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Obama praises Latin American democracies

SANTIAGO, Chile -- 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.

"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," Obama said yesterday.

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 international effort to create a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians against forces loyal to 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 hourlong conference call with top U.S. officials.

Obama offered a blunt assessment of the areas in which America's southern partners must take steps 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.

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