Barack Obama, the US president, has ruled out a U-turn on drug policy and dismissed calls for greater political engagement with Cuba, as the two-day summit of the Americas continues in Colombia.
Speaking ahead of the main heads-of-state meeting on Saturday, Obama said his country remains focused on “working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
He also hailed the potential to boost trade between “nearly a billion consumers” in North and South America.
The US economic position in Latin America has come under challenge from China in recent years, as the Asian economic giant has become the main trading partner for several countries in the region, including powerhouse Brazil.
Latin American leaders have also expressed a desire for the US to be more engaged on issues such political rapprochement with Cuba and an overhaul of anti-drug policies, including the possible decriminalisation of the trade in order to take profits out of trade.
“Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born. And sometimes I feel as if … we’re caught in a time warp … going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that,” Obama said wryly, when asked about the possibility of the US not standing in the way of Cuba being reintegrated into the Organisation of American States (OAS).
Despite praising economic growth in Latin America, and expressing enthusiam for increasing trade, Obama was firm in rejecting calls for the legalisation of the cultivation or sale of drugs.
Many in Latin America feel a fresh approach is needed – and a shift away from hard-line policies – after decades of violence, in producer and trafficking nations like Colombia and Mexico.
“I don’t mind a debate around issues like decriminalisation. I personally don’t agree that’s a solution to the problem,” Obama said. “But I think that given the pressures that a lot of governments are under here, under-resourced, overwhelmed by violence, it’s completely understandable that they would look for new approaches, and we want to cooperate with them.”
More than 30 heads of state are present in Colombia for the two-day summit. Among those not present are Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who is boycotting the event over Cuba’s continued exclusion, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who is undergoing cancer treatment.
Hector Timerman, the Argentinian foreign minister, told media from his country that the text of a final summit declaration was currently stalled over the issue of Cuba. He said that 32 countries supported its inclusion in the next summit, but the US had vetoed the proposal.
Criticism of monetary policy
Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, has used the summit as an opportunity to criticise the US expansionist monetary policy, saying that it is sending a flood of funds into developing countries, forcing their currencies to appreciate and thus hurting their trade competitiveness.
“The way these countries, the most developed ones, especially in the euro region in the last year, have reacted to the crisis with monetary expansion has produced a monetary tsunami,” she said, as Obama listened.
“Obviously we have to take measures to defend ourselves. Note the word I chose – ‘defend’, not ‘protect,'” added Rousseff, whose government’s actions to curb imports have been decried as protectionism by some in the region.
Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, supported Rousseff’s contention.
“In some way, [they] are exporting their crisis to us via the appreciation of our currencies,” Santos said, referring to the damage done to local exporters as Latin American currencies gain strength.
Despite Colombia’s traditional closeness to Washington, which has helped finance its war on guerrillas, Santos also spoke bluntly on the issue of Cuba.
“It’s an anachronism that keeps us anchored to a Cold War era we came out of various decades ago,” he said, calling another summit without Cuba “unacceptable”.
Cuba’s allies in Latin America declared on Saturday that they would be boycotting future summits if the country was not invited to attend.
The left-leaning ALBA bloc said in a statement that that Cuba’s exclusion was “unjustified and unsustainable”.
The bloc was set up by Venezuela and Cuba but now includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Caribbean islands of Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, as well as St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Secret Service scandal
Meanwhile, much of the corridor chatter in Cartagena revolved around an incident involving at least 11 US Secret Service personnel and five members of its military.
The US authorities have confirmed that all concerned are being investigated for possible charges of misconduct, but would not provide any further details. The Secret Service agents have been recalled to the United States and placed on administrative leave, while the military service members have been grounded.
“I had a breakfast meeting to discuss trade and drugs, but the only thing the other delegates wanted to talk about was the story of the agents and the [prostitutes],” one Latin American diplomat told the Reuters news agency, referring to the reports that the misconduct involved prostitutes in a Cartagena hotel.
In a statement released on Saturday, US Secret Service Assistant Director Paul Morrissey confirmed that allegations of misconduct had been made against 11 of its personnel, though none of them had been assigned to President Obama’s protective detail.
“The nature of the allegations, coupled with a zero tolerance policy on personal misconduct, resulted in the Secret Service taking the decisive action to relieve these individuals of their assignment, return them to their place of duty and replace them with additional Secret Service personnel,” the statement said, adding that the move had “no impact” on the agency’s ability to protect Obama.
“We regret any distraction from the Summit of the Americas this situation has caused,” Morrissey said.