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Obama: Latin America on equal footing with U.S.

  • Story Highlights
  • Obama heading to Summit of Americas this week in Trinidad and Tobago
  • He says U.S. should not tell "countries how to structure their democratic practices"
  • "We want to listen and learn as well as talk," Obama says
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A day before embarking on a trip to Latin America, President Obama described his planned talks with Latin American leaders as discussions among equals.

President Obama refuses to criticize Latin American leaders.

President Obama refuses to criticize Latin American leaders.

"Times have changed," Obama told CNN en Español Wednesday. Referring to his planned meeting later this week with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, he said, "My relationship with President Lula is one of two leaders who both have big countries, that we are trying to solve problems and create opportunities for our people and we should be partners.

"There's no senior partner or junior partner."

Obama and Lula da Silva are among leaders scheduled to attend the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Obama refused to criticize the leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, who have taken measures to change their constitutions to extend their holds on power.

"I think it's important for the United States not to tell other countries how to structure their democratic practices and what should be contained in their constitutions," he said. "It's up to the people of those countries to make a decision about how they want to structure their affairs."

Asked how he plans to interact with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States who once described former President George Bush as the devil, Obama offered no criticism. "Look, he's the leader of his country and he'll be one of many people that I will have an opportunity to meet."

Though he said he believes the United States has a leadership role to play in the region, Obama qualified that role, saying, "We also recognize that other countries have important contributions and insights. We want to listen and learn as well as talk, and that approach, I think, of mutual respect and finding common interests, is one that ultimately will serve everybody."

Asked about Cuba, Obama, who recently eased restrictions on travel and sending money to the island, offered a prod and a carrot to Havana.

"What we're looking for is some signal that there are going to be changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are released, that people can speak their minds freely, that they can travel, that they can write and attend church and do the things that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for granted," he said.

"And if there is some sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba, then I think we can see a further thawing of relations and further changes."

Obama sought to distance his administration from that of his predecessor, noting that he plans to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where "some of the practices of enhanced interrogation techniques, I think ran counter to American values and American traditions."

He said his team has spoken with the Spanish government about a Spanish judge's call for an investigation into the role of Bush administration officials in the detention of five Spaniards at Guantanamo.

But he did not dwell on his predecessor's legacy. "I'm a strong believer that it is important to look forward and not backward and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there."

Though the U.S. image abroad may have suffered in recent years, "there's a reason why there are consistently so many immigrants to our country from Latin America," he said.

Obama lauded Mexican President Felipe Calderon, with whom he is to meet Thursday in Mexico City, as having done "an outstanding and heroic job in dealing with what is a big problem right now along the borders with the drug cartels."

He vowed that the United States can be counted on to help. "We are going to be dealing not only with drug interdiction coming north, but also working on helping to curb the flow of cash and guns going south," Obama said.

Obama described himself as "a strong proponent of comprehensive immigration reform," and said he has met with the congressional Hispanic Caucus "to try to shape an agenda that can move through Congress."

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