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Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
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.

TAMPA, Fla. — Headed to a Latin American summit, President Barack Obama told port workers in Florida that his administration was aiming to increase exports for small businesses and companies in the United States as a key ingredient of the U.S. economic recovery.

Obama toured the Tampa Bay port Friday on the first leg of a weekend trip to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering that the president said would allow him to connect the needs of U.S. workers with trade opportunities in a growing region.

"While I'm in Colombia talking with other leaders, I'm going to be thinking about you," Obama told workers after touring a sprawling concrete port ringed by containers and three large cranes. "I want us selling stuff, and I want us putting more Americans back to work."

"A lot of the countries in this region are on the rise. In Latin America alone, over the past decade, tens of millions of people have stepped out of poverty and into the middle class. So they're now in a position to start buying American products," Obama said.

"That means they've got more money to spend, and we want them spending money on American-made goods, so that American businesses can put more Americans back to work."

It was Obama's second trip to Florida this week. The state is expected to be one of the chief election battlegrounds as Obama gears up to face Republican Mitt Romney.

Outside Central and South America, Obama's three-day visit was expected to be closely watched by Latinos, a key voting group in the U.S. With more than 50 million U.S. Hispanics — 21 million of them eligible voters, Obama has an important audience that is especially vital in an election year.

During the brief detour, Obama outlined an initiative that helps small businesses, including those owned by Latinos, get financing and connect with foreign buyers interested in their products. The president has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014.

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The White House pointed to the area's history of trade with Latin America, saying more than 40 percent of total exports from the Port of Tampa are destined for countries in Latin America.

Such outreach to the U.S.'s southern neighborhood is not unique to Obama. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him also "understood that the right Latin American policies and relations could match the right domestic relations toward Latinos and immigrants," said Nelson Cunningham, who served in the Clinton White House as a special adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs.

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