President Obama told Latin America leaders in Panama Friday that the days of U.S. exploitation of the region are over, and that America owes a debt to the rest of the world for helping to bring equality to the U.S.
“We are respectful of the differences among our countries,” Mr. Obama said at the Summit of the Americas. “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past.”
The crowd erupted in sustained applause.
Mr. Obama urged leaders in the region to embrace democratic principles, including public debate and dissent.
“It’s not to say that my country’s perfect, we are not. And that’s the point,” Mr. Obama said. “We have to wrestle with our own challenges from issues of race to policing to inequality. We embrace our ability to become better through our democracy.”
Referring to slavery and Jim Crow-era segregation in the U.S., Mr. Obama also said that outside forces helped to improve life in America.
“There was a time in our own country when there were groups that were voiceless and powerless,” Mr. Obama said. “Because of world opinion, that helped to change those circumstances. We have a debt to pay because the voices of ordinary people made us better. That’s a debt I want to make sure we repay in this hemisphere and around the world.”
Earlier, Mr. Obama took an apparent swipe at Cuba’s communist regime when he said “almost everybody” in Latin America has been smart enough to move their countries to a market-based economy.
“By virtue of wisdom, and some things that didn’t work and some things that did, everybody around the region … has a very practical solution, or a practical orientation,” Mr. Obama said.
Then he grinned and added, “Maybe not everybody, but almost everybody.” The audience of business leaders laughed.
The president, who is expected to meet for the first time with Cuban President Raul Castro Saturday on the sidelines of the summit, said countries in the hemisphere previously subscribed either to a “statist” economic model or a free-market approach.
“Everything was very ideological in this region in discussing how economic development went forward,” Mr. Obama said. “I believe the free market is the greatest wealth-generator and innovator and is a recipe for success for countries.”
Mr. Obama is attempting to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years.