Reaching out to a vast but overshadowed region, President Barack Obama on Monday called Latin America a rising giant in the world that must live up to greater responsibilities and speak up for those whose rights are crushed.
Firming up his "new era of partnership" with the peoples of South and Central America, Obama made his broadest appeal yet from Chile, which shed years of dictatorship not long ago to become a democracy of growing influence. Obama came here determined to draw attention to Latin America as a model of change for a whole swath of the Arab world in violent unrest.
Yet his message of peace was again clouded by the war he was overseeing from abroad. The dominant theme from his news conference here dealt with the mounting military campaign in Libya, not his outreach to Chile or the Americas.
Obama sought to tie it all together by saying that many nations of Latin America have shown everyone what works in transforming to democracy: Nonviolence, empowerment of citizens, accountability for wrongs and commitment to human rights.
"This is the Latin America that I see _ a region on the move, proud of its progress and ready to assume a greater role in world affairs," Obama said at the midpoint of his five-day trip, the first extended visit of his life to this region.
"Latin America," he said, "is more important to the prosperity and security of the United States than ever before."
The Chilean stop itself made Obama's point, as he heralded fresh deals on everything from disaster response to trade to student exchanges. The president is committing time to Latin America as a means to boost the chances of job creation back home and, more broadly, to solidify relations with nations whose support the United States needs across its agenda.
He also offered a doctrine that demanded more from the countries of the region.
"Let's recommit to defending democracy and human rights in our own countries," Obama said. After lauding Latin America's diversity and peace, he also spoke of corruption, inequalities, and power wrongly limited to the hands of a few.
"These, too, are realities we must face," Obama said.
The president reserved his most direct comments for Cuba, saying he has shown a willingness to change his policy toward the country but that its restrictive leaders must show respect for its peoples' basic rights.
"We have to speak out when we see those principles violated," Obama said. "Let's never waver in our support for the rights of people to determine their own future. And yes, that includes the people of Cuba."
Foreign crises unrelated to Obama's trip continue to seize time, as the White House kept a wary eye on explosive conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Back home, members of Congress questioned Obama's clarity and consultation over Western military intervention in Libya. The president sent Congress a letter Monday explaining the United States role in the Libyan conflict.
In Santiago, Obama was welcomed warmly by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. It was the first time a U.S. president had come to Chile for such a one-on-one visit since President George H.W. Bush did so in 1990.
"Latin America has been for too long the continent of hope or of the future, but a continent cannot be a promise forever," Pinera said. "And so we are of age now and we need to fulfill our mission."
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 the southbound flow of guns into the region.
The president, along with Michelle Obama and their two daughters, arrived in Chile early Monday afternoon following a two-day stop in Brazil. They were to leave for El Salvador Tuesday morning.
Even as Obama praised Chile's fast-growing democracy he avoided being drawn into an excavation of its past when a Chilean reporter asked if he would support Chile's human rights investigations by sharing evidence from classified U.S. files. The entire center-left coalition in Chile's lower house of Congress joined an open letter to Obama Monday asking that he 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."
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Michael Warren contributed to this story.