Brazil's 'City of God' embraces Obama

Symbolizing his desire to connect with everyday Brazilians and support this nation's efforts to tackle crime and drug trafficking, President Obama spent an afternoon in Brazil's notorious City of God shantytown.

By , Correspondent

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    President Barack Obama, in a vehicle, arrives in the slum Cidade de Deus, or City of God, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday.
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On a dirty rooftop littered with soda bottles, Anderlucia Nogueira began to complain, loudly, about Barack Obama, despite the fact that a handful of snipers were staked out on the roof next door to guard the US president.

Under a cloud of secrecy, Mr. Obama was visiting her favela (shantytown), the once crime-ridden City of God made famous in a 2002 film of the same name. His two-day visit to Brazil, part of his first presidential trip to South America that will also include stops in Chile and El Salvador, began Saturday in Brasília when he met his counterpart before flying on to Rio de Janeiro with his wife and daughters.

Symbolizing his desire to connect with everyday Brazilians and support this nation's efforts to tackle crime and drug trafficking, he visited the City of God with a Unit of Pacifying Police (UPP), a two-year-old security program that places high concentrations of police in select favela communities to root out armed drug traffickers.

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“Obama! Where are you? I came here just to see you!” Ms. Nogueira and her friends sang in a mixture of glee and frustration as the Brazilian Army snipers looked on.

But despite rumors that he might walk around the block or mingle with locals, the presidential motorcade entered into a high-walled school complex and its occupants exited their vehicles behind a white curtain. From her rooftop perch, Nogueira could hear Mr. Obama playing soccer with young children (see a video here) and then being entertained by a samba and capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) show.

Then the school's thick black gates opened and Obama, in green khaki pants and a blue oxford dress shirt, stepped out into the favela and waved only 30 feet away from Nogueira.

“He’s very good-looking, man!” her neighbor, Rosângela, yelled down to Obama. She later added that it was the worth the hassle of having eight snipers perched on her rooftop. “It’s an immense pleasure to receive him here."

Tight security, UPP program criticized

Unfortunately, she was one of the few to catch a glimpse. Army barricades prevented most residents from getting close. And to some, the secrecy surrounding the event and the limited ability of residents to see the president sent the wrong message.

Celso Athayde, coordinator of a prominent City of God non-governmental organization Central Única das Favelas, criticized the secrecy surrounding Obama's visit and the strict security rules imposed on residents. “[Obama is] going to be simply reinforcing that these areas [are ones] he can’t even walk in. He’s reinforcing a stigma,” says Mr. Athayde.

Moreover, the UPP program itself is controversial. Critics note the program’s limited scope and Rio’s still sky-high crime rates. The current 16 UPPs cover only 55 of Rio de Janeiro’s approximately 1,000 shantytowns.

But supporters say installing permanent community police – rather than simply confronting drug traffickers in occasional shootouts – and ushering in public services wins the hearts and minds of favela residents.

“[The visit] is going to help to deconstruct to the world the image of violence [from the 2002 film]... to show a new context, of City of God and of Rio de Janeiro,” says Col. Robson Rodrigues, who commands a policing unit here.

'I never imagined it'

But even given the brief and controlled nature of the Sunday favela visit, residents who swarmed the street afterward to chat with one another were still abuzz with excitement – even if they didn’t see anyone from the president’s party.

“In spite of having been quick, just to have touched the sidewalk is valuable,” says Luciana Santana Mendes, a resident who was behind an army barrier with a friend and her wheelchair-bound son.

Marinette dos Santos Barrozo, who only glimpsed Obama’s motorcade from behind the Brazilian Army’s barrier, says waiting in the muggy heat was well worth it. “I felt privileged for him to come to the City of God," she says. "I never imagined that.”

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