Author: Merco | Date: 13 April 2012
US President Barack Obama arrives Friday night in Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas where he is expected to hang tough on Washington's anti-narcotics and Cuba policies, positions ever-more unpopular in a region drifting away from US dominance.
The gathering in Cartagena de Indias brings together all but two of the region's 35 national leaders. Cuban President Raul Castro wasn't invited, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa is staying home to protest the snub.
The talks will include economic cooperation, coordinated disaster relief, Cuba's diplomatic isolation and perhaps, most heatedly, the hyper-violent Latin American narcotics gangs largely enriched by American consumers.
The drug trade helps to finance insurgencies in Colombia and Peru, enriches rampaging gangs in Central America and Mexico, and lines the pockets of corrupt officials everywhere.
Obama is well-liked and the US enjoys a more positive image in Latin America than it did a few years ago, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. But in the region there is a sense of disappointment that more progress has not been made on a shared agenda.
A growing faction of regional leaders - including Guatemala's new conservative president and Mexico's outgoing Felipe Calder�_n has broached decriminalizing narcotics in order to sap the gangsters' illicit income and the corruption it spawns.
But Obama, facing what could be a tough re-election campaign and ongoing culture wars at home, isn't having any of it. Dan Restrpo senior adviser for hemispheric affairs, told reporters in a conference call to discuss the summit. He does think this is a legitimate debate.
There is no magic bullet, Restrepo said, referring to hopes that narcotics legalization would end the bloodshed. We need to ensure that we're doing everything we can to build the kinds of rule of law institutions necessary to defeat these transnational criminal organizations.
Turning to the US-led snubbing of Cuba, Restrepo said the Castro brothers ruled island only can win a place at the summit by installing full democracy and other freedoms.
But fundamentally today, Cuban authorities continue to deny the Cuban people their universal rights, Restrepo said. And the president will continue to stand up for those rights and encourage others to do so as well.
Nearly all other countries in the hemisphere have economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba. Pointedly visiting Havana en route to Cartagena, Mexico's Calderon on Thursday condemned the 51-year US economic blockade of the island as unjustified.
Held every three years, the Americas Summit rarely produces more than a group photo of the leaders and bland statements of goodwill and cooperation. Recent meetings have been more raucous as populist leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have publicly confronted US presidents.
Now, booming exports of grains, copper, iron ore and oil, particularly to China, has enriched many South American economies. That income, and investment from China and elsewhere, has sapped US influence as Washington focuses elsewhere, experts warn.
The US is consumed by domestic problems and other foreign policy priorities, and much of Latin America is more confident and connected globally than ever before, Shifter, of the Inter America Dialogue, said. While relations remain cordial, the US and Latin America are increasingly going their separate way.
Picture credit to Hurriyatsudan