By Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — President Barack Obama played grand tourist to Rio de Janeiro’s vivid extremes on Sunday, traveling from brilliant beaches to a notorious slum even as he monitored U.S. military strikes in faraway Libya.
With his whole family in tow on the second day of a Latin American tour meant to knit economic and cultural ties, the president visited the City of God shantytown that gained fame after a movie by the same name won Oscar nominations. At a community center in the heart of the jostling slum of 40,000 the president plunged into the lives of children there, playing soccer with kids and watching enthralled at a dazzling martial arts display.
The president shed his coat and tie, rolled up his sleeves and dribbled one-on-one soccer with one surprised boy. Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia got involved, too, kicking a ball around with the kids.
Then the president walked out into the streets and waved to throngs of residents who cheered him from rooftops and balconies. Dozens of young children pressed up against a chain-link fence trying to get a look.
On the metal roofs of the poor shanty buildings armed guards stood by. It was a short visit but the president got a glimpse of the poverty of the slum, visceral scenes of jumbled dwellings, and people lining the streets.
Meanwhile, seemingly a world away U.S. warplanes launched a coordinated assault against Moammar Gadhafi’s defenses a day after the president authorized the military action to enforce an internationally authorized no-fly zone. The president had been on a conference call with his top advisers earlier Sunday to get briefed on the effort as he juggled his touristing and economic outreach in Latin America with the unceasing demands of being commander-in-chief.
The president’s sightseeing in Brazil on Sunday was sure to endear him even more to a diverse and multicultural country where his personal story already makes him popular. That advances the overall goals of the five-day Latin American trip — with Chile and El Salvador next on the itinerary — which aims to cast Obama and the United States as attentive neighbors from the North, eager to capitalize on the region’s economic successes while addressing common security concerns.
From the start, however, Obama’s attention has been divided. He’s been forced to shuttle from meetings with President Dilma Rousseff and with Brazilian and U.S. executives, to briefings with his national security team.
Sunday brought more divided attention as he conferred with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top officials by secure phone before motorcading from his hotel across from the famed Copacabana beach to a helicopter, and finally by car into the City of God slum. It’s one of more than 1,000 slums, or ”favelas,” that dot the urban hills surrounding the city but also one that has become part of an ambitious ”pacification” program aimed at reducing violence in Rio.
Advisers said the favela tour was designed to illustrate Obama’s push for what officials call ”citizen security,” an emerging concern in Latin American countries as they wrestle with narco-crime and lingering poverty.
As Obama’s motorcade arrived, a crowd of excited residents rushed right past police tape, cheering loudly, before being stopped short by Brazilian security forces. People were elated by Obama’s appearance in their impoverished community.
The fact that Obama is Black resonated with slum residents, most of whom are Black themselves, just like half of Brazil’s 190 million residents.
The president ended his stay in Rio with a nighttime walking tour of Corcovado Mountain to the Christ the Redeemer Statue that is the very symbol of the city.
Initially, Obama had planned to visit the Christ statue at mid-morning. Aides said the change in schedule and shifting the speech to an indoor venue were due to logistical adjustments. They said they feared the statue would be shrouded in fog Sunday — a mist did cover the hills around Rio.
But the changes also had the effect of lowering Obama’s profile in the city, reducing the opportunity for clashing images as international attention remained riveted in Libya.
Daniel Restrepo, a White House national security adviser, said the shantytown tour, the speech and the visit to the iconic statue ”underscore the connection between the United States and Brazil at the most basic level.”
Restrepo said the dual image of Obama touring Rio while directing military operations elsewhere illustrated his commitment to reaching out to Latin American neighbors. He said it was important for the president to pay attention to all U.S. relationships.
”Making sure that we’re staying vigilant and the president is working those issues while he’s working a whole range of issues is not an incongruous message,” Restrepo said.
Rousseff displayed no hint that Obama’s multitasking was diluting the impact of his visit. She expressed personal delight that Obama had placed Brazil first in his tour of the region and that he had chosen to visit so early in her administration. She took note that she was the first female president of Brazil, hosting the first African- American president.
Still, Rousseff also did not hide her frustration at not getting Obama’s endorsement for a highly sought permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council.
Brazil now holds a rotating seat, and Rousseff’s renewed request for a permanent seat came two days after Brazil abstained from voting on the U.S.-backed resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The two leaders did sign agreements on trade and economic cooperation, an early step toward a free-trade relationship, and approved a deal for expanded air service between the two countries.