President Barack Obama will be under fire from Latin American leaders frustrated with the U.S.- led war on drugs and attempts to isolate Cuba when he arrives this week in Colombia for a regional summit.
Growing criticism of policies that have formed the backbone of U.S. strategy toward the region for decades comes as Washington’s influence in its backyard fades. China has ousted the U.S. as the main trading partner in one South American nation after another, and the State Department has warned of inroads by Iran in nations aligned with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
The Summit of the Americas began as a gathering of 34 heads of state in 1994 to promote free trade. That goal has since receded as Latin America has prospered and become more assertive, meaning this weekend’s sixth edition in the Caribbean city of Cartagena is likely to be marked by grandstanding of the sort seen in 2009, when Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega slammed “Yankee troops” and Chavez gave Obama a book about the U.S. “pillage” of the region’s resources.
“In the absence of an agenda, this has become a forum for the lowest common denominator,” Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director of the Council of the Americas, said in a phone interview from New York. “The story becomes Ortega’s harangue and Chavez’s book club. And people like that can’t pass up the spotlight, so they’ll do it again.”
Trouble flared even before this year’s summit began, with eight nations led by Chavez threatening a boycott over the exclusion of Cuba, the region’s sole dictatorship. Diplomacy by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who flew to Havana to meet with President Raul Castro, managed to keep the event on track and only Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa will now stay away.
Still, even leaders friendlier to the U.S. have expressed regret at Cuba’s absence, with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff telling Obama at the White House this week that this must be the last regional event to exclude the communist state. In a sign of the region’s growing independence, Cuba is a member while the U.S. is excluded from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional body established in 2010 that rivals the Washington-based Organization of American States.
While the U.S. “is often focused on trouble spots” in other parts of the world, relations with Latin America run “much deeper” because so many Americans trace their heritage to the region, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. Underscoring the Western Hemisphere’s economic importance to the U.S., exports to the region grew 17 percent last year, more than other parts of the world, Rhodes told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
At the previous summit in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, Obama vowed to improve relations, saying “there are no senior partners or junior partners, just equal partners.” Since then, the global financial crisis and unrest in the Middle East has diverted his attention from the region.
Still, he remains Latin Americans’ favorite leader, with a rating of 6.3 out of 10 in a 2011 survey of regional political trends by Santiago-based pollster Latinobarometro. Rousseff came in second, at 6.0, in the annual ranking with Chavez near the bottom at 4.4. In 2009, Obama had a 7.0 percent rating.
The U.S. share of foreign direct investment in Latin America fell to 16 percent in 2010, from 32 percent a decade earlier, while investment from Asia rose to 14 percent from 2 percent, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
While the U.S. economy stagnated in the wake of the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Latin America recovered swiftly, spurred by Chinese demand for their iron ore, copper and soy exports. The region will grow 3.6 percent this year, twice the rate of the U.S., according to January forecasts by the International Monetary Fund.
Rethinking Drug War
Leaders also plan to use the meeting to rethink U.S.- orchestrated policies that criminalize drug use and rely on troops to fight regional drug traffickers.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a former military officer trained in the U.S., has been leading a campaign to urge policy alternatives such as decriminalization. Writing in London-based newspaper The Observer this month he said drug prohibition policies have failed and that Guatemalans no longer wish to be “dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit.”
Santos and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the region’s two most-committed drug warriors, have also said they’re willing to debate new tactics as violence reaches “alarming and unprecedented levels” along cocaine transit routes to the U.S., according to UN report from February. In Mexico, more than 50,000 people have been killed since Calderon took office in 2006 vowing to confront the nation’s drug gangs.
Dan Restrepo, an Obama adviser for the region, said there are “real differences of opinion” on the decriminalization of drugs. While Obama doesn’t support decriminalization “we welcome” the debate, he said, cautioning “there is no magic bullet” to address the region’s security concerns.
On Cuba, Obama will insist that the government’s human rights record and respect for democracy improve if it wants to participate in future summits, Restrepo told reporters yesterday. Obama will use his second trip to South America to push for open markets that benefit American exports, he said.
Host Colombia provides a backdrop for Obama to showcase some of the U.S.’s policy successes in the region. In October, after working with the nation to strengthen protection for union leaders, he got Congress to pass a stalled free-trade agreement, as well as deals with Panama and South Korea.
Colombia is the biggest recipient of $13.1 billion in American anti-drug aid to the region from 1990 to 2008, and the country’s U.S.-backed crackdown on drug cartels has helped reduce one of the world’s highest murder rates by 50 percent since 2002.
“They’re the country we can rely on at a time when we’ve got lots of other countries, most notably Venezuela, that seem to want to go down the state capitalism, the more socialist route, and meeting with our adversaries like Iran,” Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who served as U.S. Trade Representative at the time of the 2005 summit in Argentina, said in an interview. “I think we need Colombia more than ever.”
Still, reflecting a broader regional trend, even Colombia is taking distance from the U.S., said Shifter. As passage of the U.S. trade agreement dragged on, Santos forged plans with China to build a rail link between the Pacific and Caribbean to compete with the once U.S.-managed Panama Canal. He’s also seeking a trade deal with South Korea.
“Colombia’s still a close ally of the U.S., but it’s moving on,” Shifter said. “Because of its politics and because of its economic problems, the U.S. is less and less relevant to Latin America’s agenda.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org