How to Win Over a Country in 45 Hours

Before Clinton's visit this week, Brazilians spoke of an arrogant American; afterward, his charm.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Before his first visit to Brazil this week, President Clinton was lambasted in the press here as an arrogant American "who represents a country that looks at the south as dangerous territory, prone to proliferation of rodents and parasites."

Brazilians were fuming over a US report describing corruption in Brazil as "endemic" and what they deemed excessive security requests by the Secret Service.

During Mr. Clinton's 45-hour trip to Brazil, which ended Wednesday, his security team demanded to carry assault rifles and subject politicians to metal detectors. They also asked officials to shut down commuter trains during Clinton's visit to a Rio shantytown.

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Articles followed about Yankee imperialism, US support for the 1964 military coup that ushered in a 21-year dictatorship, and a gaffe by former President Reagan, who in a 1982 toast addressed his Braslia hosts as "the people of Bolivia."

But that was before Clinton's charm offensive saved the day.

"He came to break the ice and he did," says political commentator Bruno Villas Boas Correa.

"Never have I seen an American president conquer public sympathy in a matter of minutes," he adds.

At a state dinner in Braslia, the capital, Clinton lauded Brazilian music, praised novelist Jorge Amado and painter Candido Portinari, and slighted the Wright Brothers by calling Alberto Santos Dumont the "father of aviation." (As any Brazilian knows, he was the first to fly an airplane: The Wrights needed a ramp or catapult to get their invention off the ground; Santos Dumont's took off under its own steam.)

The next day, he told reporters asking about the offensive US report that "no Brazilian could have been as upset about it as I was."

But it was his trip to a Xerox-sponsored sports center in the Rio slum of Mangueira that won the hearts of many Brazilians and caused a TV commentator to tell his viewers that Clinton's speech had him on "the verge of tears."

Mangueira is a slum of 70,000 residents famous for its samba school and for its view of Guanabara Bay and Maracan stadium, the world's largest soccer facility.

Clinton spoke on Brazilian Teachers' Day at the Vila Olimpica center, considered a model program for third world nations. In the past 10 years, some 20,000 poor children have used its sports, education, and health facilities. He told a crowd of 1,800 people that "every child enters this world with a great gift from God - the power to dream. But that gift can be lost through poverty. Thank you, Mangueira, for making those dreams come alive."

AFTERWARD, he ignored the Secret Service's rigid security by shaking hands and allowing admirers to hug and kiss him. Some gave him shirts and caps emblazoned with the logo of the slum's carnival group. "He looked liked a happy kid finally let loose on the streets," said Jmelao, one of Mangueira's most famous samba personalities.

Clinton waved a Brazilian flag, listened to samba music while hitting a tambourine, and kicked a soccer ball with Brazil Sports Minister Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the legendary ex-player known as Pel. In soccer-crazy Brazil, a photo-op with Pel is a politician's dream.

The president's performance won over Neuma Gonalves da Silva, a community leader. Earlier, she had told reporters that "everybody here is offended [by the security demands]. Clinton should stay home."

"Clinton played the tambourine, wore our hat, fooled around. He's a regular guy," she said. "It was worth everything."

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