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Obama will play defense at Summit of Americas

By Frank Bajak

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 2:53 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks at the Port of Tampa in Tampa, Fla., Friday, April 13, 2012, about trade with Latin America before heading to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.

Associated Press

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CARTAGENA, Colombia — Barack Obama will be on the defensive heading into this weekend's Summit of the Americas, with the U.S. stubbornly clinging to positions opposed by most Latin American and Caribbean leaders as its influence in the region wanes.

The American president can expect even some of Washington's friendliest allies to protest U.S. insistence on excluding communist Cuba from the gathering. There will be vigorous discussion on drug legalization, which the Obama administration opposes. And Obama can expect to be in the minority in his opposition to Argentina's claim to the British-controlled Falkland Islands.

Obama remains popular in Latin America, but many of his position are not.

On top of that, many of the issues Latin American leaders are looking for answers on, such as Cuba, drug trafficking and immigration, may prove to be contentious during a U.S. election year. Although the popular, charismatic Obama may be able to charm the region's leaders, he will have to convince them that the United States remains relevant to them and their countries.

"I think that the United States has to turn around and really look at Latin America with greater responsibility," Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina told The Associated Press in Cartagena Friday. "In reality, I feel that the agenda of the United States and the agenda of Latin America countries, instead of moving in parallel to each other, or converging, are taking paths that separate them, that distance them."

In large part, declining U.S. influence comes down to withering economic clout, as China gains on the U.S. as a key trading partner throughout the region. In fact, the region weathered the recent economic crisis by exporting soybeans, iron ore and other commodities to China.

"Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs — and with declining capacity to propose and carry out strategies to deal with the issues that most concern them," the Washington-based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue noted in a pre-summit report.

Colombian President Jose Manuel Santos, the summit host, said in a newspaper interview before the gathering that he's advised his U.S. counterparts to pay heed to the changes in Latin America.

"What I've said and I've said it in the United States to a lot of people in government is, 'You'd better look to the south,' because their long-term strategic interests are in Latin America, not in distant lands," Santos said.

Obama can expect a lot of criticism over Cuba's exclusion, at U.S. insistence, from the summits since the first one in 1994.

Leaders including Santos have said they will permit no more future Summits of the Americas without the communist country's participation. Obama's administration has greatly eased family travel and remittances to Cuba, but has not dropped the half-century U.S. embargo against the island, nor moved to let it back into the Organization of American States, under whose auspices the summit is organized.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was boycotting the summit over Cuba's exclusion, making him the only president in the region to do so.

Another major issue will be drug legalization, which the Obama administration firmly opposes. Santos left the idea off the official agenda but has said all possible scenarios should be explored and the U.N. should consider them.

Meeting with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez at his request, Obama can expect to discuss that country's claim to the Falkland Islands after Argentina lost a war with Britain 30 years ago while trying to seize them.

Among the 33 Western Hemisphere's leaders, there is nearly unanimous support for Argentina's position.

The U.S. and Canadian stances on the islands drew criticism Thursday from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro.

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