CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) – Washington should turn back to alliances with neighbors in Latin America rather than focus on faraway conflicts like Afghanistan, Colombia’s president said on Friday before welcoming U.S. President Barack Obama to the Americas Summit.
U.S. influence has waned in recent years in a region it traditionally saw as its backyard, allowing China to gain ground and emerge as the No. 1 trade partner with various countries, including regional powerhouse Brazil.
“If the United States realizes its long-term strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in Latin America … there will be great results,” President Juan Manuel Santos said just before Obama flew into Cartagena.
Obama had a rapturous welcome at the last Summit of the Americas in 2009. But Latin American hopes, including for a U.S. rapprochement with communist-run Cuba, have been largely dashed as Obama has focused on other global priorities.
Santos’ comments came in a speech to hundreds of businessmen from North and South America meeting ahead of the Organization of American States’ (OAS) sixth summit attended by more than 30 heads of state in the historic Caribbean port of Cartagena.
With deep ideological fissures dividing Latin America over the last decade, the Colombian leader urged his fellow heads of state – who meet on Saturday and Sunday – to follow his example of putting pragmatism first.
“Let’s respect our differences, but stay together. Who would have imagined Venezuela and Colombia working together?” asked Santos, whose first action after taking office in 2010 was to bury the hatchet with socialist President Hugo Chavez next door.
Undergoing radiation treatment for cancer, Chavez said his doctors would decide if he could go to Cartagena. But he scoffed at the meeting anyway, saying it was pointless because Cuba was not invited due to U.S. and Canadian opposition.
“Why have more summits of the Americas? We should put an end to the summits,” Chavez said in a speech to tens of thousands of supporters in downtown Caracas.
After warmly greeting Obama at the 2009 summit, Chavez has turned on him since, saying the U.S. leader has disappointed the world and continued the “fascist” policies of his predecessors.
Various presidents had arrived by Friday, some donning traditional loose-fitting “guayabera” shirts to cope with the heat in tropical Cartagena.
Latin America has weathered the global economic storm better than other parts of the globe, with enviable growth rates.
Inter-American Development Bank head Luis Alberto Moreno said the region contributed 14 percent of global GDP, was enjoying annual growth of about 4 percent, and looked on course to double per capita income by 2030.
“Latin America is one of the motors of world economic recovery,” he said.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon also addressed business leaders, making an impassioned plea to curb rising protectionism in the region in response to a flow of funds from rich nations that has strengthened currencies and hurt competitiveness.
One of Latin America’s biggest free trade advocates, Mexico feels particularly bruised by protectionist moves by fellow heavyweight economies Brazil and Argentina.
“If you want to have an industry that exports, don’t protect it. If you want to have a child that walks, don’t protect it from walking,” Calderon said.
As well as trade tensions, feelings were running high over Cuba, once again excluded from the hemispheric bash. Ecuador has boycotted the summit in solidarity, and Latin America is broadly united against the U.S. sanctions on Cuba.
“We have arrived with the conviction that this must be the last summit without Cuba,” Bolivian President Eva Morales said.
OVATION FOR SHAKIRA
Passions are also high over the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has wide support on the continent for her demand that Britain negotiate sovereignty of the islands, which are known in the region as Las Malvinas.
“There should not be colonial possessions in our America,” Venezuela’s Maduro said.
Another big issue on the summit agenda is drugs, with Latin American leaders clamoring for a new approach to beat traffickers and reduce violence in the region.
Many want to start a discussion on possible legalization measures to take the vast profits out of the trade. But Obama, seeking to avoid upsetting U.S. voters ahead of a re-election bid in November, opposes that.
In an interview with a Colombian radio station, Obama did, however, take a conciliatory line in echoing the region’s oft-cited complaint that the United States is the biggest consumer and so must sort out the problem at its end.
“In the United States we have a responsibility to reduce demand for drugs,” he told the Radio W station.
Bolivia’s Morales called for an end to a U.N. prohibition on coca leaves, the main ingredient for cocaine, but also part of ancient culture for some South American indigenous groups.
Bolivia, the biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia, has been trying for years to promote the health benefits of coca, which locals have chewed for centuries as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness.
Colombian singer Shakira brought a feel-good factor to proceedings, drawing the only standing ovation of the day after appealing for corporate support for her children’s charity.
Away from the serious issues, there was plenty to entertain the thousands of visitors to Cartagena: from sun-kissed beaches and local dance troupes, to a soccer match planned for Friday afternoon between teams led by presidents Santos and Morales.
But in a nation emerging from decades of guerrilla and drug violence, 20,000 soldiers and police kept careful watch on the proceedings from air, land and sea.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo, Luis Jaime Acosta and Brian Ellsworth in Cartagena, Anthony Boadle in Caracas and Julia Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Stacey Joyce)