Libya looms over next stop on Obama's tour, Chile

Miami HeraldMarch 21, 2011 

SANTIAGO, Chile — Amid the ghosts of Chile's past and an escalating confrontation in Libya, President Barack Obama used the mid-point of his first extended Latin American tour to address the region, saying no other part of the world shared so many of the United States' values and interests.

Speaking on the grounds of Chile's presidential palace, Obama vowed to work with Latin America on improving security, boosting trade and bolstering education in a partnership of equals that would benefit the entire region.

"We are all Americans," he said. "Todos somos Americanos."

The speech — seen as the centerpiece of Obama's three-nation Latin America tour that began on Saturday — comes 50 years after John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress address, which laid out U.S. policy toward the region.

Obama said Kennedy's goals of reducing poverty and eliminating illiteracy were still worthy, but the world has changed. Now, Latin America has as much to offer as the United States.

The United States relies on Latin America as the primary destination for its exports, and trade with the region will soon create more than 2 million jobs in the United States, he said. Latin America has also emerged as a leader in alternative energies, security and emergency response.

"In the Americas today, there are no senior partners and junior partners," he said. "There are only equal partners."

Speaking to a hall of carefully selected guests, politicians and journalists, Obama's address was broad in scope but short on details.

Among the new initiatives unveiled were plans to use social media and online networks to encourage collaboration among students, entrepreneurs and scientists throughout the region; and plans to expand foreign exchange programs to allow 100,000 U.S students and 100,000 Latin American students to learn about each others' cultures.

On the security front, Obama said the United States is working with Chile, Mexico and Colombia so that those nations can share with Central America their expertise in fighting drug traffickers and criminal gangs.

Acknowledging the United States' role in the drug trade, Obama said his administration is boosting national drug education and treatment programs by $10 billion this year, even as authorities continue cracking down on guns being shipped to Mexico and Central America.

He also said the country would redouble its efforts to ratify free trade agreements with Colombia and Peru and deepen commercial ties throughout the region.

On the hot-button issue of Cuba, Obama said no other administration in decades had made more changes in its Havana policy.

"But Cuban authorities must take some meaningful actions to respect the basic rights of their own people," he said. "Not because the United States insists upon it, but because the people of Cuba deserve it."

When Air Force One landed here shortly after 1 p.m. local time Monday, Obama became the fifth U.S. president to visit this far-flung nation. Whisked through the streets of Santiago under intense security, crowds gathered to stare, as Obama was brought to La Moneda presidential palace.

After meeting with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and a handful of advisors, the two leaders faced the press.

The first question was one that has been raging in the local media for days: would Obama apologize for the United States' role in the 1973 military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and led to the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet?

"Obviously, the history of relations between the United States and Latin America have at times been extremely rocky and have at times been difficult," he said. But "I can't speak to all of the policies of the past. I can speak certainly to the policies of the present and the future."

When asked if the United States and its allies were being forceful enough against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Obama said the U.S. was going beyond military action. The administration has moved to impose sanctions, freeze Gaddafi's assets and build a coalition capable of sustaining the no-fly zone and leaving the dictator isolated.

"It is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go," he said.

Obama's visit comes as Chile has spent the last year under the international spotlight. In February, 2010 — just days before Piñera took office — the country was rattled by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami that killed more than 700 and left a half-million homeless.

In October, more than a billion people tuned in as the government rescued 33 miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months.

Chile is the eighth-largest economy in Latin America after Venezuela and Peru. But with an annual growth rate of 5.2 percent last year and its embrace of free-market capitalism, the country is often touted as an economic model for the region.

Environmental groups and university organizations held an anti-Obama protests Monday, but the area around La Moneda was mostly dominated by curious onlookers.

Christian Belmar, 44, a gold miner, was spending his day off hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama.

"I hope he talks about poverty and maybe about earthquakes," he said. "I'm still not sure why he came to visit us but it really is quite an honor that he's here."

President-elect Herbert Hoover toured Chile in 1928, but Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country in 1960.

The last presidential visit was in 2004 by George W. Bush. Here for a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Bush faced large protests and a frosty reception. Chilean President Ricardo Lagos refused to authorize the use of metal detectors at an official banquet and Bush's secret service detail got into a scuffle when they were blocked from following him into an event.

But the region's view off the United States has improved dramatically, according to the Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro.

The company found that 73 percent of Chileans believe the United States is either a "positive" or "very positive" force in Latin America. That's compared to 47 percent in 2007. Across Latin America, 57 percent of those surveyed saw the United States as a positive influence, according to the poll.

Also during the visit, first lady Michelle Obama and Chile's first lady Cecilia Morel visited a local school, where Mrs. Obama planned to give a speech about the importance of education.

Monday evening, the Obamas will be the guests of honor at a dinner with some 300 invitees at the presidential palace.

The first family leaves Santiago for San Salvador on Tuesday morning.

Obama acknowledged that he wasn't the first president to lay out grand plans for the region. But he said anyone who doubted they might be achievable only need to recall the dramatic rescue of Chile's 33 miners.

"If ever we needed a reminder of the humanity and the hopes that we share, that moment in the desert was such," he said. "When countries across Latin America come together and focus on a common goal, when the United States and others in the world do our part, there's nothing we can't accomplish together."

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