In a clear signal that the president is, in effect, bringing his reelection campaign to the Summit of the America's, he made a quick stop in politically important Florida before traveling to Colombia. In an 11-minute speech, he told an audience at the Port of Tampa, "We want them (Latin American countries) spending money on American -made goods, so that American businesses can put more Americans back to work."
The port is a major shipping point for exports to Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and other trading partners. It is the latest backdrop in the president's election-year effort to remind voters that increased trade generates more jobs. The White House notes 40 percent of U.S. exports go to Latin America. (The president faces a political balancing challenge on the trade issue. Unions, a major Democratic power base, have often criticized trade deals with Latin America countries, fearing lower wages south of the border reduce job opportunities at home.)
However, some of Mr. Obama's summit partners have other ideas. Summit leaders are more interested in discussing options to deal with illegal trade - drug trafficking and southbound gun running.
Summit host Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has endorsed Guatemalan President Otto Perez's call for a dialogue on potential drug legalization, and said so in a carefully worded speech void of hot-button words such as "legalization" or "decriminalization." Furthermore, Mexican President Felipe Calderon believes drug consumer nations should consider "market alternatives" if they cannot reduce demand.
In a pre-emptive move aimed at keeping the legalization idea from gaining traction, Vice President Biden traveled to Mexico last month to insist there was "no possibility" the U.S. would consider what would be a dramatic policy change. Elaborating on the stand, Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council's point-man on hemispheric issues told reporters, "U.S. policy on this is very clear. The president doesn't support decriminalization."
Restrepo said President Obama sees room for "legitimate debate" on the issue as an avenue to "demystify this (legalization) as an option." Restrepo argued that legalization is not viable "because of the problems that come with it and because it won't end transnational organized crime."
The foreign policy adviser noted the decriminalization discussion is "not a new issue in the Americas nor is this an issue where there is a consensus among the countries."
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the administration acknowledges a "shared responsibility... to confront transnational organized crime in the Americas, largely fueled by the drug trade."
Foreign policy experts estimate drug trade is a $400 billion a year business that cuts an often violent swath through every country in the region. A 2011 Justice Department drug threat analysis confirmed the toll on the U.S., warning that the availability of drugs was increasing.
But there are some signs of positive change as public health statistics show a drop in cocaine use.
Latin American critics of the U.S. "war on drugs" say the decades-old policies have not worked. Guatemalan President Perez told the Washington Post, "the strategy that we have followed these 30 or 40 years has practically failed and we have to recognize it."
While officials portray U.S.-funded efforts to curb drug crops in Colombia as a success story, neighboring countries complain the eradication program has merely sent production of cocaine and other illicit substances across borders.
President Obama will also face pressure from Latin American leaders on U.S. policy on Cuba. While the White House emphasizes actions the president has taken to ease travel restrictions on Cuba and allow Cuban-Americans to send money to their homeland, he can be expected to avoid any discussion of lifting the 50-year U.S. economic embargo on the island nation. Noting election-year politics, the longstanding policy is a crucial issue with Cuban-American voters in Florida.
Latin American leaders view the embargo as a failure that can complicate U.S. dealings with countries that enjoy good relations with Havana. The U.S. effectively vetoed a summit seat for Cuba. Policy adviser Restrepo told reporters that the administration would back Cuba's inclusion if the Castro regime enacted democratic and economic reforms. "The path is there for Cuba's return to the inter-America system and we very much hope Cuba will travel down that path as soon as possible," said Restrepo.
The president's visit to Colombia continues a season of summitry. Last month he was in South Korea for an international nuclear summit. In May, he will host a G-8 gathering at Camp David and a NATO Summit in Chicago. In June, he travels to Mexico for the G-20 summit, which provides another opportunity for the President to appeal to Latino voters who will play an important role in key states in the November elections.
Election year politics will likely prevent the president from offering the other leaders any signal of his intentions on another sensitive issue, immigration reform. Lack of movement on that topic has disappointed many Latino voters.
Just hours before President Obama arrived, Colombian leader Santos pointedly suggested Mr. Obama should pay more attention to the region. "If the United States realizes its long-term strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in Latin America... there will be great results," Santos said.
White House officials note the Colombia visit is Mr. Obama's fourth trip to the region since taking office. Security adviser Ben Rhodes insisted administration policies have "opened the door to greater economic and security cooperation" in the region.