By Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 11:16 AM
SANTIAGO, CHILE - Can the Middle East learn from Latin America?
On his tour of Central and South America, President Obama has repeatedly lauded many of the region's countries for shifting from dictatorships to democracies over the past two decades.
In a speech Monday, he invoked Chile's rise from the Pinochet era to a democracy. A day earlier, in Brazil, Obama said its transition could be a model for countries in the Middle East and North Africa where a historic wave of popular uprisings has surprised authoritarian governments in that region and the Obama administration itself.
"The lessons of Latin America can be a guide for people around the world who are beginning their own journeys toward democracy," Obama said in a speech at an art museum in the capital city of Santiago.
"With decades of experience, there's so much Latin America now can share, how to build political parties and organize free elections, how to ensure peaceful transfers of power and how to navigate the winding paths of reform and reconciliation."
The address came on the third day of Obama's five-day trip, which continues Tuesday in El Salvador. Obama and his family left Santiago at 9:10 a.m. local time (8:10 a.m. in Washington), to fly to San Salvador.
Like much of the president's trip, his speech in Santiago was intended to highlight the growing economic progress of Latin America and focus attention on issues in which Chile, a close U.S. ally, could work with the United States. Obama and his family left Chile early Tuesday to fly to San Salvador.
But his praise for democracy has special symbolic value. Chile had elected governments for parts of the 20th century, but the United States later provided support for the government of Augusto Pinchoet, who ran Chile as a dictatorship from 1974 to 1990 and whose regime brutally punished and killed political opponents. Obama, at a news conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera before his formal speech, was asked by a Chilean reporter if the U.S. government would aid investigations of the Pinochet era and "ask for forgiveness for what it did in those very difficult years in the '70s in Chile?"
"Any requests that are made by Chile to obtain more information about the past is something that we will certainly consider and we would like to cooperate," Obama said. "I think it's important though for us, even as we understand our history and gain clarity about our history, that we're not trapped by our history."
Obama's day included an hour-long meeting with Pinera, a formal dinner and a series of photos taken of the leaders and their wives. (Obama lightened the mood when Pinera quietly asked where Obama's daughters were and the American president said, "I don't know where they took them," loud enough for all to hear.) Sasha and Malia Obama are on the trip but were with aides during the official photos.
And Obama still had to balance his wooing South America with the situation in Libya. He spent part of the day on conference calls with his national security team and during much of his news conference with Pinera he took questions on Libya since U.S. forces and allies took action. In his speech, while not specifically discussing Libya, Obama praised Chile for showing "it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy and to do so peacefully."
In the midst of the uprising in Egypt last month, administration officials studied successful transitions from dictatorships, and Chile was examined. Pinochet eventually stepped down, and leaders have been elected since 1990. But some scholars say the lessons from democratic shifts in the 1980s in Latin America may not be a perfect analogy for the Middle East and North Africa.
"There are very profound cultural and historical differences between what is happening in the Middle East today and the democratic transitions in Latin America that took place several decades ago in countries like Chile and Brazil," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, based in Washington. "In sharp contrast to Egypt, for example, Chile had a rich democratic experience and highly structured political parties before the transition from military rule in 1990."