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Clinton Sees Young Faces Of Poverty President Visits Project Helping To Lift Kids Out Of Brazil’s Slums

Thu., Oct. 16, 1997, midnight

Behind him was a concrete bridge; under the bridge were shacks.

And in front of President Clinton sat a tiny gymnast, Jose Rodrigues, who in one spontaneous sentence lent enormous gravity to his carefully crafted speech.

“If I didn’t come here, I think I would probably be a beggar,” she said, “because without school, I would be nothing.”

At 14, Rodrigues lives the message that Clinton has been peddling at home and abroad, and that represents a hallmark of his administration.

It is this: The United States must play a leading role in a growing global economy. But as it prospers, it must not leave the Jose Rodrigueses of the world behind. It must give them the tools they need, starting with a good education, to reap the benefits of the post-Cold War world.

As Clinton told Rodrigues and hundreds of her schoolmates in one of this city’s legion shantytowns Wednesday, “We do not have a single child to waste.”

Clinton came to South America for the first time this week to push for closer cooperation on trade, education, the war on drugs and the struggle for social justice. But nowhere did he make his case for improving the lives of the hemisphere’s poorest people more poignantly than on the sun-drenched soccer field of the industry-sponsored sports and education complex called Vila Olimpica da Mangueira.

There, just a few hours after addressing some of Brazil’s most successful entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo, Clinton stood face-to-face with the very people who he insists have the most to gain from a closer, more synergetic world.

They are the children, ages eight to 18, who live in some of Rio’s worst favelas, or slums; children who might not go to school if private companies hadn’t given them a special opportunity, children who were swept up from drug-infested, hopeless neighborhoods and given a reason to dream.

“For necessity I came here,” said a smiling Rodrigues, shifting the weight of the 4-year-old niece balanced on her hip. “I want a better future for myself, so I came here.”

One of nine children, Rodrigues lives in a two-room shack so small that her father and some of her siblings live elsewhere. They have little.

She, however, has her dream. She wants to be a teacher.

Clinton, she said in Portuguese, spoke to her.

“We should not stop until every child in Brazil and throughout the Americas has the opportunity you have here at Mangueira,” said the president, before leaving for Argentina.

At Mangueira, which integrates school, athletics, job training and health care, school attendance is “nearly perfect” and dropout rates are low. Since the complex opened 10 years ago with money from Xerox of Brazil, juvenile-crime rates in the neighborhood have plummeted. Since soccer hero Pele, who sat on stage Wednesday as Brazil’s minister of sports and youth, lent his profile to the school, students have had a tangible role model.

Earlier in the day, Clinton urged business leaders to help bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. He spoke directly to the fears of Brazilians concerned about competition with United States’ companies and of Americans worried that trade with poorer countries will cost the United States jobs. And, indirectly, he spoke to the U.S. Congress that he hopes will give him the authority to negotiate treaties quickly and expand free trade throughout the hemisphere.

But here in the pink-and-green complex that serves as a respite to the surrounding squalor, he spoke of possibility.

Noting that he and Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso had agreed to work together to improve teacher training and make technology available to all students, Clinton said: “We must do more.”

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