RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama praised Brazil’s rise as an emerging power on Sunday, calling the South American country an equal partner of the United States as he pressed on with a trip overshadowed by a U.S. and European air assault on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya.
Obama viewed Rio de Janeiro’s famed beaches and mountains from his helicopter and played soccer with slum kids in a show of cultural affinity on the second day of what aides call his signature first-term visit to Latin America.
In a speech at a historic theater broadcast live on television, Obama said Brazil has emerged from decades of underperformance to become a powerful economy and a flourishing democracy that has many shared values with the United States.
An old joke that Brazil would always be a “country of the future” because of its unfulfilled potential no longer holds true, he said.
“For the people of Brazil, the future has arrived,” he said to applause from an audience of about 2,000 invited guests.
Obama stressed that the U.S.-Brazil relationship is a partnership of equals, carefully chosen words aimed at pleasing Brazil and other Latin American nations that have long complained of a high-handed approach by Washington.
“As you confront the many challenges you still face at home as well as abroad, let us stand together -- not as senior and junior partners, but as equal partners,” Obama said.
Obama, who is seeking improved relations with Brazil after a period marked by tensions and neglect, focused heavily on the two countries’ shared culture and history as former European colonies with rich, multicultural societies.
But his attention remained divided by the biggest military intervention in the Arab world since the Iraq invasion. The military campaign against Gaddafi’s forces that was launched on Saturday intruded on Obama’s schedule of diplomacy and business promotion in Brazil, Latin America’s top economy.
The White House has justified Obama’s five-day Latin American tour in large part for its potential dividends of boosting U.S. exports to help create American jobs, considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.
China is a rising threat to U.S. economic dominance in the region, recently becoming the top trade partner for both Brazil and Chile, where Obama visits next. Brazil, in particular, has boomed in recent years as about 20 million people have climbed out of poverty into a free-spending middle class.
Obama’s talks on Saturday with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff focused heavily on bolstering economic ties, though little progress was made on key disputes like trade barriers.
Conservative critics may seize the chance to chide Obama for being away from Washington -- and in a city renowned for its beaches and breathtaking views -- at a time when U.S. forces are in harm’s way. Republican foes have accused him of a failure of leadership in a string of international crises.
But in keeping with his “no-drama Obama” image, the White House wants to avoid any sense the president is being held hostage by events or unable to tend to other crucial business.
Obama was huddling with top aides in Brazil as the military operations in Libya unfolded.
Obama’s only planned sightseeing in Rio is to the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer hilltop statue.
He was greeted by children at a youth center in the “City of God” slum with chants of “Obama, Obama, Obama” before being treated with wife Michelle and his two daughters to a performance of the musical Brazilian martial art Capoeira.
In a nod to Brazil’s favorite sport, he then kicked a soccer ball around with youngsters outside as security guards scanned the area from the rooftops of dilapidated buildings.
Obama demonstrated a few neat kicks of his own. “Can you dribble it?” he asked one boy, who then tapped the ball a few times in the air on one foot.
The City of God slum inspired the 2002 movie of the same name and is now part of a drive to oust drug gangs and improve security in shantytowns as the city prepares to host the 2014 soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games two years later.
Obama is due to leave Rio on Monday for a visit to Chile and will wrap up the tour on Wednesday in El Salvador.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Brian Ellsworth in Rio and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Todd Benson and Will Dunham