Economics, Jobs Top Agenda On Obama's Latin American Tour

President Obama is winding down a three-nation tour of Latin America. It is his first official visit to the region since taking office. The president is in El Salvador today, after stops in Chile and Brazil. The tour is aimed at strengthening economic ties and boosting job creation. Guest host Farai Chideya discusses the trip's significance with former Vice-President of Costa Rica, Kevin Casas-Zamora and New York Times Bureau Chief, Alexei Barrionuevo.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

We'll explore the politics of nuclear power as the crisis at the reactor in Japan continues to unfold. We have two very different perspectives on the future of sustainable energy in this country and the risk of building and maintaining nuclear energy plants. That's in a few minutes.

But first, to Latin America where President Obama is winding down a three-nation tour with a stop in El Salvador. The president has been confronting simultaneous international demands. While he was speaking to dignitaries on his tour of the Americas, he also weighed U.S. assistance to Japan and authorized military action in Libya.

Here's the president in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, emphasizing his first trip to Latin America while also discussing his country's move against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

President BARACK OBAMA: But for our two nations, for the United States and Brazil, two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of their world will be determined by its people.

CHIDEYA: And on this tour, President Obama has tried to highlight the direct significance to the U.S. of its relationships with Latin America. From trade cooperation with Brazil to the exchange of science and energy know-how with Chile, to tackling immigration issues with El Salvador.

Joining us to talk about this are Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Alexei Barrionuevo is the Sao Paolo, Brazil bureau chief for the New York Times. He joins us now from Santiago, Chile. Welcome, gentlemen.

Mr. KEVIN CASAS-ZAMORA (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thank you.

Mr. ALEXEI BARRIONUEVA (Brazil Bureau Chief, New York Times): Good day, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So, Alexei, the president is in El Salvador today after stops in Brazil and Chile, how has his visit been received overall?

Mr. BARRIONUEVA: Well, overall, President Obama has been well received in both countries. In Brazil, he may as well have been Madonna. I mean, people everywhere were trying to catch a glimpse of him. And many Brazilians from other parts of the country traveled to Rio hoping or expecting to see him up close in Cinelandia Plaza.

I think many Brazilians see Obama as sort of a reflection of what they like to see in their own leaders - someone multiracial, well-prepared and educated, youthful, warm. And in Chile, I think that, you know, there was a little bit more skepticism about his visit. But overall, I think it went well as well.

CHIDEYA: Is there anything that he missed, Alexei, on this trip?

Mr. BARRIONUEVA: I think that certainly that in Brazil the disappointment with Obama's visit was that he didn't endorse their bid for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. The other observation that we had at the New York Times was that Mr. Obama seemed to sort of shy away from one of the very issues that makes him such a sort of superstar, especially in Brazil. That he is a multiracial person, that he is the first black American president. It's something that Brazilians have been openly and enthusiastically supportive of and sort of mesmerized by ever since the campaign.

And Mr. Obama simply didn't address the issue directly, which is of course just sort of demonstrates how race is viewed differently, I think, in and out of the United States.

CHIDEYA: Kevin?

Mr. CASAS-ZAMORA: I think in general, there's been a lack of substance to the trip. Actually, when you get to listen to President Obama's speeches both in Rio and in Santiago, to be entirely frank, there are a collection of platitudes and very little substance. There's a lot of symbolic politics going on here. But very little else.

It remains to be seen whether in El Salvador he will announce something more concrete related to one of the issues that, to be fair, he has played up throughout the trip, which is the struggles of Latin America with violence and organized crime, but it's doubtful.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that he avoided that topic because it's contentious here in the U.S. and there has been, to a certain extent, some people who have blamed Mexico in particular, you know, not Latin America, per se, but Mexico for violence creeping into the U.S. And at the same time, the Mexican government, which, again, is not on the table for this trip, talking about the U.S. gun-running. I mean, do you think that there is - that the president avoided that on purpose?

Mr. CASAS-ZAMORA: I don't think he has avoided it. I mean, quite to the contrary. He has mentioned the issue in Brazil and in Chile. And he will certainly mention it in El Salvador. The trouble is that what the U.S. can do in very concrete ways to help save Central America, where the situation is growing more dire by the day is actually very limited.

I mean, the U.S. is putting some money on the table to help these countries. The scale of the problem is much bigger than any money the U.S. can put on the table. And when it comes to organized crime and drug trafficking, and also, when it comes to immigration and trade, the kind of decisions that the U.S. president could take to make things easier for Latin America to really move the relationship forward are politically costly. And I don't think that he's willing at this point to invest that political capital.

