Obama faces skeptical leaders at Americas summit

BOGOTA Tue Apr 10, 2012 10:00am EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama listens during his meeting with Brazil President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington April 9, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama listens during his meeting with Brazil President Dilma Rousseff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington April 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Three years after being feted by star-struck Latin American leaders, President Barack Obama faces skepticism and disappointment at this week's Summit of the Americas for failing to meet promises of a new era in relations with the region.

Obama's first meeting with leaders from the hemisphere in Trinidad and Tobago at the height of his popularity included a vow to mend ties with Cuba and a photo-op handshake with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president and pugnacious U.S. critic.

This year, Obama is more focused on re-election than foreign policy and is set to receive a grilling over contentious issues like the drugs war, Cuba and even U.S. monetary policy from heads of state eager to remind him that Washington is growing less relevant for the region.

"The deception and disappointment are quite real," said Hal Klepak, a Canadian history professor and Latin America expert. "The last summit's focus was the 'Obama show,' this time what we have are years of nothing happening."

A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. president goes to the weekend summit in Cartagena, Colombia seeking to boost trade and commercial ties, specifically in the energy sector at a time of high gasoline prices.

He is likely to focus on free trade deals with Panama and Colombia, approved by the U.S. Congress last year, which are seen boosting growth in both countries while also creating jobs at home.

Latin American leaders generally favor him winning a second term, analysts say, in part because of some of the hardline comments on immigration by the Republican presidential hopefuls. Mitt Romney, for example, upset some with remarks about immigrants facing "self deportation" because they can't find work.

But they are nonetheless set to press Obama on allowing Cuba entry into the next Americas summit and again challenge the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist-run island. The embargo is widely seen within Latin America as an outdated Cold War-era policy.

And presidents spanning the political spectrum will push for a discussion of legalizing and reducing U.S. demand for illegal drugs, seeking to shift responsibility for the problem toward the world's top consumer.

"Colombia, and I myself, have put this issue on the table, because if there is any country that has suffered more from drug trafficking, that has shed more blood, it's Colombia," President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting the summit, said recently.

BETTER THAN BUSH?

Obama can ill-afford to entertain changes to policy on Cuba or the drug war because they might alienate him from middle-of-the-road voters who will be key for his re-election bid.

"This is the worst moment to be proposing issues to the Americans in the run-up to a difficult and problematic election for President Obama," said Andres Rozental, former deputy foreign minister of Mexico.

Republican critics have in the past said Obama's efforts at dialogue with Cuba and Venezuela compromised national security.

A senior administration official said Washington had already eased travel restrictions to Cuba, and was waiting for Havana to release political prisoners and improve political freedoms before taking further steps to ease relations.

Obama is still popular among Latin Americans. A 2011 visit to a slum in Rio de Janeiro, for example, brought throngs of screaming admirers.

That contrasts with the violent protests that met former President George W. Bush at a 2005 regional summit in Argentina, where leftist leaders sank a hemisphere-wide free trade deal being pushed by the United States.

"I think relations (with the United States) are better now, there is more dialogue between the presidents, and Obama has been more accessible," said Jeremiah Barbosa, 66, filling pastry dough with caramel in his small bakery in Bogota.

But that charm has worn a bit thin on policymakers.

Facing budget battles at home and what will likely be a decline in foreign aid to Latin America this fiscal year, Obama heads to Cartagena with few favors to offer.

Brazil is frustrated with loose U.S. monetary policy that has pushed a flood of capital into Brazil, driving up its currency and making its exports less competitive, and President Dilma Rousseff complained to Obama about it in a meeting at the White House on Monday.

An overhaul of U.S. immigration rules has all but fallen off the agenda in the Washington, frustrating Mexico and Central American countries as well as Latino voters in the United States.

Argentina and the United States are at loggerheads over trade restrictions and compensation payments to American investors. And China is an increasingly active investor and economic power in Latin America as U.S. influence wanes.

"The United States has historically wanted to be a policeman to the world, but in general it has struggled to do so," said Rozental. "I think it's going to be difficult for the United States to give Latin America the priority that it deserves."

(Additional reporting by Pablo Garibian in Mexico City, Laura MacInnis and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)

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Comments (3)
Eideard wrote:
“Skepticism and disappointment”? Sounds about right.

Many of those nations have more choices, though. Our corporate flunkies have campaigned to keep the 2-party choice ingrained as thoroughly as any religious ideology you might think of.

Disappointed in Obama? Your only choice is going to be Romney. Whoop-de-doo.

Disappointed in Democrat courage and backbone? Your only choice is ready to start with armbands and parades, again. Woo-hoo!

Apr 10, 2012 2:24pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
I for one do not want a President who can walk on water at the same time being all things to all people. This President is struggling against odds from his own country that would have toppled leaders in other countries. Thankfully President Obama has the will and the drive to go this summit, face the criticism, offer what he can and come home only to be denied thanks for his efforts. Really, the comments hurled at him in this and other forums has gone beyond the border — into the country of treason. I am so ashamed for us. And I am so ashamed of how the other countries leaders look at us.

Apr 10, 2012 4:40pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
malcolmkyle wrote:
Colombia, Peru, Mexico or Afghanistan with their coca leaves, marijuana buds or poppy sap are not igniting temptation in the minds of our weak, innocent citizens. These countries are duly responding to the enormous demand that comes from within our own borders. Invading or destroying these countries, thus creating more hate, violence, instability, injustice and corruption, will not fix our problem.

* A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine.

* The massive majority of adults who use drugs do so recreationally – getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning.

* Apart from the huge percentage of people addicted to both sugar and caffeine, a small minority of adults (nearly 5%) will always experience the use of drugs as problematic. – approx. 3% are dependent on alcohol and approx. 1.5% are dependent on other drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine etc.

* Just as it was impossible to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the U.S. in the 1920s, so too, it is equally impossible to prevent any of the aforementioned drugs from being produced, distributed and widely used by those who desire to do so.

* Prohibition kills more people and ruins more lives than the drugs it prohibits.

* Due to Prohibition (historically proven to be an utter failure at every level), the availability of most of these mood-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.

* Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement – even whole governments, while inducing an incalculable amount of suffering and death.

Apr 11, 2012 5:50am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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