Obama heads to a remade Brazil

Revelers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 8, 2011.</p>

Revelers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 8, 2011.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — American presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush have all made trips to Brazil, but when Barack Obama steps off the plane on Saturday, his state visit here will differ from any that came before.

It’s not the itinerary; although one unusual stop among the various photo ops is said to be Rio de Janeiro’s notorious City of God, the slum made famous by the violent 2002 film. (Brazilian officials announced yesterday that Obama would tour the community, but the State Department declined to confirm).

What truly sets apart this president’s Brazil trip is the changed nature of the country he’s coming to visit.

Brazil is a wealthier, more confident nation with a more influential position on the world stage than it has enjoyed at perhaps any other point in its history. It weathered the world financial crisis with an economy that grew 7 percent last year; Brazil recently began selling off some of the world’s largest reserves of untapped oil; and the country now boasts its lowest unemployment rate in nearly a decade.

Obama, meanwhile, can’t do much boasting when it comes to America’s economy, energy supply or employment numbers.

“It’s almost revolutionary the shift that’s taking place,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which tracks social and economic trends in Latin America. “You don’t have the American presidency in sort of a triumphant mood going down to Brazil. If anything, Obama is in a relatively weak position vis-à-vis Brazil.”

Which is perhaps why White House aides are saying Obama's trip — also set to include Chile and El Salvador —won't focus on the U.S. lending a hand south of the border but, rather, what Latin America can do for Uncle Sam.

“This trip fundamentally is about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports, and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future,” Mike Froman, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs said on Tuesday. “There are seven states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio and Texas, that export more than a billion dollars to Brazil alone.”

In addition to strengthening economic ties, Brazil and the United States have begun moving closer together on foreign policy, too. Despite criticism at home and abroad, Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, maintained friendly ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hosting him in 2009 and then paying the controversial leader a visit in Tehran last year.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, has signaled she’ll be taking a very different stance on Iran. In a recent interview, the former dissident who was jailed and tortured under Brazil’s military dictatorship, criticized Iran’s treatment of political prisoners, as well as the recent case of an woman sentenced to death by stoning — calling the practice “medieval.”

“What would you expect from a newly-elected woman president?” said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “How would she react to their stoning a woman? Lula sort of sublimated this, saying ‘That’s internal politics in Iran and we don’t give a shit about that.’ Dilma’s saying, ‘Yes, we do.’”

Although U.S. officials might welcome Rousseff’s more tough-minded attitude towards Iran, analysts say the Obama visit isn’t likely to spur progress on one of the stickier disputes between the two nations: ethanol.

Brazil and the United States are two of the world’s biggest producers of the renewable fuel, which can augment or even replace gasoline in some car engines. Brazil’s sugar-cane-based ethanol requires less energy to produce than the U.S. variety, which derives from corn. But high U.S. import tariffs — consistently backed by a powerful American farm lobby — have effectively barred Brazilian ethanol from American gas stations.

Congress controls such taxes, and even the most optimistic analysts say the best outcome for Brazil’s ethanol industry is simply having Obama and Rousseff acknowledge there’s mutual benefit in becoming joint ethanol suppliers to the world and open a dialogue on the issue.

“The United States is hardly going to suspend the taxes it imposes on Brazilian ethanol,” said Amaury de Souza, a political consultant in Rio de Janeiro. “There’s no magic in foreign trade. Everything takes decades.”

Indeed, many observers say the visit is likely to be long on showmanship and short on concrete gains for Brazil. This, despite speculation in the Brazilian press that Obama might end visa requirements for Brazilian tourists, or come out in favor of Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, as he did for India.

“I don’t expect anything earth-shaking,” said Alexandre Barros, an economist and political consultant based in Brasilia. “I think most of what’s been circulating in the press now is wishful thinking on the part of Brazil.”

For daily coverage of Brazil and other BRIC countries, read GlobalPost's BRIC Yard blog.