Photo: Summit of the Americas 2012
U.S. President Barack Obama called Saturday for a “new era” of mutually beneficial relations with Latin America while repeating that Cuba must progress toward democracy and saying that he is open to discussions about the war on drugs but not to their legalization.
The continent is in a great position to face the challenges of today’s globalization, Obama said at the closure of the Business Forum in Cartagena, Colombia, where he arrived on Friday to take part in the Organization of American States’ 6th Summit of the Americas that began Saturday.
Accompanied by Colombian president and summit host Juan Manuel Santos and his Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, Obama praised both for heading governments that are models of transparency and for leading their countries to economic growth.
By way of contrast the president again spoke of promoting democracy in Cuba.
The invitation of Cuba to the Summit of the Americas, requested by most Latin American countries and rejected by the United States, has been the chief bone of contention in the weeks leading up to the continental event.
The issue so snarled the meeting of foreign ministers here that, according to countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela, there can be no final declaration when the summit ends.
Obama replied by saying that “sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born. And sometimes I feel as if ... we’re caught in a time warp…going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that.”
That’s not the world we live in today, he said, and hoped that everyone present would instead see the opportunities lying ahead.
During his little more than three years in office, Obama has made it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel to the island and send remittances home, but has made it clear that the Raul Castro regime must progress toward democracy if it wants to see a change in its relations with the United States.
In this electoral year in the United States in which Florida, the the new homeland of exiled Cubans, will be key as usual, it is improbable that Obama will announce new measures on Cuba, and the White House has already said that the president will defend his position toward the island at Cartagena.
Obama hopes to win electoral rewards from his trip to Colombia, which is why he focused principally on the economy and trade in his speech Saturday to business leaders of the continent.
“We’ve never been more excited about the prospect of working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Obama told the businessmen at a meeting before the main summit of heads of state began.
According to the White House, the increase in economic ties with Latin America will help the U.S. economy grow and create jobs, the most important issue for American citizens at present and one that will undoubtedly influence their vote in the coming elections.
“The challenge for all of our countries, as well as this hemisphere, is how do we make sure that globalization and integration is benefiting a broad base of people,” Obama said.
It was not by chance that on Friday, before flying to Cartagena, the president made a brief stop in Tampa, Florida, to speak of the importance of trade relations with Latin America and announce various measures to help small and medium-sized companies boost their exports to the region.
U.S. exports to Latin America have grown by almost 50 percent over the last two years.
Slightly more than 40 percent of U.S. exports go to the region, where the United States is also the biggest foreign investor.
Nonetheless, China is gaining ground on the United States and is now the largest trade partner of countries like Brazil. The growing influence of the Asian giant is of great concern to Washington.
Besides Cuba, the other controversial subject is the war on drugs, and Obama repeated Saturday that decriminalizing drugs “isn’t the solution.”
But he showed himself open to debating the matter and admitted that drugs are a two-sided problems, with production in South American countries and consumption in the United States.
“I think it is entirely legitimate to have a discussion about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in some cases…my personal opinion is that legalization is not the answer,” the U.S. president said.
Legalizing drugs as a strategy for combating drug trafficking will be a discussion at the summit that seems incapable of reaching a consensus due to the differences among the participating countries.
Notable absences at the Summit of the Americas are Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in Cuba for further cancer treatment, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who will not attend because of Cuba being barred from the meeting.