President Barack Obama came to Colombia seeking to erase an image of the U.S. in Latin America as overassertive Yankees who exploit the region at will. He left with the stereotype reinforced.
The sixth Summit of the Americas that concluded Sunday in the Caribbean city of Cartagena was supposed to focus on trade in the Western Hemisphere. Instead, 11 U.S. Secret Service agents became the center of attention after they were sent home for allegations of misconduct involving a prostitute.
The agents’ behavior was an embarrassment for Obama, obscuring what should have been an opportunity to trumpet a free-trade agreement with host Colombia and expanding trade to fast-growing economies like Brazil, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington. Leaders from Latin America also took aim at Obama for the U.S.’s refusal to invite Cuba to the next such regional gathering.
“This is not what you want to be dominating the news,” Farnsworth, who helped organize the first regional summit for President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994, said in a phone interview. “It overshadows what should have been a highlight of the president’s engagement with the Western Hemisphere.”
Beyond the prostitution saga, the three-day summit was a portrait of disunity. The 31 heads of state in attendance issued no joint statement after the U.S. refused to loosen its stance that Cuba’s communist government embrace democracy before the region’s sole dictatorship is invited to future summits.
Ecuador’s Rafael Correa boycotted the meetings over the ban on Cuba, while Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, a former guerrilla leader, canceled at the last minute. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez traveled instead to Havana for cancer treatment and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner returned home early after leaders failed to back her call for Britain to return control of the Falkland Islands.
Even more American-friendly leaders like Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff said this should be the last summit without Cuba. Host Juan Manuel Santos said he hoped the country would be invited to the next summit that Panama had “offered” to host in 2015.
Obama, after arriving in Cartagena, said that the U.S. has “never felt more excited about prospects of working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean.” To a group of business leaders, he said that U.S. trade with the region has jumped 46 percent since he took office in 2009.
The president also highlighted U.S. assistance in Colombia’s turnaround from the region’s most-violent nation, marked by decades of drug-funded political conflict, to one of its most-attractive investment destinations. He announced that a free-trade agreement between the two countries will take effect May 15, and the State Department unveiled new rules extending from five years to 10 years the validity of visas for Colombians traveling to the U.S.
Those accomplishments were partly upstaged by the Secret Service scandal. The incident came to light when a Cartagena prostitute refused to leave the hotel room occupied by a Secret Service agent until she was paid, said U.S. Rep. Peter King, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee.
The 11 agents, part of an advance security team that arrived before Obama, had brought women to their hotel blocks away from where the president stayed this weekend, said King. All have since been placed on administrative leave.
At a press conference standing next to Santos on Sunday, Obama said the investigation into the agents’ actions is ongoing, “and I expect that investigation to be thorough and I expect it to be rigorous.”
If allegations are confirmed “then, of course, I’ll be angry,” he said. “We’re representing the people of the United States, and when we travel to another country I expect us to observe the highest standards.”
Snub by Chavez
Obama, while the most-liked leader among Latin Americans according to a 2011 poll by Santiago-based pollster Latinobarometro, has faced fire before from the region’s governments. The last Summit of the Americas, held in 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago, is best remembered for Chavez handing Obama a Spanish-language book attacking the U.S. and Europe for 500 years of “pillage” of Latin America’s natural resources.
Chavez, while advised by his doctors to stay clear of the summit and continue treatment for cancer in Cuba, criticized the U.S. and Canadian presence, saying they shouldn’t participate because they oppose Cuba’s inclusion and haven’t backed Argentina’s efforts to regain the Falkland Islands.
“They oppose these issues because they’re part of the old empires,” Chavez said in a speech April 13 outside the presidential palace in Caracas. “One of the issues that we need to talk about at the summit is Yankee interventionism. How long will this go on for, Mr. Obama?”
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the U.S. refusal to welcome Cuba until President Raul Castro’s regime implements democratic reforms is why leaders didn’t issue a joint statement.
“It is my hope” that Cuba will look at countries like Brazil, Chile and Colombia and conclude that “maybe there’s a new path to take,” Obama said Sunday. “When that happens they’re going to have a welcome hand extended” by the U.S.
On Friday, he criticized the press for focusing on controversies that “date back before I was born,” to the era of “gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War.” He cited steps taken by his administration to engage Cuba such as allowing Cuban-Americans to visit more frequently and send remittances to relatives on the Caribbean island.
Still, underscoring the differences that separate the U.S. from Cuba, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was photographed dancing salsa and sipping beer at the Café Havana, a bar named for the Cuban capital that Americans are banned from visiting as a result of the half-century trade embargo.
Leaders also took aim at U.S.-orchestrated policies that criminalize drug use and rely on troops to fight regional drug traffickers. As violence in Central America and Mexico reaches record levels, Guatemalan President Otto Perez has led calls by regional governments to consider a change in tactics such as decriminalizing or legalizing illicit drug use.
Obama said he’s willing to debate the war on drugs and sympathizes with the frustration of Latin Americans caught in the crossfire of cartels supplying cocaine and other drugs to U.S. consumers. Still, he said he personally and his administration opposes legalization.
“Beyond the exchange of views, it does not appear that this summit accomplished anything new,” said Robert A. Pastor, a national security adviser for Latin America during the administration of Jimmy Carter.
With leaders failing to make progress on key issues, it’s no wonder that the most talked about subject was the departed Secret Service agents.
“For Obama, the trip was an example of how easily good intentions on the part of a president can be trumped by a sex scandal,” Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said in an e-mail.
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