Speaking to the Chilean and Latin American public from the La Moneda presidential palace in Chile, President Obama signaled the start of a new era in U.S.-Latin America relations—one whose focus will be on enhancing security in the region, promoting inclusive development, strengthening democratic institutions, and securing sustainable energy resources. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s creation of the Alliance for Progress and amid political turmoil and regime change in the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama’s speech to the Latin American public was both symbolic and significant.
It is no secret that the U.S. administration supported—and even lent assistance—to the forces that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in 1973 and installed a military regime with General Augusto Pinochet at its head. This is a part of Chile’s history with which the country continues to come to terms, serving justice to the victims of the regime’s human rights abuses.
In a joint press conference with President Piñera, Obama was asked by a reporter about the U.S.’ past role in Chilean affairs. He answered without missing a beat: “It is important for us to understand our history, and to learn from our history,” he said, but “we are not trapped by our history.”
It is a lesson and a hope worth bearing in mind in the context of recent uprisings—some accompanied by regime change, others by violent military standoff—in the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, for example, the U.S. historically stood by former President Hosni Mubarak, even as he led a one-party nondemocratic political system, let corruption run rampant, silenced critics, and perpetrated human rights abuses. With Mubarak’s resignation in February and Egypt on its way to electing a new government, here, too, the U.S. has an opportunity to support democratic change and write a new history.
Chile offers many lessons. As President Obama told El Mercurio in an interview ahead of his visit, “The Chilean experience, in particular its successful democratic transition and its sustained economic growth, is a model for the region and for the world.” This has been a central message of his trip to Latin America and of his administration’s attitude toward the region in general. Latin America must no longer be viewed in isolation—its experiences have a global context and global resonance.
In the years since the dictatorship ended, Chile built a robust multi-party political system, oversaw a number of free and fair elections—including, most recently, one that peacefully transferred power from the dominant center-left coalition to the center-right one of President Piñera—and even made progress in addressing the wounds and challenges of truth and reconciliation.
Political reform was, in turn, accompanied by sound economic policies. Successive administrations in the 1990s maintained market-oriented economic policies while spending government money prudently, both of which helped Chile recover quickly from the global economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.
Moving forward, President Obama said he sees a relationship of equals between the U.S. and Chile. While lauding Kennedy’s vision in launching the Alliance for Progress, which called for generous U.S. economic aid for development, he said “the realities of our time demand something different.” Even borrowing a page from Kennedy’s playbook, he said, “It’s not just a matter of what we can do for Chile. It’s also a question of what Chile can do for us.”
Among the areas in which President Obama foresees partnership with Chile are regional security, clean and alternative energy, reduction of trade barriers, and investment in entrepreneurship. Most importantly, though, he emphasized broad-based and inclusive economic growth and the defense of democracy and human rights as two key ingredients to stability and prosperity in Latin America—“because democracy must meet the basic needs and aspirations of people.”
Not only in Chile but across the globe, this is the side of history that the U.S. should be standing on.
*Nina Agrawal is Associate Editor of Americas Quarterly and Policy Associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.