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Latin America increasingly important to the U.S., Obama says

In Chile, Obama seeks to dispel views of the U.S. as an overbearing neighbor of Latin America, calling the region 'ready to assume a greater role in world affairs.'

March 22, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. President Barack Obama smiles during an arrival ceremony with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera at La Moneda Palace in Santiago, Chile. Obama praised Chile's democracy and said Latin American was becoming more and more important to the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama smiles during an arrival ceremony with Chilean… (Kevin Lamarque, Reuters )

Reporting from Santiago, Chile — President Obama said Monday that the United States has sometimes taken Latin America for granted, but that he sees the region as an increasingly important player on the world stage.

Obama, in Chile at the midpoint of a five-day, three-country Latin American trip, sought to dispel views of the U.S. as an overbearing neighbor dictating terms to countries in the region. He called Latin America "a region on the move, proud of its progress, and ready to assume a greater role in world affairs," and he described the U.S. economy as deeply entwined with that of Latin America.

"Latin America is only going to become more important to the United States, especially to our economy," the president said after a meeting and news conference with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera. "Trade between the United States and Latin America has surged. We buy more of your goods and products than any other country, and we invest more in this region than any other country…. In other words, when Latin America is more prosperous, the United States is more prosperous.

"With no other region does the United States have so many connections. And nowhere do we see that more than in the tens of millions of Hispanic Americans across the United States, who enrich our society, grow our economy and strengthen our nation every single day," he said.

Obama laid out a vision for the Latin American-U.S. relationship that was rooted in a shared belief in democracy, stronger cultural ties and expanded trade.

Obama's first trip to South America has unfolded in the shadow of the military conflict in Libya. Still, White House aides said his comments Monday, which included a speech at La Moneda Palace Cultural Center, a modern art museum near the presidential palace, were important in recasting America's relationship with its southern neighbors.

Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy launched his Alliance for Progress, pumping billions of dollars into the Latin American economy. Today, struggling with huge deficits at home, an American president is no longer in a position to lavish aid on the region and so must rethink the way north and south cooperate in the new era, aides said.

But the history between Chile and the U.S. has had its painful moments. At the news conference, a Chilean reporter asked Obama about "open wounds" stemming from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Thousands of people were killed, kidnapped or tortured under Pinochet's rule, from 1973 to 1990.

Referring to allegations that the United States played a role in Pinochet's 1973 coup, the reporter said that "many of those wounds have to do with the U.S." He asked if Obama would pledge U.S. assistance in investigating that part of Chile's past.

Obama said the U.S. would "like to cooperate" with requests for information about involvement.

"Obviously," Obama said, "the history of relations between the United States and Latin America have at times been extremely rocky and have at times been difficult. 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.

"And the fact of the matter is, is that over the last two decades we've seen extraordinary progress here in Chile, and that has not been impeded by the United States but, in fact, has been fully supported by the United States."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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