By MICHAEL WARREN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 6:01 PM
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said Tuesday that he'll accept President Barack Obama's invitation to formally request classified U.S. intelligence documents that may identify Chilean agents responsible for more than 1,200 human rights violations during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Pinera made this pledge - his most specific yet on Chile's unresolved human rights cases - during an interview with The Associated Press in which he described Obama's visit as a validation of his country's regional leadership and rejected complaints that it was short on concrete results.
Chile and the U.S. signed eight accords ahead of Obama's brief visit, which Pinera said shows the countries are working together as equals, a reflection of how far the region has come since President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress aid program for Latin America in 1961.
Such handouts are not only impossible now given the U.S. budget woes, but out of place in today's world, Pinera said.
"The United States used to set the rules of the road and sign the checks. What President Obama proposed to us yesterday was something Chile has been assuming for a long time now - a different relationship, to move from handouts to collaboration, from an unequal vertical relationship to a relationship of equals, horizontal," Pinera said while sitting in the Blue Room of the presidential palace, an elegant chamber just outside his private office.
In his first year since bringing the Chilean right wing back into the palace, Pinera has helped the nation recover from a devastating earthquake, managed a booming economy and led the dramatic rescue of 33 miners trapped deep underground. The president said Obama's visit also shows Chile can now do more beyond its borders, such as encouraging free trade, help for Haiti and new relationships in Latin America.
"It's not a coincidence" that Obama chose to visit Brazil and Chile during his first trip to South America, Pinera said. "It's a recognition of what the Chileans have achieved" with openness, democracy and strong institutions - a theme Obama touched on repeatedly during his address to the region.
Asked if he is ready to personally assume a regional leadership role now that Brazil's charismatic Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is out of office and Argentine power broker Nestor Kirchner has died, Pinera insisted that modern leaders work in teams.
"I'm absolutely ready to collaborate with my presidential colleagues in Latin America," he said, reflecting the business sense that helped him become a billionaire by introducing credit cards to Chile and building the region's biggest airline. Leaders need to lead, but also delegate, he said.
Chile's center-left opposition, political analysts and leftist leaders including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez said Obama's visit was short on results.
But Pinera rejected that criticism as based on a false and tired premise: that the United States should bring millions in handouts to lesser nations.
"The language of the 21st century isn't the language of the welfare states, but of collaboration among equals," he said. "Together we'll decide what to do to benefit both our countries."
U.S. meddling in Chile before and after the coup that ushered in the 1973-90 dictatorship posed the toughest questions for Obama and Pinera, whose coalition includes many people with connections to Pinochet's government.
Obama did not respond to a call by Chile's center-left coalition to apologize for President Richard Nixon's campaign to topple Allende and the Central Intelligence Agency's close ties to South American security forces during an era when dictators across the continent were eliminating leftist dissent.
But Obama said he would consider any Chilean request for classified information in human rights cases. And in the AP interview, Pinera said he would make these requests.
"If there's information that a friendly government such as the United States can provide to us, that advances the speed and strength of Chilean justice, of course we're going to ask for it," Pinera said.
More than 1,000 unresolved deaths and disappearances dating from dictator Augusto Pinochet's rule remain unresolved in Chile, where the independent judiciary has recently gained momentum, filing charges and announcing investigations into hundreds of cases.
They include the mysterious deaths of two presidents - Salvador Allende, thought to have committed suicide rather than surrender during the 1973 coup, and Eduardo Frei Montalva, who was allegedly poisoned during routine surgery.
Frei's son said Obama personally promised him Monday that he would cooperate to solve the case. Several previous judicial requests for U.S. help lacked executive branch support and went nowhere.
But Pinera said his government is "clearly, categorically committed to contribute from its sphere of influence to the search for truth and that justice is done in all of these human rights cases."
Both presidents have taken a major step, said Peter Kornbluh, the U.S. researcher whose book "The Pinochet File" is based on thousands of heavily redacted declassified U.S. documents.
"President Obama's offer to provide documents and President Pinera's decision to pursue these records is an important step forward for archival diplomacy on human rights crimes of the past. There is no doubt that the secret files of the U.S. goverment will yield significant evidence to assist Chile's ongoing efforts to find truth and justice for the atrocities of the Pinochet era," he told the AP.
In the Frei case at least, Pinera said, "there is well-founded evidence that he was assassinated. ... And if he was assassinated, as many of us think, then those responsible must pay."