President Obama will fly 2,900 miles on Friday for a meeting of some of his biggest-name political supporters, folks who know what it takes to win an election.
But he’s not going to a rally set up by his reelection team. He’s going to Cartagena, Colombia, for the sixth Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the 34 democratically elected leaders of the Americas, almost all of whom are privately pulling for Obama to win his second term.
(PICTURES: Summits Through the Years)
The president will return to Washington on Sunday.
With the formal agenda a mere shadow of what was tackled at the first of these meetings when President Clinton started the exercise in hemispheric summitry in Miami in 1994, Obama and his fellow presidents officially will be talking about the region’s ongoing battle with narco-violence, drug policy, disaster response, poverty, and inequality. Unofficially, they will be talking about Cuba’s future and pressing Obama for details about his campaign.
“All the Latin American leaders are going to want to know what is going to happen in the United States,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center. “Is Obama likely to be reelected? That is a legitimate question in everybody’s mind.”
Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at Wilson, said it is no secret that most of the leaders who will be in Cartagena are “secretly cheering and hoping that the positive trends for President Obama in terms of the election, that they continue. Most of the leaders there would like to see President Obama reelected. That is a sentiment widely shared among the leaders.” That presents a challenge, though, because Arnson said “there is pretty broad disappointment” with Obama’s “lack of attention” to the region. It forces the leaders to differentiate between Obama personally and his policies.
“Latin American leaders know that while the Obama administration is not very popular in the region, President Obama is,” said Andrew Seeley, who heads Wilson’s Mexico Institute. “President Obama remains highly popular among many average citizens in the region. He continues to be an engaging figure, an important symbolic figure as the first African-American president of the United States.”
As a result, it is considered highly unlikely that any of the other leaders will do anything reminiscent of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’ effort to embarrass Obama at the most recent Summit of Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. At the time, the newly elected Obama had signaled that he wanted a friendlier relationship with Chavez. But the Venezuelan strongman patted him on the shoulder and gave him a copy of a polemical book popular with leftists because it blamed the woes of Latin America on the imperialism of the United States and Europe.
Nobody expects a repeat performance, in part because the ailing Chavez’s influence is greatly diminished in the region and his power is ebbing. But there is always some uncertainty about Chavez who, even while battling cancer, remains “a gifted thespian” who likes to “command the limelight,” said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If Chavez is kept off center-stage, though, the new diplomatic star is expected to be the summit host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Santos has proven to be a reliable ally to the United States, despite what many Colombians view as hostile treatment by Washington influenced more by labor and liberal critics than by the geopolitical realities. After dragging his feet, Obama finally sent an amended version of a free-trade agreement with Colombia to the Congress for approval and has been working with Santos as he makes the changes demanded by the United States.
The completion of that agreement could be one of the few times trade works its way into the Cartagena discussions, a stark contrast with almost all of the prior five Summits of the Americas, which were driven by Clinton’s 1994 call for the negotiation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. That agreement stalled after a decade of talks, done in by disputes over American agricultural subsidies. Instead, individual countries paired off and negotiated separate pacts. And today, many of the countries in the Americas are focusing their trade attention on the effort to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
Instead of sparks flying over trade, expect a few tense moments as some of the presidents show their unhappiness over the hemispheric “war on drugs” forced on them over the last three decades by a string of U.S. presidents promising generous aid with one hand and threatening “decertification” and sanctions with the other. The battle against narco-traffickers has left the leaders in Central America and much of South America weary of the fight, racked with violence in their cities and willing to try something new. With a new study showing that five of the 10 most violent cities in the world are in Mexico and that 45 of the 50 most violent are in the Americas, there are growing calls for some decriminalization of drug offenses.
The leaders are frustrated, see the United States (as the world’s leading consumer of illegal drugs) as the cause of the violence, and are “trying to seek a different solution that would relieve the state of having such a huge burden,” said Johnson.
The discussion presents a diplomatic challenge to Obama, who has signaled that “legalization is not viable from the U.S. point of view,” but has also “left the door open for a broader discussion” as a courtesy to Santos, according to Eric Olson, a senior associate at Wilson’s Mexico Center.
The White House has been cautious about the drug discussion. “There are,” said Daniel Restrepo, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, “real differences of opinion on the question of legalization.” But he said U.S. policy is clear. “The president doesn’t support decriminalization. He does think this is a legitimate debate and it’s a debate that we welcome having because it helps demystify this as an option.”