CHIDEYA: And, Kevin, you mentioned immigration. The president is in El Salvador today. There are a million and a half Salvadorians living in the U.S. today. And so, how is the issue of immigration being addressed by the president?

Mr. CASAS-ZAMORA: Well, he will probably, you know, mention it in El Salvador. The most urgent problem in the case of El Salvador is the issue of the 220,000 approximately Salvadorians that are living in the U.S. under a temporary status since 2001. I mean this status has been renewed time and again and is expiring once again in 2012.

And, really, I mean for a country like El Salvador with all sorts of social problems, that is very dependent economically on the remittances sent home by the Salvadorians living here, having those 200,000 Salvadorians going back to the country is really a dire prospect. So I think that particular issue will certainly be touched in the discussion between both presidents, Barack Obama and Mauricio Funes.

CHIDEYA: And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica, as well as the New York Times Sao Paulo bureau chief, Alexei Barrionuevo, about the president's visit to Latin America.

And, Alexei, when President Obama gave a press conference in Chile, he was asked about past U.S. involvement in the country's internal affairs. How has President Obama managed to address the skepticism that the U.S. has a history of mingling or interfering with the leadership of countries in Latin America?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: Well, it seemed that Obama actually did not take the opportunity to sort of apologize. One could say when he was asked by a Chilean reporter yesterday about the sort of open wounds that Chile may still have towards the actions of the United States in the 1970s, when they backed the coup that brought Pinochet to power.

But, you know, his response was essentially that neither country should be, quote, "trapped by our history." And he said that, you know, in the past two decades there's been extraordinary progress in Chile that has not been impeded by the United States. And I think that that is substantially the feeling, you know, at the moment, I would say more broadly in the country.

Chile, you know, has had - there have been several, two or three presidents now that have very good relationships with the United States. The U.S. sees Chile as this sort of stable partner in the region because of the way it's handled its economy. And even President Pinera, as a wealthy businessman, was - had relationships with the Pinochet government, tried to say that that was certainly not part of the discussions that they had yesterday.

CHIDEYA: Kevin?

Mr. CASAS-ZAMORA: Yes. I think that part of the symbolism that Obama is trying to convey in this trip is precisely, you know, he's a very smart person and he realizes that, in some ways, the genie's out of the bottle and the U.S. is not able to relate to Latin America in the same way it did for many decades. That is by intervening in several different ways in the internal affairs of the region. I don't think that's possible anymore and Obama realizes that.

And, actually, one of the ideas that, you know, came through when he was in Brazil was this idea that, well, Latin America as a whole, but particularly Brazil is to be considered more or less equal partner to the U.S. in dealing with the number of not merely regional issues, but also global issues. I think that's a watershed, you know, and that's a very significant political shift in the way the U.S. and Latin America conduct their relationship.

Mr. BARRIONUEVA: If I could add something - I just to say.

CHIDEYA: Yes, please.

Mr. BARRIONUEVA: One of the things - I think the most important thing, I think, I agree with Kevin is that this was a recalibration of the relationship with Brazil. And that was one of the - probably the thrust of the importance from the Brazilian side and maybe the American side for the visit to Brazil was certainly to get the relationship back on better footing after a year. Certainly where the foreign policy actions by Brazil, in Iran especially, had really, you know, started to make the United States State Department skeptical of Brazil as a partner in the region.

CHIDEYA: From what I understand, Brazil's chief trading partner at this point is China. And then Brazil also holds quite a bit of U.S. debt in terms of having a stake in our future. Is this something that Brazil trades on in its relationship with the United States both its own trade status and its relationship to the U.S. debt?

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: Well, respective of the relationship of the U.S. debt, there's no question that what's going on with Brazil at the moment is this sort of courtship by both the United States and China, if you will, for Brazil's business.

You know, it's, like, Brazil is open for business and people want in. There's an incredible flow of hot money coming into the country, which has affected their currency in a way that's hurting the industrial sector. But in a sense, that's a reflection of how well the Brazilian economy is doing and why the money is finding its way to Brazil.

And so the United States, I felt like Obama was on a sales mission. I felt like he was clearly selling the United States and selling the importance of trying to keep the United States in the game as China continues to scoop up more of Brazil's business.

In some ways, the United States can't compete with that because China has needs that are being met by especially the southern cone, but also, I would say, the entire continent of South America, with respect to iron ore and agricultural products, food, energy. All that is something that South America is in a unique position to provide to China for the foreseeable future, especially agriculture.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank you two gentlemen so much. We've been speaking with Alexei Barrionuevo, the New York Times Sao Paulo bureau chief. He joined us on the phone from Santiago, Chile. And in studio with us, Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much.

Mr. CASAS-ZAMORA: Thank you.

Mr. BARRIONUEVO: Thank you.

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