* Secret agents sent home from Colombia in scandal
* U.S. leader more 'excited' than ever about region
* About 30 heads of state meeting at summit
* Controversy grows over Cuba's absence
By Andrew Cawthorne and Laura MacInnis
CARTAGENA, Colombia, April 14 President Barack
Obama tried o n S aturday to convince skeptical Latin Americans
that Washington had not turned its back on them - but a
prostitution scandal involving U.S. security personnel marred
the charm offensive.
Despite the host of weighty topics at the two-day Summit of
the Americas in Colombia, corridor chatter revolved around a
murky incident in a Cartagena hotel that led to U.S. Secret
Service agents being sent home and five U.S. military members
U.S. authorities said they were suspected of "misconduct"
and an investigation was under way. A local Colombian police
source and U.S. media said prostitutes were involved - but there
was a wall of official silence about details of the case.
"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.
While the Colombian policeman said the U.S. personnel tried
to bring a prostitute into the hotel, rumors also flew of a
fracas at a local brothel. L o cals were deeply unimpressed.
"They came to look after their president, not to have a
party," Cartagena street vendor Rosa Elena Prieto said. "The
weak flesh of men costs them their jobs."
Making no reference to the scandal, Obama tackled head-on
accusations 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 business officials before the start
of the main heads-of-state summit, which will last into Sunday.
Obama also hailed the potential to boost trade between the
"nearly a billion consumers" of North and South America.
The reality, though, is different: China has taken advantage
of perceived U.S. neglect 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 his foreign policies give
priority to trade that creates American jobs.
Latin American leaders 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.
Many in Latin America feel a fresh approach is needed - and
a shift away from hard-line policies - after decades of
violence, in producer and trafficking nations like Colombia and
"I don't mind a debate around issues like decriminalization.
I personally don't agree that's a solution to the problem,"
Obama said. "But I think that given the pressures that a lot of
governments are under here, under-resourced, overwhelmed by
violence, it's completely understandable that they would look
for new approaches, and we want to cooperate with them."
Colombian pop star Shakira brought a splash of showbiz to
the proceedings by singing Colombia's national anthem for the
more than 30 heads of state present at the start of the summit.
Missing from the Organization of American States' sixth such
hemispheric gathering were Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who is
boycotting the event over Cuba's continued exclusion, and
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who is undergoing cancer treatment.
Argentina's foreign minister told media from his country the
final summit declaration was stalled over the issue of Cuba,
with 32 nations supporting its inclusion in the next Summit of
the Americas, but the United States vetoing that.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff gave Obama an earful on
U.S. expansionist monetary policy that is sending a flood of
funds into developing nations, forcing up currencies and hurting
"The way these countries, the most developed ones,
especially in the euro region in the last year, have reacted to
the crisis with monetary expansion has produced a monetary
tsunami," she said, as Obama listened.
"Obviously we have to take measures to defend ourselves.
Note the word I chose - 'defend', not 'protect,'" added
Rousseff, whose government's actions to curb imports have been
decried as protectionism by some in the region.
The host, President Juan Manuel Santos, is using the summit
to showcase Colombia's new economic stability after decades of
guerrilla and drug violence that scared off investors.
The latest Time magazine carried his portrait over the cover
headline, "The Colombian Comeback", delighting his supporters.
Although seeking to position himself as a regional mediator
- particularly between conservative governments and the
anti-American bloc led by Chavez - Santos nevertheless weighed
in to support Brazil's position in front of Obama.
"In some way, (they) are exporting their crisis to us via
the appreciation of our currencies," Santos said, referring to
the damage done to local exporters as Latin American currencies
gain strength. "I share President Dilma Rousseff's anxiety."
Despite Colombia's traditional closeness to Washington,
which has helped finance its war on guerrillas, Santos also
spoke bluntly on the issue of Cuba.
"It's an anachronism that keeps us anchored to a Cold War
era we came out of various decades ago," he said, calling
another summit without Cuba "unacceptable."
From Havana, Cuba's former president, Fidel Castro, weighed
in with a withering newspaper column about the OAS and its
"guayabera summit" - a reference to the loose-fitting shirts
popular in the Caribbean and being worn by many heads of state