CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sat patiently through diatribes, interruptions and even the occasional eye-ball roll at the weekend Summit of the Americas in an effort to win over Latin American leaders fed up with U.S. policies.
The United States instead emerged from the summit in Colombia increasingly isolated as nearly 30 regional heads of state refused to sign a joint declaration in protest against the continued exclusion of communist-led Cuba from the event.
The rare show of unity highlights the steady decline of Washington’s influence in a region that has become less dependent on U.S. trade and investment thanks economic growth rates that are the envy of the developed world and new opportunities with China.
It also signals a further weakening of the already strained hemispheric system of diplomacy, built around the Organization of American States (OAS) which has struggled to remain relevant during a time of rapid change for its members.
Seen as an instrument of U.S. policy in Latin America during the Cold War, the OAS has lost ground in a region that is no longer content with being the backyard of the United States.
“It seems the United States still wants to isolate us from the world, it thinks it can still manipulate Latin America, but that’s ending,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales, a fierce critic of U.S. policy in Latin America and staunch ally of Venezuela’s leftist leader Hugo Chavez.
“What I think is that this is a rebellion of Latin American countries against the United States.”
White House officials disagreed with the notion that the failure to agree on issues like Cuba signaled a new dynamic to U.S. relations within the hemisphere.
“We’ve had disagreements on those issues for decades,” a senior Obama aide said. “They are built into the equation.” Another official noted there was no signed statement at the 2009 summit, either.
In fairness to Obama, the lack of consensus had little to do with his conduct or even that of Secret Service agents whose indiscreet encounter with prostitutes in the beachside city of Cartagena, Colombia, overshadowed much of the proceedings.
He was in fact commended by several presidents for listening politely to political leaders, helping soften perception of U.S. officials as arrogant and domineering.
“I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a president of the United States spend almost the entire summit sitting, listening to the all concerns of all countries,” said Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
“This was a very valuable gesture by President Obama.”
At a joint news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Obama emphasized that his administration had made some changes to its policy toward Cuba already and was open to more if it saw more signs of democratic reforms.
“I’m not somebody who brings to the table here a lot of baggage from the past, and I want to look at all these problems in a new and fresh way,” he said.
But Obama’s staid charm was unable to paper over growing differences with the region.
Facing a tough re-election race this year, Obama had no room to compromise on the five-decade-old U.S. embargo on Cuba that is widely supported by conservatives in the United States, and particularly the anti-Castro exile community in Florida, a key state in a presidential vote.
U.S. insistence that Havana undertake democratic reforms before returning to the hemispheric family led to a clash with a united front of leftist and conservative governments that see Washington’s policy toward Cuba as a relic of the Cold War.
The unexpected result was a diplomatic victory for Havana.
The newfound regional unity on Cuba may augur a growing willingness across the political spectrum to challenge the U.S. State Department on thorny issues for years considered taboo.
That could include insistence that the United States assume greater responsibility for reducing consumption of illegal narcotics as an alternative to the bloody war on drugs and its rising toll on Latin America.
“From the so-called Washington consensus ... toward a nascent consensus without Washington for a united Latin America,” tweeted Venezuela’s foreign ministry, referring to orthodox economic policies advocated by Washington in the 1990s.
The stark divide over Cuba - with 32 nations in favor of inviting it to future summits and only the United States and Canada opposed - will fuel arguments that the OAS is an outdated institution for regional diplomacy.
The OAS already faces competition from alternative forums such as the Union of South American nations (Unasur) and the Chavez-backed Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (Celac).
Despite the new winds blowing in regional diplomacy, economics is driving the changes as much as politics.
Once seen as monolithic block of basket-case economies dependent on U.S. support, Latin American countries are coveted investment destinations with sophisticated financial systems that have innovated in areas ranging from energy to aviation.
Chinese companies eager to pump oil, harvest soy and build badly needed infrastructure are showering them with offers of investment and financing.
With the U.S. economy still struggling to stay above water and foreign aid budgets seen dwindling, Washington has fewer sticks to brandish and fewer carrots to offer.
“This summit was a reminder, a wake-up call, that the traditional way of doing business vis-a-vis the region is eroding,” said Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Anthony Boadle, Jackie Frank and David Brunnstrom