BRASILIA, Brazil – It lacks the urgency of a nuclear crisis in Japan, or fighting in Libya or the threat of a government shutdown at home. But President Barack Obama embarks Friday on a trip to Latin America that many in the hemisphere consider long overdue and that the White House believes will help restore U.S. influence in the region.
Over the next five days, Obama is to visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in what his aides cast as a mission to build job-creating opportunities for the United States and to address regional security concerns.
The trip is also an effort to solidify relationships that have slipped two years after Obama declared "a new chapter of engagement" with the region.
In that time, China has expanded its economic footprint in the region and has surpassed the United States as Brazil's top trade partner.
Despite the competing, pressing demands on the president, the White House has been determined to proceed with the trip, emphasizing the potential of the burgeoning region for U.S. economic growth.
"In this increasingly interconnected and fiercely competitive world, our top priority has to be creating and sustaining new jobs and new opportunities for our people," Obama wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today. "We've got to keep competing for every new job, every new industry and every new market in the 21st century."
Obama's planned departure Friday was coming a day after the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
In Latin America, Obama will meet with recently elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.
"Something remarkable has been happening in the region," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday, noting that Obama's trip comes on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress that aimed to spur development across Latin America.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, Clinton noted that, taken as a whole, the Latin American economy is almost three times greater than India's or Russia's and not far behind that of China or Japan. Tens of millions are joining the middle class and the close proximity of the region to the U.S. creates tremendous opportunities for new business, she said.
Each country offers Obama a different look at a diverse hemisphere. Yet in selecting those three, he is reaching out to nations whose political leaders have displayed a pragmatic governing style and where anti-Americanism is on the wane. As such they stand in stark contrast to Venezuela and Bolivia, led by leftist populists known for agitating against the United States.
At the same time, in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, Obama's showcasing democracies that have emerged from turbulent pasts and that, in his administration's view, serve as examples of a pathway out of the current upheaval in the Middle East.
The trip also presents Obama with an opportunity to spell out his doctrine for the region — much like he did for the Middle East in a speech in Cairo in June 2009. Obama is saving that moment for Monday in Santiago, Chile, where he will reiterate his goal of engaging with countries in the region as equals and emphasize their own role in becoming better neighbors.
Obama is not traveling with a basket of ready-made accomplishments or major agreements to feature during the trip. Indeed, when it comes to trade, he embarks empty-handed.
Pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama remain unfinished, provoking demands from the U.S. business sector and Republican lawmakers that he complete the deals. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell sent Obama off Friday with an opinion piece in The Miami Herald Friday that concluded: "The president has said that he wants to improve America's stature in the world, but by putting these deals on the back-burner, that is exactly what he puts at risk in our own backyard."
First lady Michelle Obama, her mother and the Obamas' two daughters will conduct their own brand of diplomacy on the trip, attending a series of separate events focused on young people, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
Obama first traveled to the region in April 2009 when he attended a 34-nation summit in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Since then, however, his greatest attention to Latin America has been devoted to drug-related violence in Mexico as other issues in the region took a back seat to domestic and international priorities.
"I think his honeymoon in the region is about to end. He's aware of that," said Mauricio Cardenas, a former Colombian economics minister and head of the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "So he now needs to go and deliver on his promise. When he first met the leaders of this hemisphere, he created a lot of expectations."
Brazil is quickly becoming an economic powerhouse — the seventh largest economy in the world, considered an emerging power along with Russia, India and China, and a force in the group of 20 influential economies. Rousseff has indicated a desire to improve relations with the U.S. that had grown strained under her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Obama is making an overt bid for U.S. investment in Brazil and is seeking to find economic advantage in Brazil's offshore oil reserves and the infrastructure demands it will face hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. He plans to address a business summit organized by the U.S.-Brazil Business Council. Also in Brazil for the visit will be Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Still, Obama is unlikely deliver on key Brazilian issues, including its desire to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and for changes in U.S. farm policy that would ease or remove tariffs on Brazilian ethanol.
Chile is a U.S. trading partner with a record of solid economic growth and a broad-based middle class. The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet now behind it, Chile has established itself as a resolute democracy. It enhanced its international image last year with its response to the earthquake and tsunami, and by heroic efforts to rescue 33 miners stuck deep underground for 69 days last year.
Chile and the United States signed a nuclear energy pact Friday despite fears of radiation spreading in Japan after some of its nuclear reactors were severely damaged by a powerful earthquake and tsunami. Pinera has said nuclear power is a necessary option for his country despite the crisis in Japan and Chile's earthquake-prone geography. The signing was supposed to be a high-profile moment in Obama's visit with Pinera.
In El Salvador, Obama is looking for a partner to fight poverty and drug-related violence that has bedeviled Central America. Under Funes, El Salvador's economy grew at a rate of 3.3 percent last year and is projected to grow at 5.3 percent in 2011, greater than the rate projected for the U.S.
But El Salvador's murder rate has been climbing, as have cocaine seizures in the country. Funes is likely to ask for a greater share of the $1.8 billion Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico and Central America.