updated 3/21/2011 5:36:08 PM ET 2011-03-21T21:36:08

President Barack Obama held up Latin America as a shining example for those in the Middle East fighting for democracy, while urging leaders in the region to recommit themselves to defending human rights and strengthening democratic institutions in their own countries.

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"At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that, yes, it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy, and to do so peacefully," said Obama Monday.

Speaking at the midway point of his five-day tour of Latin America, Obama declared the region ready to take on more responsibility on the world stage, and said the United States no longer views it as one embroiled in perpetual conflict or trapped in endless cycles of poverty.

"Indeed, the world must now recognize Latin America for the dynamic and growing region that it truly is," he said.

Much of Obama's public diplomacy here has been overshadowed by the U.S.-led international effort to create a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians against massacre by forces loyal to longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. During his first stop, a two-day visit to Brazil, he balanced outreach to an increasingly influential Latin American neighbor with meetings and secure phone calls to approve missile attacks on Libya's air defenses. En route to Chile, Obama was briefed on the operation in Libya during an hour-long conference call with top U.S. officials.

First Thoughts: At war ... again

Still, the White House has sought to keep the focus of Obama's trip on strengthening the partnership between the U.S. and Latin America, and aides billed president's remarks Monday as an address to people across the region.

Obama offered a blunt assessment of the steps America's southern partners must take to end the stark inequalities that exist in many countries despite the region's economic rise.

"In political and economic power that is too often concentrated in the hands of the few, instead of serving the many," Obama said. "In the corruption that stifles economic growth, development, innovation and entrepreneurship. And in leaders who cling to bankrupt ideologies to justify their own power and who seek to silence their opponents because they have the audacity to demand their universal rights."

Obama offered the U.S. as a partner willing to help Latin America on these and other key priorities for many in the region.

He reiterated his support for "comprehensive immigration reform" to secure America's southern borders and find a path to legal status for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country. But he said the immigration challenge would remain "so long as people believe that the only way to provide for their families is to leave their families and head north." So he called on Latin American countries to pursue broad-based economic growth to provide opportunities for their citizens.

Obama said the U.S. accepts its share of responsibility for drug violence, driven in part by demand for drugs in the U.S. He said the U.S. was attempting to reduce demand for drugs and also doing more to stem southbound flow of guns into the region.

The president also addressed Cuba, where many in Latin America see the U.S. approach as overly punitive. He noted that his administration has relaxed some rules to allow more visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans.

"We'll continue to seek ways to increase the independence of the Cuban people, who are entitled to the same freedom and liberty as everyone else in this hemisphere," Obama said. "I will make this effort to try to break out of this history that's now lasted for longer than I've been alive. At the same time, Cuban authorities must take meaningful actions to respect the basic rights of the Cuban people."

First Thoughts: At war ... again

The president, along with Michelle Obama and their two daughters, arrived in Chile early Monday afternoon following a two-day stop in Brazil. Obama met with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera at the presidential palace in Santiago.

Following their meetings, Obama took questions from reporters for the first time since authorizing U.S. military action in Libya. While defending the U.S. approach in Libya he sought to bring the focus back to his mission in Latin America, one of drawing America closer to its southern neighbors to boost cooperation and yield economic benefits for both.

"In our interconnected world the security and prosperity of people's are intertwined like never before, and no region is more closely linked than the U.S. and Latin America," Obama said.

The president said he foresaw greater cooperation with Chile on clean energy, educational exchanges and fighting drug trafficking. "What will characterize this new partnership is the fact that it's a two-way street," said the president.

Pinera spoke of Chile and Latin America's place in the world, saying, "We are of age now and we need to fulfill our new mission."

Obama recommitted himself to fully implementing the U.S. free trade pact with Chile, and said his administration has intensified its efforts to move forward on stalled trade deals with Panama and Colombia. He also pledged to push for a transpacific partnership to economically integrate the U.S., Latin America and Asia.

