On the eve of President Obama's first trip to South America, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sang praises to the region, saying it had ushered in a period of steady economic growth while consolidating its transformation from dictatorships to democracy.
And in one light departure from her weighty policy talk, she suggested that she wanted the United States to emulate at least one Latin American lesson: its record of electing female presidents.
“I must say,” Mrs. Clinton said with a smile, “I'm far enough away from my own career in electoral politics that I will not take too much heat for suggesting that these women and societies can teach American voters a thing or two.”
The chuckle from the audience at Mrs. Clinton's comments made clear that they got the joke, too — a not-so-subtle reference to Mrs. Clinton's long battle with President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly said that her interest in becoming president has waned. This week, in an interview on CNN, Mrs. Clinton said she would not run for president and did not want to be secretary of state again if Mr. Obama won a second term.
But she remains very popular, especially among women who supported her candidacy with fervor. Her comments on Friday came during a talk at the Center for Strategic International Studies, where she described Latin America as presenting the United States with “one of the central strategic opportunities in the world today.”
While the United States struggles to lift itself out of recession, many of the economies of Latin America are booming, Mrs. Clinton said, with Brazil expected to move from the seventh- to the fifth-llargest economy in the world by the end of the decade, while Peru is growing at rates typically associated with China.
Mrs. Clinton said relations with Latin America generated tens of thousands of American jobs. North America, she said, is the largest free trade zone in the world, and three times more of America's exports go to Latin America than to China.
But it was Latin America's politics that Mrs. Clinton said struck her as the most remarkable feature of the region's transformation. It was only three decades ago that South and Central America were swept by the same kind of political tumult that is currently ousting dictators across North Africa and the Middle East. She said political leaders who led Chile's transition to democracy had already traveled to Cairo to meet with groups who led Egypt's revolution.
“These are opportunities we cannot afford to pass up or to let them pass us by,” Mrs. Clinton said, responding to those who have criticized President Obama for going to Latin America when Japan is in the throes of disaster, Libya remains in open revolt and a budget crisis remains unresolved in Congress. “Strategy depends on the ability to look broader and deeper than day to day.”