Obama asks CEOs to boost trade ties with Latin America
CARTAGENA DECLARING that a new environment for cooperation exists in the Americas, President Barack Obama sought to convince US business on Saturday that he’s serious about expanding trade in Latin America while persuading the region to look northward once again.
Obama dismissed some of the tensions in the region as remnants of the past. He said the discussions and press accounts sometimes make him feel like he is in a “time warp” of “gun boat diplomacy and yanquis and the Cold War and this and that” dating to a time before he was born.
“That’s not the world we live in today,” he said. “My hope is that we all recognise this enormous opportunity we’ve got.” But playing the persuader is not an easy task. The US faces trade competition from China, resistance from labour at home, a set of difficult regional issues that could dilute any focus on trade, and now the distraction of Secret Service agents in Cartagena relieved of duty on allegations of misconduct.
The business session was the first ever associated with a Summit of the Americas and it included executives from Wal- Mart Stores Inc, PepsiCo, Yahoo and Caterpillar. Obama was joined on the stage at the forum by host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
He complimented the government of Colombia and Brazil for their remarkable economic growth, saying that they served as models for success in the region.
“When we look at how we’re going to integrate further and take advantage of increased opportunity in the future its very important for us to not ignore how important it is to have a clean, transparent, open government that is working on behalf of its people,” he said.
While US exports in dollar amounts have increased in the Americas, its share of the market has declined over the past decade. China, in particular, is surpassing the US as a trading partner with Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
In the United States, labour is restive over a trade deal with Colombia that is awaiting final certification. The Colombian government has worked to meet the requirements of a labour rights agreement that was a condition of passage in Congress last year. The question in Cartagena was whether Obama, over the objections of US union leaders, would certify that Colombia successfully has met the terms.
Obama commended the trade deal with Colombia as a “win-win” for both countries, but was silent on its final implementation.
US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, who was among the attendees, said in an interview Saturday that even if Obama did not take that step while in Cartagena, he would not consider that a setback and predicted final certification probably would come within weeks. He said Obama may not make a major announcement so as not to irritate allies who oppose the deal.
Trade could be eclipsed by other issues: the discussion over Cuba’s exclusion from the summit; a call from Latin American countries to consider legalising drugs to ease the violence associated with narcotrafficking; even Argentina’s claims to the British-controlled Falkland Islands.
Adding an embarrassing wrinkle to the visit was on Friday’s acknowledgement by the Secret Service that agents facing allegations of misconduct for deeds before the president’s arrival had been sent home.
On the drug front, Obama flatly declared at the conference that legalising drugs was not the solution to the drug cartels and the violence that has confronted the region. He said he was open to holding the debate but said strong economies, the rule of law and reduced demand for drugs would better contain the flow of drugs.
Among those pushing Obama to engage further in trade with Latin America is the US Chamber of Commerce.
Donohue told business leaders in Colombia that the US is focusing too much on the Asia- Pacific region at the expense of Latin America. He called for more countries from the Americas to join the Trans- Pacific Partnership, which includes Chile and Peru.