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Obama encourages Latin America to enlarge world role

President Obama on Monday hailed Latin America as 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.

But the mounting military campaign in Libya, not his outreach to Chile or the Americas, dominated his news conference here.

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.

"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 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 respect its peoples' basic rights.

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's visit in 1990.

Obama, with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, arrived in Chile early Monday afternoon following a two-day stop in Brazil. They were to leave for El Salvador this 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 Monday in an open letter to Obama asking that he apologize to the Chilean people for U.S. interventions before and during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

In reply, Obama said that the U.S. would "like to cooperate" with requests for information about involvement.

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