CARTAGENA, Colombia — President Obama concluded a contentious hemispheric summit on the defensive Sunday as it ended without agreement on whether Cuba’s Communist leaders should be invited to the next meeting, something the United States firmly opposes.
The standoff meant that the sixth Summit of the Americas ended without an official declaration — a negotiated statement of shared principles from the hemisphere’s heads of state — and left open the question of whether there would be a seventh such meeting.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on the trip to Cartegena, Colombia with President Obama and, after he left, she went out dancing with some of her female aides at a bar called Cafe Havana.
Standing alongside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, President Obama proclaimed a free trade agreement between their countries as a "win-win." He said the trade pact can be fully enforced next month.
The ambiguous conclusion underscored the fact that Obama, while pledging a new relationship with the United States’ leery southern neighbors, has had little success in bridging significant policy differences that have divided the region for decades.
With the scandal involving a number of Secret Service agents and prostitution coloring the weekend meeting, Obama departed here with the U.S. image mildly blemished and the enduring political differences between the hemisphere’s wealthy north and rising south firmly intact.
“I’m not somebody who brings to the table here a lot of baggage from the past, and I want to look at these issues in a new and fresh way,” Obama said during a Sunday news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “I am sometimes puzzled by the degree to which countries that themselves have undergone enormous transformations, that have known the oppression of dictatorships or have found themselves on the wrong side of the ruling elite, and have suffered for it, why we would ignore that same principle here.”
Cuba and the decades-old U.S. embargo against it, which Latin American and Caribbean leaders derisively call a “blockade,” has been a traditional bone of contention between the United States and much of the rest of the region.
But it emerged here as only one of several issues, including U.S. anti-drug and monetary policy, that together illustrated how far the United States remains outside the hemisphere’s political consensus.
The summit was more buttoned up than the previous one three years ago, largely because several of the region’s most anti-American leaders did not attend. The cultural programming around the meetings showcased this lovely seaside city and the progress made by Colombia, where an array of drug-funded armed groups has faded in recent years.
Santos attributed Colombia’s success in part to the billions of dollars in U.S. aid over the past decade. But the open criticism directed toward the U.S. approach to several issues also underscored the new confidence felt by Latin American leaders as they guide a region that is improving economically while the United States struggles to find its financial footing.
Although Obama has presented the United States as a more equal partner in hemispheric affairs and has spoken forcefully on issues such as inequality that have defined Latin American politics for years, some of his policies fall outside the region’s mainstream. He defended them staunchly, nonetheless.
Many leaders here pushed for a new strategy to combat the illicit drug trade, fueled by U.S. demand. Some proposed legalization — for possession and by regulating the trade — but Obama made clear here that he does not believe it would prove more effective than the law enforcement approach funded by the United States.