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Obama: Latin America can be Mideast model

  |   March 22, 2011 at 3:33 PM
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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador, March 22 (UPI) -- Latin America can be an example for countries in the Middle East and elsewhere struggling toward democracy from dictatorship, U.S. President Barack Obama said.

"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," Obama said in a speech to the people of Latin America from Chile's La Moneda Palace Monday.

Obama took his tour of Latin America to El Salvador Tuesday, arriving at 12:40 p.m., local time, under a blistering sun. The president, first lady and daughters were greeted by the Marine Band as they walked down a red carpet.

Among those on hand to greet the president were a few dozen school children -- two of whom presented the first family with candy -- along with El Salvadoran Foreign Relations Minister Hugo Martinez, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte and El Salvadoran Ambassador to the United States Francisco Altschul.

In the Monday speech, Obama said no model for democratic transition is universal "but as this region knows, successful transitions do have certain ingredients."

The ingredients include the "moral force" of non-violence, "open and inclusive" dialogue, protection of speech and assembly rights, "accountability for past wrongs" and economic reform, he said.

"With decades of experience, there's so much Latin America can now share," Obama said.

Chile is one of South America's most stable, prosperous and influential nations. It leads Latin America in human development, competitiveness, per capita income, economic freedom and low perception of corruption, studies indicate.

But from 1973 to 1990 it endured a U.S.-backed military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet that left more than 3,000 people dead or missing and forced thousands more into exile. Pinochet died Dec. 10, 2006, with 300 criminal charges pending against him for human-rights violations, tax evasion and embezzlement of more than $28 million during his rule and afterward.

Obama brushed aside a request he apologize for U.S. support of Pinochet but said he would consider sharing U.S. government records that could shed light on events such as the reputed U.S. role in the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power.

"It's important for us to learn from our history and understand our history but not be trapped by it," Obama said.

In El Salvador, Obama is to pay homage to Salvadoran human-rights activist Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by a sniper as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel March 24, 1980, in the early days of El Salvador's civil war.

Romero spoke out against repression by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military government during the 12-year civil war that left at least 75,000 people dead.

Obama's planned stop at Romero's tomb in El Salvador's National Cathedral Wednesday -- a day short of 31 years after Romero was killed -- will be the first time a U.S. president has done this, a "truly extraordinary" gesture, Salvadoran news Web site El Faro said in an editorial.

Obama's action demonstrates how far the process of democracy and reconciliation has come in postwar El Salvador, Altschul said.

"Monsignor Romero is a universal symbol of justice, peace, human rights and reconciliation," Altschul told the Los Angeles Times. "We are incredibly satisfied and appreciative" of Obama's visit to the grave.

On his arrival in El Salvador Tuesday, Obama will discuss the Salvadoran economy and U.S. trade with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, as well as challenges such as El Salvador's growing drug trafficking, gang wars and organized-crime problems, Altschul told The Miami Herald.

Nearly 35 percent of El Salvador's population lives below the poverty line and a quarter of its citizens report being victims of crime, Time magazine said.

Nearly 3 million Salvadorans live in the United States, sending nearly $3.65 billion back to their homeland -- more than 15 percent of the nation's GDP, government statistics indicate.

The presidents will hold a joint news conference around 5 p.m. EDT.

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