President Barack Obama departs Washington Friday for Cartagena, Colombia, where he will participate in the sixth Summit of the Americas.
At Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 2009 the president attended his first Summit of the Americas, pledging to seek equal partnerships with other nations in the hemisphere.
He also had his first encounter with Hugo Chávez, the fiery Venezuelan leader and critic of U.S. policies.
Three years later, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will host the sixth summit. The agenda includes development and economic issues, and regional security.
Obama claims substantial progress in the region. In 2011, he traveled to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador to press the U.S. trade and investment agenda, praise democratic and social progress, and urge greater cooperation in the war on transnational criminal cartels.
Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas offers this assessment:
“The hemisphere is maturing in its own self-confidence. It is strengthening in terms of its economies. And politically there are some challenges to democracy in certain countries, but overall democracy is secure and the countries are trying to find ways to develop those issues even further.”
On the agenda in Cartagena: poverty reduction and inequality, economic integration, technology and cooperation to cope with natural disasters, and citizen security, a reference to drug and criminal violence.
Some Latin American leaders want a reexamination of what they call the failed war on drugs. They urge decriminalization of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The U.S. disagrees. Obama remains focused on military and security aid, and intelligence cooperation.
“We’re going to be coordinating our efforts more closely than ever, especially when it comes to supporting Central America’s new strategy on citizen security, which will be discussed at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia next week,” said the president.
Absent from the summit will be Cuba. It is not a member of the Organization of American States, which represents democracies.
Washington opposes Cuba’s participation on political and human rights grounds. Colombia’s president said the issue will be discussed.
“There will be debate around Cuba’s non-inclusion in the forum. I think nearly every country in the region except for the U.S. wants Cuba to be able to participate in these forums,” said Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
Farnsworth said nations are not allowing the issue to block expanded cooperation.
“They are not hung up on the Cuba issue. They are diversifying their relationships. Their main issue is economic development and continuing the political legitimacy that is brought through democratic governance,” said Farnsworth.
It remains to be seen what drama Venezuela’s Chávez, with his antagonistic attitude toward the U.S., may cause in Cartagena.
“He is certainly a gifted thespian, and he will make the most of every opportunity to make his influence felt,” said Stephen Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Chávez has deepened Venezuela’s relationship with Iran. Analysts say his policies, however, are increasingly viewed with skepticism in the hemisphere.