SAN SALVADOR – President Barack Obama arrived in El Salvador Tuesday for the final leg of a Latin America tour he hopes will turn the page on troubled ties in the past and build a new era of partnership.
The three-nation trip — which has been overshadowed by the Arab uprisings and the launch of air strikes against the forces of Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi — was to conclude in a tiny Central American country that is one of the world’s most dangerous.
Ahead of his arrival, large numbers of heavily armed police and soldiers were deployed around the presidential palace and the hotel where Obama will be staying and US military helicopters circled overhead.
Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, arrived shortly after midday (1800 GMT) after visits to Chile and Brazil seen as an attempt to reassert flagging US influence in the region.
Security was also tight around the cathedral of San Salvador, where Obama is to pay a visit Wednesday, and the archaeological site of San Andres, 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the west, which will be visited by his family.
Obama was expected to use the last leg of his five day Latin American tour to focus on the drug trafficking and violence that plague much of Central America, as well as the issue of illegal immigration.
A country of six million people, El Salvador has three million emigrants in the United States.
Obama’s senior Latin America advisor Dan Restrepo said Tuesday’s talks with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes would focus on both “economic stagnation” and “citizen security,” and on how to promote the country’s legal industries.
“These are related concepts — how we can continue to work together through the Partnership for Growth to help unlock the Salvadoran economy, to create sustainable economic growth there,” he added.
According to the US State Department, El Salvador is one of the 10 most violent countries in the world. A State Department document noted that there were 3,985 homicides in 2010 and 999 carjackings.
It was devastated by civil war from 1980-1992 in which 75,000 people were killed. A US-backed right-wing government and military fought a leftist insurgency that produced the leaders now in elected office.
Funes was the first democratically elected leftist leader for more than 20 years, and is a member of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which includes former guerrillas from the demobilized rebel group of the same name.
Here and in previous stops, Obama has sought to open a new chapter in ties with a region which was largely neglected by his predecessor George W. Bush.
In Chile, Obama said the United States and Latin America were bound by common values and a shared history as he sought increased trade to boost the faltering US economy.
“I believe that in the Americas today, there are no senior partners and there are no junior partners, there are equal partners,” Obama said, speaking alongside Chilean President Sebastian Pinera in Santiago.
In a thinly-veiled attack on regional foes like Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Obama railed against “leaders who cling to bankrupt ideologies to justify their own power and who seek to silence their opponents.”
Obama’s Latin America swing has been upstaged by events in Libya, where US-led air and missile strikes are enforcing a no-fly zone authorized by a UN Security Council resolution aimed at protecting civilians.
The strikes on Kadhafi’s forces have divided Latin America, with Colombia, Peru, Panama and Chile voicing support and Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay and Nicaragua condemning the attacks.
Obama has evoked the successful struggle against dictatorships in much of the region as a model for the popular uprisings under way in the Arab world.
“At a time when others around the world are reaching for their own rights and struggling for their own sense of dignity, Chile sends a powerful message. “You too can write a new chapter in the story of your nation; you too can be free,” Obama said at the Chilean presidential palace, where the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende died during a US-backed military coup in 1973.
Obama’s charm offensive could help open up Latin America’s surging economies to US firms and shore up export markets as Washington ties up important free trade deals with key regional partners Panama and Colombia.