By Patricia Maresch, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – U.S. President Barack Obama visited Rio on Sunday, March 20th as planned, part of a two-day visit to Brazil during a five-day South American trip. His time in Rio consisted of a morning look at the favela Cidade de Deus (City of God) in Zona Oeste (West zone), a speech at the Theatro Municipal to the Brazilian public, followed by a visit to Christ the Redeemer.
Despite being somewhat overshadowed by the multinational military campaign in Libya and continued Nuclear concerns in Japan, the Brazilian public received Obama’s visit warmly.
On the streets of the Cidade de Deus favela, residents chanted Obama’s name, while mingled with the president’s security officers, journalists and army soldiers.
Governor Sergio Cabral, Mayor Eduardo Paes and Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame welcomed Obama and his family at a gymnasium for a small get together with some community members.
Cidade de Deus has 70,000 residents and is the favela made famous in the 2002 Brazilian film “City of God” which was nominated for four Oscars. Living conditions in the community have changed significantly since the implementation of the Police Pacification Unit (UPP) in February 2009.
In Cidade de Deus, Obama and his daughters Malia and Sasha played with kids from a local sports program. Then they watched a capoeira performance and a percussion group played Maracatu, Samba, Axé and Funk for their American guests. “What most impressed and moved the Obama family was the achievement of peace in the community,” Cabral tweeted.
Obama then spoke inside the Theatro Municipal for a group of about two thousand guests, ranging from Rio government officials to football legend Pelé and former Minister of Culture and musician Gilberto Gil.
Other famous Brazilian actors, singers, TV personalities and members of the American Society of Rio de Janeiro were in the audience as well. In addition, Brazilian children from the Youth Ambassadors program, a social responsibility initiative of the U.S. Embassy were present.
Obama began his speech informally, saying “Oi, Rio de Janeiro” and thanked the “warmth and generosity” of the Brazilian people for himself and his family. He then referred to an important football (soccer) game which was going on at the time of speech.
“Those remarks warmed up the audience,” said Steve Spencer, a Board member of the American Society. “Obama said all the right things,” Spencer continues “He addressed the common struggles for equality and justice that both our countries have,” Spencer said.
Obama celebrated the fact the U.S. and Brazil are countries where “ordinary people” have done “extraordinary things”, with its history of countries made by immigrants. “ I thought he did well, with appeal to both the Brazilian as well as the American people present,” an American lawyer in Rio, Michael Royster, said.
José Junior, coordinator of the Cultural NGO AfroReggae whose percussion group performed at the theater before the American leader’s arrival, thought Obama “very charismatic” and was not surprised at all that the president got a standing ovation.
At the time of the speech, First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters visited the Cidade do Samba which was hit by a tragic fire weeks before Carnival. A visit to Christ the Redeemer then closed the Brazilian leg of the five-day Latin America tour.
The previous day, Saturday March 19th, Obama had a bilateral meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. It will be in Chile where Obama makes his Latin American policy speech, White House aides say, and then the third and final stop is in El Salvador.