* U.S. security personnel in prostitution affair
* Obama "excited" about trade with Latin America
* About 30 heads of state meeting in Colombia
* Cuba controversy may sink summit unity
By Andrew Cawthorne and Brian Ellsworth
CARTAGENA, Colombia, April 14 A prostitution
scandal involving U.S. security personnel in Colombia and an
unprecedented regional push to end the isolation of Cuba
threatened on Saturday to eclipse President Barack Obama's charm
offensive to Latin America.
In a major embarrassment for Washington at the Summit of the
Americas attended by more than 30 heads of state, 11 U.S. Secret
Service agents were sent home and five military servicemen
grounded over "misconduct" allegations in a hotel.
Prostitutes were taken to the hotel, according to a
Colombian police source.
The widening controversy was overshadowing a host of
weightier topics at the two-day summit that began on Saturday.
"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.
Locals were upset about the bad publicity for their city,
and the scandal was raising eyebrows around the region.
"Obama's guards expelled in Colombia over prostitution -
shame the gringos think that Latin America is a brothel and they
act like it too," commented left-leaning Venezuelan political
commentator Nicmer Evans via Twitter.
Obama's rapprochement with the region - already undermined
by the titillating headlines from Cartagena - also faces a rare
display of unity among both leftist and conservative-run nations
in Latin America in allowing communist-run Cuba at the next
Argentina's foreign minister said 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.
"We have decided not to participate in future 'Summits of
the Americas' without the presence of Cuba," said the leftist
ALBA block of nations, founded by Venezuela's theatrically
anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez.
OAS UNDER STRAIN
Unlike at previous summits, backing for Cuba has also come
from Colombia, Washington's strongest ally in South America.
Sunday's proceedings will add to strain on the
Washington-dominated system of hemispheric diplomacy that is
built around the Organization of American States but is
struggling to evolve with changes in the region.
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 Caribbean
shirts being worn by many heads of state in Cartagena.
Making no reference to the scandal, Obama tackled head-on
accusations he had neglected Latin America while dealing with
conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and other faraway 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.
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 are also pressuring the United States
for an overhaul of anti-drug policies, including possible
narcotics legalization as a way to take profits out of the
"Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was
born," Obama said wryly.
"And sometimes I feel as if in some of these discussions, or
at least the press reports, we're caught in a time warp, going
back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold
War, and this and that and the other."
OBAMA FIRM ON DRUGS
Many in Latin America feel a new approach is needed to the
drug war - and a shift away from hard-line policies - after
decades of violence, in producer and trafficking nations like
Colombia and Mexico.
But Obama was firm in rejecting calls to legalize either
growing or consuming drugs. "I don't mind a debate around issues
like decriminalization. I personally don't agree that's a
solution to the problem," Obama said.
Colombian pop star Shakira brought a splash of showbiz to
the proceedings by singing her national anthem at the start of
Missing from the OAS' sixth such hemispheric gathering were
Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who is boycotting the event over Cuba's
exclusion, and Venezuela's Chavez, who is undergoing cancer
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
and other rich nations' competitiveness.
"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.
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."