When he arrives in Cartagena, Colombia, where 33 of the hemisphere’s 35 leaders will gather for the summit, Obama will find himself on much more equal terms with his neighbors — for better or worse.
A Latin America more assertive politically and prosperous financially will be waiting for a president whose policies on immigration, the illicit drug trade and Cuba remain either at odds with the rest of the region or irritating to its people. Many are planning to let him know.
As the United States struggles to regain its economic footing, Latin America’s leaders have moved on from the largely U.S.-centric view of the world that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of the most influential have embraced policies that welcome China, India and Iran as economic and political partners.
“This summit is hugely different from the first Summit of the Americas in terms of the United States and the hemisphere.,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Latin America has clearly emerged on its own.”
Obama, too, has focused on other parts of the world.
His immediate foreign policy priorities have been unwinding America’s wars, managing the unpredictable Arab Spring and shifting the country’s military, diplomatic and economic center of gravity toward Asia — leaving his backyard neighbors largely alone to forge their own way forward.
His advisers say he intends to emphasize trade, alternative energy development and other areas of economic cooperation during the summit — assets in an election year when the economy occupies center stage — while hearing out his Latin American and Caribbean counterparts on drug-trade violence, immigration and other issues where U.S. policy is not consistent with their own.
Opinion polls show that in some of Latin America’s most influential countries’ public perceptions of the United States have improved since Obama took office. And Latin American experts in Washington say that although the region’s love-hate relationship with the United States remains intact, Obama is personally popular in many of the countries.
“We really see the Americas as a success story, both in their own right and in terms of U.S. engagement,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in briefing reporters this week on the trip.
“On the economic side we see the Americas as fundamental to our export-driven strategy for economic growth,” Rhodes said.