Obama, Brazil leader focus on economy, energy

March 14, 2009 1:37:05 PM PDT
President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva discussed the economy, energy and the environment Saturday during their first White House meeting. Both leaders said the Oval Office sit-down was productive and they looked forward to seeing each other at the Group of 20 nations meeting in London early next month, followed by the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in mid-April.

"I have been a great admirer of Brazil and a great admirer of the progressive, forward-looking leadership that President Lula has shown throughout Latin America and throughout the world," Obama said after the meeting.

"We have a very strong friendship between the two countries but we can always make it stronger," he said.

Silva said one of the points he raised was "the importance of President Obama's election and what it represents to the world and especially to Latin America."

He said he and Obama "are truly convinced" that decisions coming out of the G-20 can resolve the economic crisis.

In a lighter moment, Silva said he tells people at rallies in his country that he prays more for Obama than he does for himself. With so many problems facing Obama in his short time in office, "I don't want to be in his position," Silva said.

To which Obama added: "I'll tell you what. You sound like you've been talking to my wife."

Brazil has become a major U.S. trading partner, and its cautious economic policies have helped it weather the global financial crisis better than almost all other major economic powers. Brazil also has huge new sources of offshore oil and is the world's largest exporter of ethanol, which could give it an important role in helping the U.S. wean itself from Venezuelan crude and shift to cleaner sources of energy.

Brazil, however, has seen little progress on its demand that the U.S. lift a 53-cent-per-gallon import tariff on ethanol, a gasoline alternative. Its discoveries in the past two years of some 80 billion barrels of oil could help turn the country into a major crude exporter and put it in better position to bargain with the U.S.

Obama said he has admired Silva's efforts to develop biofuels and wants to follow a similar path developing cleaner sources of energy for the U.S. He acknowledged tensions between the two countries over ethanol, and suggested they can be resolved over time.

"It's not going to change overnight, but I do think that as we continue to build exchanges of ideas, commerce (and) trade around the issue of biodiesel that, over time, this source of tension can get resolved," Obama said.,

Silva said biofuel is an "extraordinary alternative" and that other countries eventually will jump on the bandwagon. He said that when Obama visits Brazil, "I'm going to ask him to get inside a car that is run by a flex-fuel engine and he will feel very comfortable."

Obama said he had such a vehicle but that there aren't enough gas stations in the U.S. that sell gas alternatives. "So that's one of the areas we need to change, our distribution networks here in the United States," he said.

After the meeting and media availability, Obama escorted Silva to his waiting limousine just outside the Oval Office. "I'll see you in London," Obama said.

Silva was the first Latin American leader to sit down with Obama.

Obama also privately raised the custody case of David Goldman, a Tinton Falls, N.J., man who is trying to bring his 8-year-old son back from Brazil. The boy was taken there in 2004 by his mother, who died years later while giving birth. She had divorced Goldman and married a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro. Both children are being raised by the lawyer's family.

This past week, the House unanimously urged Brazil to "act with extreme urgency" to return the boy to Goldman. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she has discussed the case with high-ranking Brazilian officials.

More than 100 people on Saturday afternoon stood in drizzling rain in front of the White House to rally for Goldman's case, many holding signs and chanting loudly about bringing the child back to America. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has rallied to help reunite the father and son, read an open letter to Silva at the event, telling the crowd "justice delayed is justice denied ... the time for action is now."

On a lighter note, Obama said that when he does visit Brazil, he thinks he should see the nice beaches of Rio de Janeiro and make a trip to the Amazon, joking that Republicans would like to see him get lost there for a while.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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