Obama lauds Chile as "great success" story in Latin America, joint pledges of cooperation

Associated Press
Associated Press
Monday, March 21, 2011; 4:38 PM

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 public diplomacy here 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. During his first stop, a two-day visit to Brazil, he balanced outreach to an increasingly influential Latin American neighbor with meetings and secure phone calls to approve missile attacks on Libya's air defenses. En route to Chile, Obama was briefed on the operation in Libya during an hour-long conference call with top U.S. officials.

Still, 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.

Obama offered a blunt assessment of the steps America's southern partners must take to end the stark inequalities that exist in many countries despite the region's economic rise.

"In political and economic power that is too often concentrated in the hands of the few, instead of serving the many," Obama said. "In the corruption that stifles economic growth, development, innovation and entrepreneurship. And in leaders who cling to bankrupt ideologies to justify their own power and who seek to silence their opponents because they have the audacity to demand their universal rights."

Obama offered the U.S. as a partner willing to help Latin America on these and other key priorities for many in the region.

He 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.

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