Even as Obama praised Chile's fast-growing democracy he avoided being drawn into an excavation of its past when a Chilean reporter asked him about ongoing investigations stemming from the country's troubled past. Protesters in Santiago on Sunday had demanded that Obama apologize to the Chilean people for U.S. interventions before and during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

"It's important for us to learn from our history, to understand our history, but not be trapped by it," Obama said. "Because we have a lot of challenges now, and even more important we have challenges in the future we have to attend to."

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Video: Defining the mission of the US in Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: Defining the mission of the US in Libya

    >> it isn't about seeing him go. it's about supporting the united nations resolution which talked to limiting or eliminating hiz ability to kill his own people.

    >> so the mission can be accomplished and gadhafi could remain in power?

    >> that's potentially one outcome.

    >> richard lugar is the ranking member of the foreign relations committee and joins me now. senator, first picking up right there from what admiral mullen said, if that is one option, has this mission failed?

    >> i'm sorry, could i ni could not hear the question well.

    >> i'm sorry, if gadhafi remains at the end of the military operation as admiral mullen said is one option and the u.s. has said that he's not being targeted, what is your view of that option if gath remadhafi remains in power?

    >> i've said from the beginning that the plan is not simply there, the end game is not apparent. so as a result of first strikes have knocked out at least air facilities that were at least harming the rebels. but after that, the major question is gadhafi to stay, will there be ground activity. the president said no american boots on the ground , no american aircraft even over the country. in the meantime the arab league has second thoughts about it. the african union said they're opposed. so we're back to square one. what is the plan? is it a situation which each nation determines by going to the security council we'll take some action or is there finally going to be some coming together of the parties so that there is a coherence to all of this?

    >> now that we're in it, what do you think we need to do to make it more clear?

    >> well, first of all, the american people through the congress need to hear what our president believes his objectives are. and he has indicated he has constitutional power to do what he's done to date. but i would simply argue that if we are going in to war with libya , we should declare war on libya , we should pull together with our allies and try to figure out a plan of how that war is to be won. and what the objectives are and likewise what happens after it's won. who are the libyans we would deal with and for how long. does it involve economic assistance and nation building and additional steps. these are things that must be debated here in washington quite apart from paris or at least encounters with other countries in which we say we'll hold your coat, we don't object to what you're up to.

    >> as bad as gadhafi is, let me stipulate that, you raised the question about the opposition leaders. what do we know about the opposition here and their ability to run this country and prevent al qaeda or other extremist forces from taking root there?

    >> we know very little about the opposition leaders. secretary hillary clinton met with one of them recently and obviously this was an important impression in terms of the statements that she has made. but the fact is that almost every city has different opposition leaders. and as many have pointed out, many of their personnel in eastern libya states fought against tunited states troops in iraq. they were off in a different sort of venture and could very well be caught up in the shiite sunni divisions.

    >> if we have the right to go into libya to support the rebels there and we say it's a humanitarian commission, why don't we also have the obligation then to go into yemen or bahrain ?

    >> well, obviously the contradictions are abundant. in bahrain , essentially the saudis perhaps doubting now that the united states really can be counted upon finally to be helpful to them if their defense has sent saudi troops in to bahrain . the claim is once again it's a sunni government in bahrain fighting off iranian shiites. so that division is there. but clearly in bahrain we have the fifth fleet. we have had a relationship with that government and that government is now firing on protesters. it's everyone more critical in yemen where the leader there had been very instrumental in our intelligence first with regard to al qaeda , but he is under great pressure with some of his government's signing as a dubious situation as to his longevity unless somebody comes to the rescue, it would be very contradictory because he's also also firing on people that are rebels in yemen for us to be taking one stance with regard to so-called civilians and rebels in libya whereas in bahrain and yemen where we have considerable, at least we need the people right now to often intelligence about al qaeda . and we're advising that they ought to go into governmental refo reform, but they're not in position to do so.

    >> a lot of questions and obviously concerns at the foreign relations committee . thank you very much, senator.


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