WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Thursday embarks on a trip to Latin America, where the leader of the world's lone superpower said he seeks to engage in talks with the region's leaders as equals.
President Obama declines to criticize any Latin American leaders before heading to the region for a summit.
"Times have changed," Obama told CNN en Español on Wednesday.
Referring to his planned meeting in Trinidad and Tobago with Brazil's president, he said, "My relationship with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva 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 the leaders scheduled to attend the Summit of the Americas this week.
Obama lauded Mexican President Felipe Calderon, with whom he will 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."
Asked if the United States is partly to blame for the violence along the border, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, "There certainly is a relationship. You can't deny it."
In Mexico City on Thursday, she said, "What we're working to do is to work to stop the flow of guns and cash into Mexico that are helping fuel these cartels, but also we're working at the border to make sure that the spillover violence doesn't occur in our own cities and communities." Watch what Napolitano says about the U.S.-Mexico drug link »
Obama vowed Wednesday 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," he said.
The president also described himself as "a strong proponent of comprehensive immigration reform," saying he has met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus "to try to shape an agenda that can move through Congress."
Napolitano said the U.S. must ensure it is enforcing immigration laws on employers who "consistently go into that illegal labor market in order to exploit it."
E-verify, an electronic employment eligibility verification system, must be an integral part of immigration enforcement, she said.
Obama is to travel later in the week to the summit in Trinidad and Tobago for meetings with Latin American leaders.
He refused to criticize the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, 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."
Obama offered no criticism when asked how he plans to interact with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic who once described President Bush as the "devil." "Look, he's the leader of his country, and he'll be one of many people that I will have an opportunity to meet," Obama said.
He said he believes the United States has a leadership role to play in the region, but he qualified that role this way: "We also recognize that other countries have important contributions and insights."
He added, "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."
On Cuba, Obama -- who this week 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 his predecessor's, noting 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 officials in the detention of five Spaniards at Guantanamo.
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