CARTAGENA, Colombia – Declaring that a new environment for cooperation exists in the Americas, President Barack Obama sought to convince U.S. business Saturday that he's serious about expanding trade in Latin America while persuading the region to look northward once again.
Obama dismissed some of the tensions in the region as remnants of the past. He said the discussions and press accounts sometimes make him feel like he is in a "time warp" of "gun boat diplomacy and yanquis and the Cold War and this and that" dating to a time before he was born.
"That's not the world we live in today," he said. "My hope is that we all recognize this enormous opportunity we've got."
But playing the persuader is not an easy task. The U.S. faces trade competition from China, resistance from labor at home, a set of difficult regional issues that could dilute any focus on trade, and now the distraction of Secret Service agents in Cartagena relieved of duty on allegations of misconduct.
The business session was the first ever associated with a Summit of the Americas and it included executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PepsiCo, Yahoo and Caterpillar. Obama was joined on the stage at the forum by host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
He complimented the government of Colombia and Brazil for their remarkable economic growth, saying that they served as models for success in the region.
"When we look at how we're going to integrate further and take advantage of increased opportunity in the future its very important for us to not ignore how important it is to have a clean, transparent, open government that is working on behalf of its people," he said.
While U.S. exports in dollar amounts have increased in the Americas, its share of the market has declined over the past decade. China, in particular, is surpassing the U.S as a trading partner with Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
In the United States, labor is restive over a trade deal with Colombia that is awaiting final certification. The Colombian government has worked to meet the requirements of a labor rights agreement that was a condition of passage in Congress last year. The question in Cartagena was whether Obama, over the objections of U.S. union leaders, would certify that Colombia successfully has met the terms.
Obama commended the trade deal with Colombia as a "win-win" for both countries, but was silent on its final implementation.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, who was among the attendees, said in an interview Saturday that even if Obama did not take that step while in Cartagena, he would not consider that a setback and predicted final certification probably would come within weeks. He said Obama may not make a major announcement so as not to irritate allies who oppose the deal.
Trade could be eclipsed by other issues: the discussion over Cuba's exclusion from the summit; a call from Latin American countries to consider legalizing drugs to ease the violence associated with narcotrafficking; even Argentina's claims to the British-controlled Falkland Islands.
Adding an embarrassing wrinkle to the visit was Friday's acknowledgement by the Secret Service that agents facing allegations of misconduct for deeds before the president's arrival had been sent home.
On the drug front, Obama flatly declared at the conference that legalizing drugs was not the solution to the drug cartels and the violence that has confronted the region. He said he was open to holding the debate but said strong economies, the rule of law and reduced demand for drugs would better contain the flow of drugs.
Among those pushing Obama to engage further in trade with Latin America is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Donohue told business leaders in Colombia that the U.S. is focusing too much on the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of Latin America. He called for more countries from the Americas to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Chile and Peru.
"When people think about trans-Pacific they're all thinking about Asia," Donohue said in the interview. "The reason I raised that is to put focus on the bigger question: 'Where are we going to put our assets? Where are we going to put our energy?'"
Donohue is pressing for a trade deal with Brazil, South America's largest economy and one with growing global influence. But he acknowledged that there is no appetite in the United States to initiate such a step before the November elections.
Obama, in answers to questions submitted by Latin American journalists before leaving for Cartagena, said the U.S. exports three times more to Latin America than to China. He said 60 percent of Latin America's exports to the United States are manufactured goods, whereas 87 percent of Latin America's exports to China were commodities.
"We believe that economic partnerships can't just be about nations extracting another's resources," he said.
The U.S. relationship with Argentina is increasingly contentious. U.S. companies complain that Argentina is erecting sizable barriers to U.S. exports. The Obama administration has bristled at the behavior and some in Washington wonder whether Argentina will remain in the Group of 20 large and emerging world economies.
Those issues could likely come up when Obama meets with Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez, on the sidelines of the summit.
Summit site: http://www.summit-americas.org/default_en.htm