Obama, heading to Latin America, announces ‘diaspora entrepreneur’ plan

President Obama promoted hemispheric trade as essential to America’s economic future in a speech here Friday that foreshadowed his agenda for a weekend summit in Colombia.

Heading to a meeting with the hemisphere’s heads of state, Obama told an audience of dock workers and business owners gathered at the Port of Tampa that Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that has weathered the global downturn better than most, are a market of huge opportunity for U.S. exports.

He outlined a new initiative to better connect the hemisphere’s small businesses, provide export counseling to America’s small and medium-size firms, and expand Web sites that help international businesses find customers and other information.

Part of the program, known as the Small Business Network of the Americas, seeks to encourage companies within the various Latin American and Caribbean immigrant communities in the United States and connect them to markets abroad.

Obama announced more than $250 million in grants and loan guarantees for those “diaspora entrepreneurs” — made in part through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — as part of the program.

“A lot of the countries of the region are on the rise,” Obama said of Latin America, adding that millions of people have emerged from poverty in the last decade. “They’ve got more money to spend and we want them spending money on American-made goods.”

All but two of the hemisphere’s leaders will gather this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas, last held three years ago. Cuban President Raul Castro was not invited, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa declined to attend partly in protest.

After just a few months in office, Obama was forced at the 2009 summit to explain the United States’ central role in the global economic downturn, a turnabout from recent regional economic crises where Latin American fiscal policy was the prime cause.

This time Obama, while expecting criticism over U.S. drug and immigration policy, as well as the enduring U.S. embargo against Cuba, is hoping to talk mostly about trade and jobs, issues that even on an overseas trip resonate during an American campaign season focused on the economy.

As Obama put it here, “I want us selling stuff and I want us putting people back to work.”

Briefing reporters aboard Air Force One during the flight to Tampa, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said the administration is attempting to “prioritize small business” in its trade strategy.

He pointed out that most U.S. jobs are created by small and medium-size companies, and that as trade with the Americas expands as the result of the region’s growing middle-class market and the expansion of free-trade agreements, U.S. enterprises will benefit.

“It’s definitely relevant to the lives of Americans . . . to have him advocating for American business,” Rhodes said of the president’s trip.

More than 40 percent of U.S. exports that leave from the Port of Tampa are bound for Latin American nations, and Obama used the backdrop of shipping containers and cranes to highlight new free-trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, now being implemented. He said the deals have kept his two-year-old pledge to double exports by 2014 “on track.”

Obama also said part of ensuring a healthy export economy is “calling out competitors who are not paying by the rules,” something his Republican rivals have accused him of failing to do. He said the administration has brought trade complaints against China at twice the rate as his predecessor.

“If the global playing field is level, then America is going to win,” Obama said. “That’s how we’re going to make this recovery felt by all people, not just building from the top down, but from the middle out.”

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