.

For Brazil's blacks, Obama's story offers important lessons, says Hedio Silva Jr., a black activist and law professor.

"We identify with him, with his message, with his family," Silva says, a combination of things that generate hope for people in Brazil.

The country is proud of its multi-ethnic diversity – it's visible, in all its shades and colors, in cafes, the streets, the public parks. You can hear it in the music, infused with the sounds of Africa and Europe, and see it in the faces of the black and white musicians improvising on the beach. It's a racial gumbo that seems to point to egalitarianism and tolerance.

Black activists, though, say scratch the surface, and you'll find another story.

The City of God favela outside of Rio de Janeiro is notoriously dangerous, but, says drug counselor Carlos Jose Melo, it's getting better. i

The City of God favela outside of Rio de Janeiro is notoriously dangerous, but, says drug counselor Carlos Jose Melo, it's getting better. Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images
The City of God favela outside of Rio de Janeiro is notoriously dangerous, but, says drug counselor Carlos Jose Melo, it's getting better.

The City of God favela outside of Rio de Janeiro is notoriously dangerous, but, says drug counselor Carlos Jose Melo, it's getting better.

Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images

Hope For The Poorest Brazilians

At the City of God, one of Rio's most notorious slums, or favelas, a group of residents pray after taking part in a neighborhood clean-up to better their community.

Father Jose Adilson Pontes says there's no hiding the fact that blacks are worse off than whites. It's in the city's periphery, in the biggest favelas, he says, where you find blacks. He ticks off how blacks have the highest rates of illiteracy and how they're most likely to die violently.

And yet, the new Brazil saw a former shoeshine boy and factory worker – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – win the presidency in 2002. Now his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, herself a former political prisoner, is president.

Their dual policy of generating rapid economic growth and providing generous social programs helped lift 30 million people into the middle class.

Carlos Jose Melo says that's meant a difference even in places like the City of God – which city leaders want Obama to visit.

A Black President In The City Of God

Melo, a drug counselor in the City of God, says the favela has changed since the blockbuster film named for the slum portrayed it as a collection of festering warrens little better than a war zone.

"In the past, two or three years ago, we couldn't be here talking because of traffic dealers, drug dealers, selling their drugs," he says. "Things changed, a lot."

As the City of God has improved, so have the lives of many of its residents Melo says. That's why he's delighted that Obama is coming to Rio. The symbolism of a black American president will encourage people here like nothing else, he says.

"I think it's important for the world, because a poor guy suddenly becomes the most important man in the world."

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