President Barack Obama will face fresh pressure on Cuba and illegal drugs when he meets this week with Latin American leaders, some of whom have grown skeptical of his promise to forge a new era of partnership.
Obama will join more than 30 heads of state in the coastal Colombian city of Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas. Notably absent will be Cuban leader Raul Castro, as well as the president of Ecuador, who is boycotting over Havana's continued exclusion from the hemispheric meetings.
The White House, wary of a foreign policy distraction in an election year focused largely on domestic issues, has tried to play down a push by some regional leaders to include Cuba at future summits, as well as discussions about decriminalizing drugs as a way of reducing cartel violence.
Instead, Obama will aim to highlight issues that are more politically palatable back home, namely the prospect of Latin America as a growth market for U.S. businesses. The White House says 40 percent of U.S. exports are to the Western Hemisphere.
To make that point even before leaving the U.S., Obama will stop first in Tampa, Fla., for a speech Friday on the benefits of boosting trade ties with Latin America. Florida is a pivotal state in the general election.
Obama will also join dozens of private sector executives from U.S. companies at a CEO summit Saturday to discuss increasing business ties and trade with their Latin American counterparts.
The president planned to spend two nights in Cartagena and return to Washington late Sunday. In addition to the summit program, Obama will hold a separate meeting with Caribbean leaders, a one-on-one meeting and news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and tour Cartagena's historic San Pedro Claver church.
Obama's reception at the Summit of the Americas probably will be more subdued than at the last meeting in 2009, in the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Back then, the newly inaugurated American president was greeted with cheers, winning praise for pledging to be a humble, cooperative partner and raising the prospect of a shift in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Stephen Johnson, a Latin America expert, said Obama's promises to the region sometimes have been put on the backburner because of economic woes at home and pressing foreign policy concerns elsewhere.
"Contact, personal contact, means a lot in the Americas. And there hasn't been a lot of time to be able to build up that sense of good will," said Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
White House officials dispute the notion that Latin America has been a lower priority for the president than other regions, noting that Obama did carve out time for a three-country, five-day trip to Latin America last year. He also finalized free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia that had languished for years.
"We really see the Americas as a success story both in their own right and in terms of U.S. engagement," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday.
The White House has also tried to highlight steps Obama has taken to ease travel restrictions on Cuba and allow Cuban-Americans to send money back home. But the president has stopped well short of discussing lifting the 50-year U.S. economic embargo on the communist country.
The embargo is widely viewed in Latin America as a failure and has complicated U.S. relationships in the region. Some countries have indicated they plan to push for Cuba's future involvement in regional summits during the meetings in Colombia.
Raul Castro, who assumed power from brother Fidel in 2008, had expressed a desire to attend this week's summit. But the Colombian president delicately told Castro he would not be invited, preventing Obama from facing an awkward meeting with the Cuban leader or having to boycott the summit himself.
The U.S. says Cuba does not meet the summit's standards of democracy and therefore has no business taking part. Dan Restrepo, Obama's top Latin America adviser, said the Obama administration would support Cuba's inclusion if it undertook democratic and economic reforms.
"The path is there for Cuba's return to the inter-America system and we very much hope Cuba will travel down that path as soon as possible," Restrepo said.
Another issue expected to hang over the Cartagena meeting is the prospect of drug legalization in the region. Some leaders, including the presidents of Mexico and Colombia, have called for a discussion about decriminalizing drugs as a way to ease the deadly cartel violence that has consumed Latin America.
Restrepo said that while Obama does not support legalizing drugs, he believes the debate is worth having, if only to highlight the array of problems that could arise from decriminalization.
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