Flying Down to Rio with the Obamas

View down into Guanabara Bay with the round peak of Sugarloaf Mountain rising from the peninsula.

Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Photo © Celso Diniz/123rf.

During the Bush years, anti-Americanism in Brazil was at an all-time high; at the height of the Iraq War, only 50 percent of Brazilians claimed to have a “good opinion” of the United States. All that changed when Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S. Brazilians – an estimated 45 percent of whom can claim some African descent – celebrated the victory of the “black candidate” as if Carnaval had suddenly been proclaimed in November. Shortly after Obama was sworn in as president, polls showed that Brazilians’ “good opinion” of the U.S. had shot up to 73 percent.

As such, it was with arms as open as those of Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that Brazilians welcomed the arrival of Barack, Michelle and the girls this weekend as they kicked off their first-ever trip down South American way. After an afternoon glued to TVs to watch Obama and family parading past Niemeyer’s iconic Modernist architecture, in Brasília, in the company of another pioneering president, freshly elected Dilma Rousseff, the Obamas were off to Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, the Cidade Maravilhosa hadn’t received an American president since the days of Clinton, a fact that Rio’s governor, Sérgio Cabral, slyly alluded to when he greeted the Obamas on the tarmac and quipped that “the Democrats have better taste than the Republicans” (a deliciously catty dig at Bush, whose Brazil visits had been limited to Brasília and São Paulo).

Constantly updated blogs and online newspapers gave moment-by-moment reports, videos and slideshows of the Obamas’ every move, costume change, and “Bom dia”.

Constantly updated blogs and online newspapers gave moment-by-moment reports, videos and slideshows of the Obamas’ every move, costume change, and “Bom dia”. This morning Barack visited the Carioca favela of Cidade de Deus – immortalized in the Oscar-nominated film by Fernando Meirelles, Cidade de Deus (City of God) – and showed off his (not too impressive) futebol skills with a bunch of local kids (one of whom charmingly noted that “he looks Brazilian just like us”). Meanwhile Michelle and the girls were off watching a capoeira demonstration. Later in the afternoon, mother and daughters took in a performance by samba school União de Tijuca (this year’s Carnaval vice-champion), at the Cidade do Samba, while the president gave a 22-minute (tie-less) speech to 2,000 special high profile guests at Rio’s opulent (and recently restored) 100-year-old Theatro Municipal.

Despite the rag tag group of protesting communists and anti-imperialists (one of whom lobbed the obligatory Molotov cocktail at the U.S. consulate), most Brazilians seemed fairly seduced by the Obamas whose disarming mixture of youth and relaxed casualness came off as decidedly unimperialist (Barack’s reference to today’s showdown between Rio soccer rivals, Vasco and Botafogo and Michelle’s styling summery wardrobe didn’t hurt either).

Of course, not everyone got what they wished for from this visit. While Dilma Rousseff was hoping that Obama would express support for Brazil’s long-held desire to be made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (an aspiration that may be have dashed when Brazil abstained during the Security Council’s vote on implementing a no-fly zone over Libya), the Obamas never did get to feel the full embrace of Christ the Redeemer; due to bad weather, their plans for a morning visit to Corcovado were cancelled. When they finally made it up to the top of the mountain for a glimpse of the usually spectacular view, it was nighttime and the starry skies were overcast.

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