SANTIAGO, Chile | With the stated exception of Cuba, President Obama on Monday said Latin America has come far from the military dictators of the past and now stands as a democratic example to the world.
Casting an eye to the upheavals in the Middle East, the president, delivering a broad speech on Latin American policy in Chile, said all countries in the hemisphere must recommit to fair elections, a free press and civilian control of their military — but said the strides this region has already made should serve as a model.
“The lessons of Latin America, I believe, can be a guide — a guide for people around the world who are beginning their own journeys toward democracy,” he said. “There’s so much Latin America can now share - how to build political parties and organize free elections; how to ensure peaceful transfers of power; how to navigate the winding paths of reform and reconciliation.”
The speech updated his address two years ago in Cairo to the Muslim world, in which he said there was no one path toward democracy and the U.S. would respect other countries’ decisions.
But with upheavals in several Middle Eastern nations under way, Mr. Obama on Monday highlighted the “certain ingredients” he said every stable country should strive for, including open and inclusive dialogue, the rights of assembly and expression, and accountability for past wrongs.
The speech came in the middle of a five-day trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, marking the president’s first foray to Latin America.
Mr. Obama pointedly did not mention Venezuela or its leader, President Hugo Chavez, but singled out Cuba for special attention, just as he did in 2009 in his address at the Summit of the Americas, when he offered that country a “new beginning” in relations.
The president also said he has made the biggest changes in decades in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and said now it’s time for the island nation to reciprocate.
“I will make this effort to try to break out of this history that’s now lasted for longer than I’ve been alive,” he said. “But Cuban authorities must take some meaningful actions to respect the basic rights of their own people — not because the United States insists upon it, but because the people of Cuba deserve it.”
Latin Americans routinely feel slighted by U.S. policy, while some think the U.S. meddled too closely in internal affairs in the past. But they also direct anger at their own past leaders.
At a joint press conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera earlier in the day, Mr. Obama was asked about Latin America’s troubled history, including brutal civil wars and military regimes. One reporter said “wounds” still exist in Chile from the days when Augusto Pinochet ruled the country.
“It’s important for us to learn from our history, to understand our history, but not be trapped by it,” Mr. Obama said, praising the steps Mr. Pinera and his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, took to stabilize the country’s economy.
For his part, Mr. Pinera praised the U.S. outreach but said Mr. Obama should follow through on free-trade deals President George W. Bush negotiated with Colombia and Panama, pacts that Mr. Obama has not submitted for congressional approval.
Heading into the trip, analysts said Mr. Obama needed to try to show the U.S. has a coherent Latin American policy - something that many of them said has been lacking for years, and under presidents of both parties.
“That’s very hard for U.S. presidents to do because, again, the region is very disparate. There are a lot of different countries that have different-size economies. They have different political systems,” said Stephen Johnson, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas program.