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How the U.S. used a parrot and Carmen Miranda to strengthen relations with Brazil

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, are expected to meet face to face next week for the first time. Their meeting at LA Summit of the Americas is framed against rising tensions over Bolsonaro's ambivalent position on Ukraine and Russia. Yet pressuring Brazil through diplomacy is rarely easy. NPR's Philip Reeves looks back at one of Washington's more creative efforts to win Brazilian friends.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's 1936. Europe is edging towards war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is fretting about what that means for the Americas. He convenes a peace summit in Argentina and sets out by sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Heading south on its 6,000 mile journey to Buenos Aires, the U.S. cruiser Indianapolis brings President Roosevelt to Rio de Janeiro.

REEVES: During that stopover in Rio, Roosevelt addressed Brazil's Congress and spoke about the importance of standing together in troubled times.

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FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: We are showing in international relations what we have long known in private relations, that good neighbors make a good community.

REEVES: FDR called this his Good Neighbor Policy. It was a strategy to secure crucial access to Latin America's markets and resources. The U.S. was worried some of those neighbors might tilt towards Hitler and Mussolini. Roosevelt had concluded bullying the neighbors no longer worked. To win Latin American hearts and minds, the U.S. would need a little charm and a lot of imagination.

This is Copacabana Beach, and right behind me is the Copacabana Palace Hotel. It's amazing to think that in a room inside that hotel just over 80 years ago, Walt Disney and his team sat down and created a cartoon parrot to try to improve relations between the U.S. and Brazil.

Disney arrived in Rio in 1941. He was one of a group of Hollywood people recruited to develop cultural ties with Brazil under the Good Neighbor Policy. The result was a Disney classic released the following year whose title says it all - "Saludos Amigos" or "Hello, Friends." The movie introduced Brazilians to this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALUDOS AMIGOS")

JOSE DO PATROCINIO OLIVEIRA: (As Joe Carioca) Jose Carioca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Speaking Portuguese).

CLARENCE NASH: (As Donald Duck) What?

REEVES: Ze Carioca, a parrot with a straw hat and bow tie, a bon viveur with a twinkle in his eye and a cigar in his beak. Ze, or Joe, as Americans call him, becomes amigos with Donald Duck. He shows Donald around town and introduces him to Brazil's mind-blowing national drink, cachaca.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALUDOS AMIGOS")

OLIVEIRA: (As Joe Carioca, speaking Portuguese).

NASH: (As Donald Duck) Down the hatch, Joe.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING REPEATEDLY)

REEVES: Carioca is the term used to describe people born in Rio de Janeiro. They include Erica Gomes de Lima. She's selling beer on Copacabana Beach, close to that hotel where Joe Carioca, the parrot, was conceived.

ERICA GOMES DE LIMA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Joe's a proper carioca," she says.

GOMES DE LIMA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Cariocas like soccer, the beach, samba and caipirinhas," Brazil's favorite cocktail. "That's how we survive hard times," she says.

JOAO DANIEL: Every Brazilian knows Joe Carioca. He's almost as famous as Donald Duck.

REEVES: Joao Daniel teaches the history of Brazil's foreign policy at Rio's Catholic University.

DANIEL: He is lazy. And he's sophisticated. He's charming. And, of course, that's just like the carioca think they are.

REEVES: When "Saludos Amigos" came out in 1942, Brazilians were delighted.

DANIEL: The movie in Brazil was a sensation. I believe it is a wonderful piece of propaganda and also a wonderful piece of art.

REEVES: Roosevelt's charm offensive didn't always work. The actress Carmen Miranda moved from Brazil to Hollywood and went on to star in movies selling the good neighbors message.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THAT NIGHT IN RIO")

DON AMECHE: (As Larry Martin/Baron Manuel Duarte, singing) My friends, I extend felicitations to our South American relations.

REEVES: That's from "That Night In Rio," which came out in 1941. Miranda, as usual, wore fruit on her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THAT NIGHT IN RIO")

CARMEN MIRANDA: (Singing) Chica chica boom chic.

REEVES: Some Brazilians took offense from the get-go. When she performed in Rio after just a year in the U.S...

DANIEL: She was booed. Yes, she was booed.

REEVES: Brazil eventually joined World War II on the side of the Allies. It was the only Latin American nation to send troops to fight in Europe. Last month, it celebrated Victory Day at a monument in Rio honoring the 466 Brazilian soldiers who went to Italy and didn't come back alive.

The world is very different now. Yet once again, Brazil and the U.S. aren't really good neighbors. Relations have soured since President Bolsonaro's ideological soulmate Donald Trump left the White House. There were calls for the Biden administration to engage more with Brazil, to pressure Bolsonaro to stop undermining democratic institutions and to give unqualified support to the U.S. on Ukraine. In these polarized times, that might require more than a roguish cartoon parrot offering a night out on the town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALUDOS AMIGOS")

OLIVEIRA: (As Joe Carioca) Donald, I will show you the land of the samba.

NASH: (As Donald Duck) Samba? What's samba?

OLIVEIRA: (As Joe Carioca) Ha - the samba.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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