WASHINGTON Latin America has taken big strides in building democracy and expanding free trade but the rich don't pay enough in taxes and there is too much violence, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
With the exception of Cuba, Latin America is enjoying an unprecedented period of democratic rule and strong economic growth, Clinton and other U.S. officials told a conference of the Council of the Americas business forum.
But she said education and fiscal policies remain weak, and the gap between rich and poor remains huge in a region where tens of millions of people live in poverty.
"There are still too few people of means paying their fair share of taxes to their government in order to support services for those who will otherwise be mired in generational poverty," Clinton said. "And there is too much violence."
President Barack Obama in March announced a plan to work with countries fighting organized crime and drug cartels behind a brutal wave of violence in Mexico and Central America.
More than 38,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent the army to fight the cartels on taking office in late 2006, mainly between cartels battling to control drug routes to the United States.
Calderon made an urgent plea to the U.S. government to act to stop the flow of weapons to criminals in Mexico. He said 84 percent of the 100,000 guns seized in the last four years came from the United States, the main market for the drug traffic.
"This is not a Mexican problem this is a common problem and we need to fix it together," Calderon told the conference. He said establishing the rule of law was the only way forward.
Clinton said the United States and Mexico are resolving a dispute over cargo trucks that cross their border to make it safer and end Mexican retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods.
Washington also hopes to enact two long-delayed free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama this year, she said.
"We are making great progress on both agreements," she said noting steps to guarantee labor rights in Colombia and ensure tax transparency in Panama that will help win U.S. lawmakers' approval of the trade deals.
The Obama administration has liberalized travel to communist-run Cuba, allowing more Americans to visit under a "people-to-people" policy and loosening restrictions on cash remittances to Cubans. But a trade embargo remains in place until Havana begins reforming its one-party state.
"We could do more if we saw evidence that there was an opportunity to do so coming from the Cuban side because we want to ... work for the time when Cuba will enjoy its own transition to democracy," she said.
The administration's top U.S. official on Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, said the travel measures were aimed at engaging Cuban citizens and not a "rapprochement with the regime" as critics claim.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Kieran Murray)