CARTAGENA, Colombia — Close your eyes, ignore the language difference, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. presidential campaign had come to this antique walled city on the Caribbean.
Or, more accurately, that the U.S. presidential campaign had caught up with an economic debate that has roiled this region for decades — over the general benefits of national wealth, the role of government in alleviating poverty and the fate of the middle class.
At the Summit of the Americas, a political cross-pollination has guided discussion on how a collection of countries shadowed by a history of economic and military meddling by its northern neighbor can work together to build a more potent regional economy.
The issues that President Obama has most emphasized in his reelection effort — creating jobs and helping what he has characterized as an imperiled U.S. middle class — have resonated on a hemispheric scale here, with employment, income inequality and economic potential the dominant themes.
“There is a common denominator among all of us, one that we should keep in our head as we make decisions,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, sitting between Obama and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff at a Saturday forum of business leaders. Surveys would show, Santos said, that unemployment is probably the biggest public concern across the region.
“If we find these policies and work together, it will allow us all to generate more employment, in Colombia, in the U.S., in all of the Americas,” Santos said. “The biggest benefit we can bring to people is jobs.”
He said that last word in Spanish and in English for emphasis.
In making inequality in income and job opportunities in the United States his election-year message, Obama is joining a debate that has defined politics throughout the Americas for much of the past century. And he is doing so on more equal terms, as the U.S. middle class continues to struggle through a weak economy.
The gulf between rich and poor in Latin America has been a historic source of political strife, the stated rationale for armed rebellion in Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and here in Colombia. And for nearly as long, the economic policy promoted by the United States, alone or through multilateral lending institutions it helps to fund, has been blamed for exacerbating the problem.
But in the past decade, many Latin American countries have shrunk the gap and grown their middle classes, as the United States has watched its own division between rich and poor widen throughout the economic downturn.
Latin America’s middle class is a growing market for U.S. goods, its companies are tough competitors for their American counterparts.
When Obama mentioned that a more prosperous Latin America would mean more customers for “iPads and Boeing,” Rousseff quickly interjected, “Embraer,” a reference to Brazil’s aircraft manufacturing giant. The audience applauded.
Obama has identified income disparity as a valuable political target, and he has pledged to close it through changes in the tax code, new government spending and other policies. His Republican rivals have said he is waging class warfare, another echo of the left-right debate that has divided Latin America for decades.
Obama’s counterparts here — left and right, pro- and anti-American — have welcomed the United States to the discussion with a new assertiveness, even on the part of nominal allies. Santos and Rousseff, for example, each sharply criticized U.S. monetary policy for devaluing developing-nation currencies as Obama looked on.
In opening the summit, Santos said that despite his country’s gains against poverty, he still “felt ashamed” of the inequality that exists in a nation as rich in resources as his own. Obama picked up that theme at the CEO forum.
“The challenge for all of our countries, as well as this hemisphere, is how to we make sure that globalization and integration is benefiting a broad base of people,” Obama said. “A lot of the old arguments on the left and on the right no longer apply. What people are asking is: ‘What works?’ ”
The summit has been a celebration of Latin America’s recent economic success, and its leaders have expressed that confidence here by openly criticizing several U.S. policies.
At the forum, Chris Matthews, the MSNBC talk-show host who served as moderator, asked whether Santos and Rousseff wanted to ask Obama what he could do to help their countries in the U.S.-funded “drug war.” Many regional leaders, including Santos, are questioning its effectiveness.
“Do you have an easier question, Chris?” Santos began, to laughter.
He continued by saying that Colombia, which has received billions in U.S. anti-drug aid over the past decade, is grateful for the help. “But,” he said, “I think we have the obligation, not only as a country but in the world, to analyze to see if we are doing the best that can be done.”
Obama agreed that “we cannot look at the issue of supply without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States,” drawing applause.
He also delivered a little tough love to his Latin American partners.
Obama cited the criticism he receives for not doing enough to promote democracy in Latin America, yet at the same time “being so hard” on the unelected Communist government of Cuba by maintaining the decades-old embargo.
“Part of the change in mentality is also not always looking to the United States as the reason for everything that happens that goes wrong,” Obama said, also to applause.