By Matt Spetalnick and Simon Gardner
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called on Monday for a "new era of partnership" with Latin America as he acknowledged a sometimes troubled past between Washington and its neighbors in the region.
But his mission to reassert Washington's influence south of the border was punctuated by questions over the U.S. role in fierce air assaults over Libya, and aides scrambled to keep him up to speed on the attacks in between talks with heads of state and policy speeches.
Following a weekend visit to Latin America's powerhouse Brazil, Obama laid out a vision for deeper trade, investment and political ties with an economically dynamic region where the United States faces growing competition from China.
"No region is more closely linked than the United States and Latin America," Obama told reporters after meeting Chilean President Sebastian Pinera in Santiago on Monday.
Still, there have been no major initiatives and the visit has been overshadowed by the air strikes against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Obama is struggling to balance his handling of world crises, including U.S. military intervention in a third Muslim country, with his domestic priorities of jobs and the economy, considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.
In his speech on Latin America, Obama hailed the transition in Chile and other Latin American countries to stable democracy from military dictatorship as a model for Arab states swept by popular rebellions against autocratic rule.
"There are no senior partners and there are no junior partners, there are equal partners" in the U.S.-Latin American relationship, Obama said, adding that had to be a "two-way" street in terms of shouldering responsibilities.
He conceded that relations have "at times been very rocky and at times been difficult," but said it was important to learn from history and "not be trapped by it."
The United States regularly imposed its will on Latin America in the 20th century and, during the Cold War, it backed a series of right-wing dictatorships against Marxist rebels or left-wing groups. They included the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
GROWING IMPORTANCE TO U.S.
Obama said Latin America, where growth has outstripped the U.S. recovery and democracy has taken hold after brutal civil wars, is now more important to U.S. prosperity than ever.
But he offered no major policy changes or initiatives and was short on specifics about how to advance the partnership beyond laying out themes of improved cooperation on trade, clean energy, security and anti-drug efforts.
He lauded Chile's economic success story and promised U.S. cooperation in an investigation of human rights crimes under military rule, but he sidestepped a question on whether he would apologize for what human rights groups allege was U.S. backing for the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power.
While praising the advances made, Obama -- on what his team billed as his signature tour of the region -- said some Latin American leaders are still clinging to "bankrupt ideologies" and called on communist-ruled Cuba to respect human rights.
Obama is popular in Latin America but there is a sense among its leaders that relations have been neglected while he battles urgent domestic challenges and foreign wars. China, in the meantime, has deepened its influence in the region by rapidly expanding trade and investment.
"I know that, at times, the United States has taken this region for granted," Obama said.
Many Latin Americans are disappointed that Obama has not taken significant steps to ease the longstanding U.S. embargo on Cuba. He made no promises to do so in Monday's speech, saying any further steps would require Cuba to first take "meaningful actions" on granting rights to its people.
Obama made no direct reference to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the most vocally anti-U.S. leader in the region.
Pinera backed Obama's call for a new alliance, but reminded him that Panama and Colombia are still waiting for long-promised free trade agreements with the United States.
In Brazil, Obama signed a series of trade and energy deals but also found himself in the awkward position of meeting a leader, President Dilma Rousseff, whose government abstained in last week's U.N. Security Council resolution giving the go-ahead for the strikes on Libya.