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 U.S. influence in Latin America 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 meetings with presidents, long flights 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 talks with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Monday.
Still, the visit was 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 Latin American policy speech, 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.
He insisted "there are no senior partners and there are no junior partners, there are equal partners" in the U.S.-Latin American relationship, but that it had to be a "two-way" street in terms of shouldering responsibilities.
He also conceded that relations with Latin America have "at times been very rocky and at times been difficult."
The United States regularly imposed its will on Latin America for much of 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 following brutal civil wars, is now more important to U.S. prosperity than ever before.
But he offered no major new concrete initiatives and was short on specifics about how the partnership should be forged.
"I could not imagine a more fitting place to discuss the new era of partnership that the United States is pursuing, not only with Chile, but across the Americas," he said during a trip billed by the White House as his signature first-term tour of the region.
While applauding the advances made, Obama 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.
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.
(Additional reporting by Simon Gardner in Santiago, Editing by Kieran Murray)