President Barack Obama started a three-day trip to the Caribbean and Central America that will end with the much awaited Summit of the Americas.

President Obama will arrive late Thursday in Panama City for the two-day event, which is expected to serve as a backdrop for a historic face-to-face encounter with Cuban president Raul Castro. It would be the first time they meet since the Dec. 17 announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"I think this summit can build on the incredible progress the region has made in recent decades," he said in an interview with EFE.

Obama said he would seek to promote competitiveness and trade in the region, touting them as keys to spurring development and narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

He said he was convinced that the best way to close that gap is to "unleash broad-based economic growth that creates new opportunities and to expand access to the tools people need to lift themselves out of poverty, including education, skills and job training."

To that end, he said the United States "will be encouraging all the countries in the Americas to ratify the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement," a deal that was agreed on in December 2013 at a World Trade Organization meeting in Bali and which is aimed at facilitating the flow of goods across borders, reducing bureaucracy, and thus boosting global trade volumes.

At least two-thirds of the WTO's 160 members must ratify the agreement for it to take effect, but to date the United States, Singapore and Hong Kong are the only ones to do so.

"Economic growth, trade and a shared commitment to expanding opportunity has lifted countless millions of people from poverty. Since 2002, the middle class has nearly doubled, and countries like Brazil and Mexico have middle class majorities for the first time in history," Obama said.

But despite the region's wealth, "about a third of people across the region still endure grinding poverty, and it's still too hard for them to access the education, health care and basic service their families need," the president added.

"This isn't just a drag on economic growth, it's a moral challenge to us all," he said.

Obama said the United States is encouraging the countries of the Americas to establish trade relations with Europe, Africa, India, and Asia.

"It can mean more prosperity and opportunity for us all," he added.

Based on reporting by EFE.

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