Obama Tries to Woo Latin America, Agents Embarrass U.S.
U.S. President Barack Obama tried o n S aturday to convince skeptical Latin Americans that Washington has not turned its back on them, but ruled out a drug policy U-turn that some in the region want.
Despite a host of weighty topics at the two-day Summit of the Americas in Colombia, much of the corridor chatter revolved around a scandal involving some of Obama’s secret service agents sent home from Colombia for “misconduct.”
A Colombian police source and U.S. media said prostitutes were involved, but there was a wall of official silence.
“I had a breakfast meeting to discuss trade and drugs, but the only thing the other delegates wanted to talk about was the story of the agents and the hookers,” chuckled one Latin American diplomat in the historic city of Cartagena.
Making no reference to the saga of the agents, Obama tackled head-on accusations that he had neglected Latin America - the United States’ traditional backyard - while dealing with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and other faraway global priorities.
“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,” he told businessmen at a meeting before the start of the main heads-of-state summit, which will continue into Sunday.
Obama also hailed the potential to boost trade between the “nearly a billion consumers” of North and South America, if they could improve commercial relations.
The reality, though, is different: China has taken advantage of perceived U.S. neglect of Latin America and is now the main trade partner for various countries, including regional powerhouse Brazil.
Running for re-election in November, Obama is also under pressure from domestic voters to show that his foreign policies give priority to trade that creates American jobs.
Latin American leaders, however, want the United States to be more engaged on issues like rapprochement with communist-led Cuba and an overhaul of anti-drug policies, including possible legalization as a way to take profits out of the trade.
“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,” Obama said wryly.
Despite praise for robust economic growth in Latin America and enthusiasm over trade, the U.S. president was firm in rejecting calls to legalize either growing or consuming drugs.