Obama gets to know Brazil's people, including its poorest

Miami HeraldMarch 20, 2011 

RIO DE JANEIRO — Scores of residents in the Cidade de Deus neighborhood climbed to their roofs or waited expectantly in a basketball court for hours Sunday just to catch a glimpse of history — the first American president to visit their embattled neighborhood.

When President Barack Obama took a few steps onto the streets of Cidade de Deus (City of God), Anderlucia Nogueira was one of the lucky ones to witness it.

"I've been here since 6 in the morning,'' said Nogueira, who was perched on a roof. "Marvelous! He even looked at me!"

Obama toured the favela, a squatter settlement created in the 1960s when authorities displaced thousands of residents from favelas closer to the center city, on the second day of his Latin American trip that also will take him to Chile and El Salvador. Later on Sunday, he gave a speech in which he reached out to the Brazilian people.

He spoke not only of his desire to make U.S. and Brazil partners in a new century but also to "strengthen friendship between our nations."

"We believe, too, that in nations as big and diverse as ours, shaped by generations of immigrants of every race and faith and background, democracy offers the best hope that every citizen is treated with dignity and respect; that we can resolve our differences peacefully and find strength in our diversity,'' said Obama, who also experimented with a few words of Portuguese.

But as the president gave his speech at the ornate Theatro Municipal in the Cinelandia district of downtown Rio, the crisis in Libya was not far from his mind.

"We've seen the people of Libya take a courageous stand against a regime determined to brutalize its own citizens. Across the region, we have seen young people rise up — a new generation demanding the right to determine their own future,'' he said. "But as two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of the Arab World will be determined by its people.''

Dan Restrepo, the White House's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, said the fact that Obama stuck to his agenda shows that "we are pushing forward with some of the most important sets of relationships that the United States has in the world, those being our relationships in the Americas."

If Saturday was all about business and political relationships for Obama, who met with President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia on the first day of his trip, Sunday was the Obamas' day to capture the flavor of Brazil and get to know its people.

A casually dressed Obama, his wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia, started the day by watching a group of young people at the Foundation for Children and Adolescents in Cidade de Deus perform a percussion demonstration and capoeira, the balletic Brazilian martial art. A beaming first lady applauded non-stop and the president bobbed his head in tune to the music.

Obama and Malia also spent a few minutes kicking around soccer balls with boys from the neighborhood in the far western suburbs of Rio.

That the Obamas could visit Cidade de Deus at all is a tribute to a community policing program called Police Pacification Units (the Portuguese acronym is UPP) designed to take back Rio's favelas from the drug gangs who held sway.

The 16 UPPs cover only 55 of Rio's approximately 1,000 favelas. A unit moved into Cidade de Deus about two years ago.

"This corner here was always loaded down with weapons,'' said Peterson Machado da Silva, a student who lives in the neighborhood. "There were lots of drugs, gangs, people smoking dope.

"Now you don't see these things. It used to seem like something out of a film,'' he said. "The change is incredible.''

Col. Robson Rodrigues, who commands the two-year-old policing unit in City of God, said Obama's visit sends a hopeful message both about the community and police themselves.

"For us in the police, it is an honor to receive him in the City of God," he says.

Obama's presence, he said, shows "a new reality, a positive one" — although drug trafficking continues in the neighborhood.

Residents said they hoped the visit would help rehabilitate the reputation of their neighborhood, which was portrayed in the 2002 movie, City of God — a coming-of-age film that traced a group of boys growing up amid drug violence and gang rivalries.

Even though Isabel Cristiana de Sousa saw the president's motorcade from behind an army barricade, she was thrilled.

"It made me shiver,'' said the elderly de Sousa. "Before people spoke really badly (of Cidade de Deus) and then he really came here.''

But the president's encounters with the Brazilian people were brief.

His speech was originally expected to take on something of a Carnival atmosphere with the president addressing Brazilians gathered in Floriano Plaza outside the Theatro, a smaller version of the Paris Opera, but it was moved inside the arts palace.

"Logistic issues led us to go inside the theater rather than out,'' said Restrepo.

Cinelandia also is the scene of the large 1980s pro-democracy demonstrations against the former military dictatorship.

"Over the last decade, the progress made by the Brazilian people has inspired the world," the president said, sounding a prevalent theme on his trip so far: democratic transitions in Latin American can provide lessons for nations in turmoil around the globe.

"More than half of this nation is now considered middle class. Millions have been lifted from poverty,'' Obama said. "For the first time, hope is returning to places where fear had long prevailed. I saw this today when I visited Cidade de Deus — the City of God.

As one young resident said, "People have to look at favelas not with pity, but as a source of presidents, lawyers, doctors, artists, (and) people with solutions."

After an after-dark trip to Corcovado, the peak where the Christ the Redeemer statue towers over the city affording views of the bustling beach district, Sugar Loaf mountain, the twinkling lights of the favelas and Guanabara Bay, the first family planned to fly to Chile for the second leg of Obama's Latin American tour.

Among the topics expected to be discussed are Chile's transition to democracy, energy cooperation and the potential for cooperation in disaster response — an area where Chile has expertise.

(Miami Herald correspondent Taylor Barnes contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.)

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