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High hopes for Obama's Latin America swing

Trade opportunities and strengthened ties top the agenda as President Obama flies to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador over the next five days.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / March 18, 2011

President Obama's first official visit to South America will start Saturday in Brazil and includes Chile and El Salvador.

Ann Heisenfelt/AP

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São Paulo, Brazil

The hosts of President Obama's first tour of Latin America may appear to share little. Yet look more closely at Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador and you find three nations with intriguing business opportunities and respected presidents who can serve as interlocutors for the United States.

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And perhaps most symbolically, in a region where erratic and authoritarian leaders are still common, all three nations have eschewed political extremism and adopted a diet of fiscal conservatism and social progressiveness.

"All have institutions in place that function and he [Mr. Obama] will endorse that mixture of social policy and fiscal probity," says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins University. Unsurprisingly, Obama is not stopping by any members of Hugo Chávez's eight-nation Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

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Brazil's economy is powerful magnet

Obama previously visited the Caribbean in 2009 for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, but this is his first regional tour. Although the White House has revealed scant details of the trip with his family, scheduled for March 19-23, the main focus will undoubtedly be Brazil, which is becoming known for more than just sun, samba, and soccer. One of the most buoyant nations outside Asia, Brazil grew its economy by 7.5 percent last year to become the world's seventh-biggest.

That growth is a powerful magnet. China may have surpassed the US as Brazil's biggest trading partner in 2009, but Brazil's expertise in agriculture, deep-sea oil exploration, and clean fuels provides keen incentives for the US to ink deals.

Smaller US businesses – such as franchises – are already coming south to grab a piece of the action, while larger US firms could get involved in building or funding the infrastructure needed for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. And with Brazil looking to purchase 36 new fighter jets, Obama may try to talk up US maker Boeing.

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