Obama's balancing act in South America

The US president's first-ever trip to South America has been historic alright, but not for the reasons initially expected.

    The banner headline in Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper says it all: “From Brazil, Obama Orders Attack on Libya.” 

    That headline won't win any awards for creativity, but it surely captures the stark essence of the moment. 

    Obama’s first-ever trip to South America has been historic alright, but not for the reasons initially expected. All the best intended plans for his journey here were thrown off-track only a few hours after landing in Brasilia yesterday when the US-led airstrikes on Libya began.

    Obama is in Rio de Janeiro today. The president and his advisors now face a delicate balancing act the next few days as he continues his South American tour: Juggling the initial phases of the attack on Libya while carrying on with business today in Rio, tomorrow in Chile, and then El Salvador - the final leg of his trip.

    Yesterday there were no questions during the joint statements made by Obama and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. The Brazilians requested the no-questions-from-the-press format, likely to avoid press-shy Rousseff - barely in her third month in office - having to answer publicly to uncomfortable questions (while standing next to Obama) about abstaining last week on the vote on the no-fly zone against Libya an the UN Security Council.

    (Brazil feels a no-fly zone and coalition air strikes could put more innocent Libyan’s at risk, and make the situation worse rather than better. Brazil also has deep business interests in Libya forged with the Gaddafi regime in recent years, as I reported previously here).

    Late yesterday Obama made his own remarks on Libya, confirming the strikes had begun. He then had a casual late afternoon meeting with Rousseff before jumping on Air Force One and heading off to Rio de Janeiro.

    Today, Sunday, Obama will likely be put in another awkward position of juggling priorities. His schedule in Rio today is light on substance and heavy on symbolism and down time.

    Obama will make a brief pass through the Cidade de Deus favela (as I type this he is on his way) and likely have photo ops with kids from a local community organisation dancing capoeira.

    In the afternoon he will give a speech inside the Municipal Theatre in downtown Rio to an invite-only crowd (the public event in a downtown plaza previously scheduled was cancelled. The rumor is it was cancelled for security reasons, others say there was concern not enough people would show up to fill the plaza). Either way, the theme of his speech is not intended to be about international affairs.

    And in the evening he was planning a visit to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio with his wife Michelle and their two kids. Some media in Brazil is reporting this too is in jeopardy of also being cancelled. There is nothing else on his public schedule. Maybe that’s a good thing – allowing him time to deal with Libya out of the spotlight.

    But make no mistake: The heavy lifting on his trip to Brazil happened yesterday in Brasilia – where the accords were signed and deals brokered and relationships forged. Today in Rio is a little work in public, likely a lot in private, and a little play. Rio could easily be perceived as a working vacation. A comic in yesterday’s O Globo newspaper showed Air Force One landing on the beach in Rio with Obama and family lunging out the front door of the plane like he was diving into the ocean in swim trunks.

    But there will be no sunbathing in Rio for Obama. Libya changed things here. Obama advisors have said he is spending any down time in Brazil meeting with advisors for constant updates on events in Libya.

    The dynamics of Obama’s South America trip changed markedly from what anybody could have expected 24 hours ago.

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo and news from Brazil on Twitter @elizondogabriel


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