BRASILIA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama applauded Brazil's "extraordinary rise" on the world stage but stopped short of backing its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
At the start of a five-day trip to Latin America, Obama signed a series of trade and energy deals with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Saturday and said his visit was a historic opportunity to strengthen U.S. ties with the region's largest economy.
"Brazil's extraordinary rise, Madam President, has captured the attention of the world," he told Rousseff. "Put simply, the United States doesn't simply recognize Brazil's rise. We support it enthusiastically."
Deadly crises in Libya and Japan threatened to overshadow the visit, but Obama is eager to build trade ties and ensure a bigger U.S. share in Latin America's robust economic growth.
Boosting U.S. exports helps create jobs back home and will aid Obama's 2012 presidential re-election hopes.
Rousseff said she sees an expanded trade and strategic partnership with the United States as a way to continue Brazil's recent success in pulling millions out of poverty.
However, Rousseff also struck a confrontational tone and barely looked at Obama as she detailed a list of grievances including U.S. trade and U.S. monetary policies, an indication that the two countries have still not fully moved beyond disputes that chilled the relationship in recent years.
Rousseff, a pragmatic leftist who took office January 1, called for a "relationship of equals" and told Obama that Brazil's growing economic clout had earned it a bigger role in global bodies, including the United Nations.
In a joint statement, the two leaders recognized the need to reform the United Nations and Obama "expressed appreciation for Brazil's aspiration" to become a permanent member of the Security Council. Yet he did not explicitly support Brazil's bid, as he did for India when visiting New Delhi in November.
Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, alienated Washington by seeking close ties with Iran, Venezuela and other anti-American governments in recent years. Obama is also aware that support for Brazil's U.N. bid could offend other allies, including Mexico.
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Obama told a group of business leaders from both countries that the United States saw huge potential in Brazil's recently discovered offshore oil fields, which could turn it into one of the world's biggest energy exporters in the next decade.
"We want to be one of your best customers," Obama said.
There were no major breakthroughs on trade but the leaders did agree to a series of preliminary deals aimed at boosting investment and cooperation on issues ranging from space technology to the joint development of aviation biofuels.
They also signed an "open skies" agreement that will allow U.S. and Brazilian airlines to fly more routes between each country, and the United States also agreed to provide help for security and infrastructure when Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
Obama's visit is part of an effort to reassert U.S. influence in a region where it faces rising competition from China, now Brazil's biggest trade partner. Neither Rousseff nor Obama mentioned China in their public comments.
Obama went ahead with the tour, which also takes him to Chile and El Salvador, even as Western forces launched strikes against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces and as Japan battled a nuclear and humanitarian crisis after a massive earthquake and tsunami.
The White House said Obama had no plans to cut short the trip in light of the air and sea strikes aimed at forcing Gaddafi's troops to end attacks against civilians in his fight against opposition rebels.
U.S. officials have said Obama wants to repair diplomatic ties with Brazil under Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured by the country's military dictatorship in the early 1970s.
Both leaders played up the symbolic value of their meeting, Rousseff as the first woman to lead her country and Obama as the first African-American president of the United States.