US President Barack Obama (file photo)
US President Barack Obama (file photo)

President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive Saturday in Brazil to start a five-day Latin America trip also taking him to Chile and El Salvador.  Mr. Obama wants to send the message the United States intends to step up its engagement, while respecting the political, economic and social agendas governments are pursuing in the region.

The president announced his Latin America trip during his State of the Union Address to Congress in January. ?This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador to forge new alliances across the Americas,"

It will be his first visit to South and Central America, a region of broad political and economic diversity, and the focus of fierce global competition for investment, exports, and influence.

Preparations have been underway for months.  In February, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner visited economic powerhouse Brazil, the largest country on the continent and the world's 7th-largest economy.

After talks in Washington with Brazil's foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton previewed some of the Obama agenda.

"We are cooperating closely and our bilateral work on issues and global challenges, including food security and human rights, and clean energy and global inequality, is key to both of us and we will explore even additional ways to pursue our common interests and our common values,?she said.

Themes in all three countries include the consolidation of democracy, open and accountable government, civil rights, gender equality, and social inclusion.

In Rio de Janeiro, President Obama will address the people of Brazil.  He is also expected to visit a "favela", one of the squatter slums Brazil's government has been trying to wrest from the control of criminal and drug gangs.

School of International Service Dean Louis Goodman, of the The American University in Washington says the first African-American president of the United States should be able to deliver an effective message to Latin American countries still struggling with a past marked by social inequalities.

"Brazil historically has been one of most uneven countries in the world and while it is making progress, it is less uneven today in 2011 than it was in 2009 for example, it still has a way to go.  And while Chile has made social progress it also has a way to go,?he said.

Mr. Obama's discussions with President Dilma Rousseff and American and Brazilian business executives will focus on areas of opportunity in renewable and sustainable energy, science and technology, education and innovation, also key priorities for Mr. Obama in the U.S. economic recovery.

Major oil and natural gas finds in Brazil are also of interest to the United States, something Mr. Obama mentioned in a recent news conference about rising energy prices.

?When it comes to imported oil, we are strengthening our key energy relationships with other producer nations, something that I will discuss with President Rousseff when I visit next week," he said.

Brazil's ambassador in Washington, Mauro Vieira, says his government seeks more "balance" in bilateral trade, and mentions differences on global-trade issues.  But he says the important thing is that both sides continue talking.

?We discuss all issues, those [on] which we agree, and even those in which we do not agree completely, but the important thing is not agreeing always, the important thing is to discuss, to have an open dialogue and to find ways to have a consensus on a very wide agenda,?he said.

President Obama's visit to Chile is aimed at spotlighting that country as a model for economic reform and political stability.

After a meeting with President Sebastian Pinera, Chile's first conservative leader since the end of the Pinochet era in 1990, Mr. Obama will deliver what the White House calls a broad policy speech about the U.S. relationship with Latin America.  

Deputy Chief of Mission at Chile's embassy in Washington, Roberto Matus, says it will be an opportunity to lay out a clear American vision for an equal partnership.

?We should recognize the differences of the countries, respect the specificities of development and models of development of each country, and from there try to build a forward-looking vision, a partnership on how Latin America is a global player and how Latin America should be present in this area," he said.

In El Salvador, Mr. Obama will meet with President Mauricio Funes, who heads a center-left government, and is seen as a strong partner, especially in regional counter-narcotics efforts.  They will also discuss immigration issues.

El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, Francisco Altschul, says the Obama visit recognizes the positive steps Salvadorans are taking politically.?In a difficult situation, how you can maintain rule of democracy, the rule of law, while trying to achieve major changes like reduction of poverty, and so forth,?he said.

President Obama's trip comes as critics assert the U.S. is losing out on opportunities for economic influence to China, which has emerged as the lead trading partner for Brazil, and in this hemisphere, to Canada.

Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth says Latin America has other opportunities, and the United States needs to be fully engaged in a region that is now an engine of global economic recovery.

?With other nations knocking loudly on the door in Latin America, the president must show the hemisphere that the United States remains its best, most logical, and appropriate partner because of the values we claim and the agenda we share.  If he can do that, in my view, the trip will prove to be a resounding success," he said.

Louis Goodman, of The American University School of International Service. ?Countries don't look to the United States the way they used to.  They still look to the United States of course. And I think it is President Obama's intention to try to create a new look and a new relationship that is very positive and very consistent with what is happening in the 21st century,?he said.  

Back home, President Obama faces intensified pressure from the U.S. Congress to finalize free-trade agreements with Panama AND with Colombia, which were left off his Latin America itinerary.

There is also continuing criticism of administration policy on Cuba, where a U.S. contractor was recently sentenced to 15 years in jail, and concern about Honduras, and the domestic and regional policies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.