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I've come to watch Obama's swearing-in and speech in the newsroom of Brazil's highest circulation newspaper, the Folha (or "Page") de Sao Paulo. Needless to say, it's a different story from my interviews this morning at the breakfast stand.
Vera Guimaraes, a production manager, was one of the few people whose TVs were tuned to CNN with the volume on when I arrived at about 1 p.m — 10 a.m. in Washington. She’s on the Obama bandwagon, not so much for his specific policies — Democrats and Republicans, from a Brazilian perspective, are not all that different, although she noted that Democrats tend to be more protectionist, something that isn't good for Brazil, which already suffers from stiff U.S. tariffs on ethanol and orange juice. “It’s the symbolic nature of it that makes all the difference. A black man in the White House,” Guimaraes said. She remembered a song by Morrissey:
In America, the land of the free, they said. And of opportunity. In a just and truthful way. But where the president is never black, female or gay, and until that day, you’ve got nothing to say to me, to help me believe.
“My reaction, when I first heard that he had truly been elected, was ‘And now, Morrissey?'”
But Guimaraes sounded a warning. Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva was elected president in Brazil in 2002, an election that was celebrated as a victory for the working man: Lula had been a machinist and labor leader, and was the first Brazilian president from the Workers Party. “When he took power, we had a sensation of having broken a huge barrier. It had an enormous symbolic barrier, but it also was an enormous responsibility. Lula, if he governed poorly, would burn not only the left, but the possibility of another working man to become president.”
Ricardo Melo, the front page editor, thought that so far Obama is all about charisma and symbolism, and little about foreign policy or trade, the issues that will matter to Brazil. “What are Obama’s proposals?” he said. “For now, they are ‘yes we can.’ What he brings is a wave of hope, and of euphoria more so than any president we’ve had lately. It’s more a feeling of having been liberated from Bush. His platform is vague, but it will be difficult for him to be worse than Bush.”
Guilherme Barros, who writes the daily “Open Market” column in the business section, said people were expecting too much of Obama. The stimulus package and infrastructure projects and lower interest rates and the tax breaks were all textbook measures to deal with a crisis. “There’s a general expectation in the world that he is going to do something beyond this, something beyond these consecrated methods. But I don’t think he has another card up his sleeve.”
But when it comes to Brazil’s relations with the United States, Barros doesn’t know what to expect. Most of the talk about hemispheric policy has been about Cuba and Guantanamo, not free trade and South America. “It’s not clear how Obama is going to deal with Latin America,” he said. “Hillary Clinton avoided the subject of Latin America during her confirmation hearing.”