SANTIAGO, Chile — President Barack Obama held up Latin America as a shining example for those in the Middle East fighting for democracy, while urging leaders in the region to recommit themselves to defending human rights and strengthening democratic institutions in their own countries.
“At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that, yes, it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy, and to do so peacefully,” said Obama Monday.
Speaking at the midway point of his five-day tour of Latin America, Obama declared the region ready to take on more responsibility on the world stage, and said the United States no longer views it as one embroiled in perpetual conflict or trapped in endless cycles of poverty.
“Indeed, the world must now recognize Latin America for the dynamic and growing region that it truly is,” he said.
Much of Obama’s trip has been overshadowed by the U.S.-led international effort to create a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians against massacre by forces loyal to longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
The White House has sought to keep the focus of Obama’s trip on strengthening the partnership between the U.S. and Latin America, and aides billed president’s remarks Monday as an address to people across the region. Mindful of that audience, he declared his support for U.S. action on key priorities for many in the region, while calling for America’s southern partners to do their part, too.
Obama reiterated his support for “comprehensive immigration reform” to secure America’s southern borders and find a path to legal status for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
But he said the immigration challenge would remain “so long as people believe that the only way to provide for their families is to leave their families and head north.” So he called on Latin American countries to pursue broad-based economic growth to provide opportunities for their citizens.
Obama said the U.S. accepts its share of responsibility for drug violence, driven in part by demand for drugs in the U.S. He said the U.S. was attempting to reduce demand for drugs and also doing more to stem southbound flow of guns into the region.
The president also addressed Cuba, where many in Latin America see the U.s. approach as overly punitive. He noted that his administration has relaxed some rules to allow more visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans.
“We’ll continue to seek ways to increase the independence of the Cuban people, who are entitled to the same freedom and liberty as everyone else in this hemisphere,” Obama said. “At the same time, Cuban authorities must take meaningful actions to respect the basic rights of the Cuban people.”
The president, along with Michelle Obama and their two daughters, arrived in Chile early Monday afternoon following a two-day stop in Brazil. Obama met with Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera at the presidential palace in Santiago.
Following their meetings, Obama took questions from reporters for the first time since authorizing U.S. military action in Libya. While defending the U.S. approach in Libya he sought to bring the focus back to his mission in Latin America, one of drawing America closer to its southern neighbours to boost co-operation and yield economic benefits for both.
“In our interconnected world the security and prosperity of people’s are intertwined like never before, and no region is more closely linked than the U.S. and Latin America,” Obama said.
The president said he foresaw greater co-operation with Chile on clean energy, educational exchanges and fighting drug trafficking. “What will characterize this new partnership is the fact that it’s a two-way street,” said the president.
Pinera spoke of Chile and Latin America’s place in the world, saying, “We are of age now and we need to fulfil our new mission.”
Obama recommitted himself to fully implementing the U.S. free trade pact with Chile. And he pledged to push for a transpacific partnership to economically integrate the U.S., Latin America and Asia.
Even as Obama praised Chile’s fast-growing democracy he avoided being drawn into an excavation of its past when a Chilean reporter asked him about ongoing investigations stemming from the country’s troubled past. Protesters in Santiago on Sunday had demanded that Obama apologize to the Chilean people for U.S. interventions before and during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
“It’s important for us to learn from our history, to understand our history, but not be trapped by it,” Obama said. “Because we have a lot of challenges now, and even more important we have challenges in the future we have to attend to.”
Much of Obama’s public diplomacy here has been overshadowed by the use of military power in Libya. During his first stop, a two-day visit to Brazil, he balanced outreach to an increasingly influential Latin American neighbour with meetings and secure phone calls to approve missile attacks on Libya’s air defences. En route to Chile, Obama was briefed on the operation in Libya during an hour-long conference call with top U.S. officials.
He’s didn’t escape the awkward, if not incongruous, contrasts during his stay in Santiago.
But Obama has blended his Latin American visit with the events in the Middle East to advance a single theme. The successful transition of Latin American countries to democracy, he has argued, offers a template for a positive outcome in regions undergoing turmoil now. Chile is one example and Obama’s first stop in Brazil offered another.