Brazilian naval troops stand guard at the Marriott Hotel on Copacabana… (Felipe Dana, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — There may be no good time for a busy president to leave the country, but President Obama arrives Saturday in Brazil for a five-day, three-nation swing that comes as jittery Americans brace for a military showdown in Libya and clouds of radioactivity waft eastward from Japan.
The timing of the visit left White House advisors a bit defensive; they insisted that Obama would remain on top of fast-moving events despite his absence from the communications and military command hubs in Washington.
"You can't allow what's happening in the world to consume the presidency," said Daniel Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director. "You have to be able to walk, chew gum and juggle at the same time."
Giving the trip a domestic spin, Obama's advisors said the stops in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador were important to expanding trade and creating job opportunities for a U.S. population that is slowly recovering from the global recession.
Briefing reporters before Obama's departure, aides said that Brazil, the seventh-largest economy in the world, is a promising market for more U.S. exports. More than 250,000 American jobs are tied to exports to Brazil, which have doubled in the last five years, according to the White House.
The visit comes at the end of a week that has grown more tense by the day, raising questions about whether it would take place.
Japanese authorities on Friday upped the rating on the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster to 5 on a scale of 7, meaning the accident is seen as one with "wider consequences." And, after a United Nations Security Council vote Thursday authorizing the use of force in Libya, U.S. officials accelerated deployment of assault ships to the Mediterranean in preparation for possible attacks.
Friday found Obama dealing with the Libyan crisis up to the moment Air Force One took off. He consulted with nearly two dozen members of Congress about possible military action and gave a speech from the East Room of the White House.
Asked by a reporter whether it was "awkward" for Obama, who will be accompanied by his family, to be traveling to a part of the world so far removed from the crises, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said this week that the president was always dealing with major issues, "which is one of the reasons why he has such a substantial support framework around him when he travels."
Obama will spend two days in Brazil, one day in Chile and wrap up his visit in El Salvador on Wednesday. He is to deliver a major speech on Latin America in Santiago, Chile, on Monday. In sweep and scope, the speech is expected to be analogous to his address in Cairo in 2009, when he sought to recalibrate relationships with the Muslim world.
There could be some awkward moments with Chile's billionaire president, Sebastian Pinera, after the release of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks last year.
One cable, dated January 2010 and sent by the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, said that although Pinera tries to "cultivate" a populist image, he "surrounds himself with elite businessmen and academics and continues to pilot his private helicopter to his vacation homes."
Experts on the region said the visit was more symbolic than substantive, an expression of goodwill from a U.S. president who faces economic problems at home and is not in a position to offer Latin America much help. Half a century after President Kennedy announced his Alliance for Progress economic program for Latin America, the U.S. cannot offer its southern neighbors anything so expansive, experts said.
"People in Brazil are not looking at this as, 'Oh, Obama is coming!' " said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Before, when Air Force One landed, it looked like God was coming."
Apart from summit meetings and working luncheons, the president and Michelle Obama will play tourist, visiting Maya ruins in El Salvador. The first lady will watch a cultural performance in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, on Saturday. The next day, Obama will visit the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
The Obamas' daughters, Malia and Sasha, will join their parents on the trip.
Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.