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Obama praises Brazil during tour as a model for democratic change

Immersing himself in Brazil's poverty and pride, President Obama on Sunday held up the South American nation as a model of democratic change in a time of uprisings and crackdowns across the Arab world and yet another war front for the United States.

From Rio's glamorous beaches to a notorious slum to an elegant theater, Obama glimpsed the city's cultural extremes and offered the kind of personal engagement that can pay political dividends for years. Less than one day after announcing U.S. military strikes against Libya's government, Obama made time to kick a soccer ball around with kids in a shantytown.

The competing stories of Obama's itinerary -- a war front in Africa, an economic commitment to South America -- divided his time in incongruous ways. By morning, he spoke with his security team about the international assault against Moammar Gadhafi's defenses; by night, he was to stand atop a mountain and admire Rio's world-famous statue of Jesus.

It was all summed up by one image: Obama, adeptly juggling a soccer ball, as his aides helped him juggle his agenda.

In a speech, Obama celebrated Brazil for shifting from dictatorship to democracy, moving millions into its middle class and embracing human rights. He underlined that point as unrest sweeps the Middle East and North Africa, leading to dramatic change in some cases and violent crisis in Libya.

"As two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of the Arab world will be determined by its people," Obama told an invitation-only crowd inside an ornate hall here.

Obama and his family visited the City of God shantytown. The slum is undergoing a transformation as Rio works to improve the plight of its poorest people and clean up its reputation ahead of hosting the 2016 Olympics.

Obama is trying to bolster ties to Brazil -- and do the same in Chile and El Salvador over the next three days -- as a way to boost the economic, security and political interests of the United States.

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