Obama Vows to End Neglect of Latin America as Economies Mature

President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama pledged to overcome past neglect and forge a stronger partnership with Latin America as the region’s economic progress boosts its importance to the U.S.

“Latin America is not the old stereotype of a region in perpetual conflict or trapped in endless cycles of poverty,” Obama said at a speech in Santiago, Chile, yesterday. “The world must now recognize Latin America for the dynamic and growing region that it truly is.”

Obama, 49, heads to El Salvador today on the final leg of a five-day tour aimed at deepening trade ties with Latin America as a U.S.-backed coalition expanded its military action against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Obama has to juggle the scheduled trip with demands including national-security briefings and providing updates on the combat operations in North Africa.

Obama, speaking at the presidential palace in Santiago, said that Latin America had gained confidence in the strength of its democracies and economies since President John F. Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress a half-century ago this month. Today’s realities demanded the U.S. work with the region as “equal partners” on issues ranging from immigration to fighting drug trafficking, he said.

The U.S. exports more than three times as much to Latin America as it does to China, and sales to the region are growing faster than they are to the rest of the world, he said.

“Latin America is only going to become more important to the United States, especially to our economy,” Obama said. “In short, when Latin America is more prosperous, the United States is more prosperous.”

Deserving Credit

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said Obama “deserves a lot of credit” for resisting calls in the U.S. to return early to Washington to cope with the Libya crisis. Still, he said yesterday’s speech was a “disappointment” and wouldn’t substantially improve relations with the region.

“In tangible terms, continuing with the trip is more important than anything he said,” Shifter said in a telephone interview. “Had he gone home early, it would’ve contributed to the traditional view that nobody cares about Latin America.”

Obama chose Chile to outline his vision of relations with Latin America. Chile flourished and became the region’s most stable economy after removing dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1990.

The country was the first in South America to sign a free-trade agreement with the U.S. Since it took effect in 2004, Chilean exports to the U.S. increased 44 percent and imports from the North American country nearly tripled, according to Chile’s central bank.

Praised Transition

Obama praised the country’s transition to democracy and integration into the global economy, and said the 70-day rescue last year of 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground was an inspiration to the rest of the world.

Victims of Pinochet’s bloody, 17-year rule held protests ahead of Obama’s visit, demanding he apologize for the U.S.’s role in destabilizing Salvador Allende’s socialist government before Pinochet’s 1973 coup.

Obama said relations between the two countries had been at times “extremely rocky” in the past, though they shouldn’t be “trapped by our history.” Obama said he would consider any request by Chile to obtain information about its past.

“I think it’s very important for all of us to know our history,” Obama said while standing alongside President Sebastian Pinera. “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.”

Nuclear Deal

Pinera said he wanted to expand the free-trade agreement with the U.S., without providing details. The two governments agreed to deepen cooperation on clean-energy research and boost educational exchanges. Last week they signed a nuclear cooperation agreement to exchange scientific information and train personnel on nuclear technologies.

The accord, which was signed as Japan battles to contain the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years after an earthquake and ensuring tsunami, has been criticized by Chilean activists who say the country’s own seismic activity makes it unsafe for such technology.

Chile last year suffered an 8.8-magnitude quake that killed about 500 people and caused about $30 billion in damage.

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