Latin America
3:03 am
Sun April 15, 2012

At Americas Summit, Allies Nudge U.S. To Change

President Obama emphasized at a summit of leaders from across the Americas that the U.S. would not shift strategies in the war on drugs. His administration had, in recent weeks, faced criticism from some presidents who said the U.S. approach to the drugs trade had simply generated more violence in Latin America.

That wasn't the only thorny issue Obama faced in his trip to Colombia.

The host of the Summit of the Americas, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, is considered one of Washington's closest allies. But speaking to an overflowing banquet hall of CEOs and presidents, Santos said it was perhaps time for a change in drug policy — perhaps a big change.

He meant possibly veering from the U.S.'s tough military approach against drug gangs in the region.

"After an objective, rigorous analysis of policy," Santos said, "we might reach another conclusion on strategy. That's what we're saying."

Options that some leaders have proposed include decriminalizing some drugs.

In response, Obama said he welcomes a debate, but he was clear where the U.S. stands in the war on drugs.

"I, personally, and my administration's position, is that legalization is not the answer," he said.

Celebrity And Scandal

On the surface, the summit in Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean Coast was all about regional unity, future opportunities and newfound prosperity in countries that had once been unstable and poor.

It was all presented with a dash of showbiz: Colombian pop star Shakira sang her country's national anthem for the 30 heads of state. Another popular singer, Carlos Vives, entertained hundreds of summit guests with his brand of folkloric rock.

Not everything went according to script.

The Secret Service placed 11 agents on administrative leave while investigating allegations that the men had brought prostitutes into their hotel rooms. The men, who'd been in Cartagena before the president's arrival, were sent home and replaced.

Officials said Obama's security was never compromised, but the incident did overshadow the summit.

Debating U.S. Policies

The region's toughest disputes — on drugs, Cuba and monetary policy — were mostly debated behind closed doors.

Still, at a forum on Saturday, the underlying tensions between some Latin American countries and the region's superpower made it to the surface.

That was where Obama, Santos and Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, debated the issues. The moderator was Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball.

Rousseff was most direct, saying that what she called the expansionist monetary policy of developed countries was creating a monetary tsunami in hers. She argued that the U.S.'s low interest rates and spending cuts were driving up Brazil's currency, making it more expensive for Brazilian exporters and flooding the country with imports.

Obama gently defended the U.S. and instead said he wanted to focus on the future.

"We've never been more excited about the prospects of working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean," he said, "because that's going to be the key to our success."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Barack Obama wraps up his weekend visit to Colombia today. He's there to attend a summit of leaders from across the Americas, where he emphasized that the United States would not shift its strategy in the War on Drugs. His administration had in recent weeks faced criticism from some world leaders who said the U.S. approach to the drug trade had generated more violence in Latin America.

NPR's Juan Forero, in Cartagena, Colombia, reports it wasn't the only thorny issue Mr. Obama faced on his trip.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: The host of the Summit of the Americas, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, is considered one of Washington's closest allies. But speaking to an overflow banquet hall of CEOs and presidents, Santos said it was perhaps time for a shift in drug policy - perhaps a big shift. He meant possibly veering from the U.S.'s tough military approach against drug gangs in the region.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FORERO: After an objective, rigorous analysis of policy, Santos says we might reach another conclusion on strategy. That's what we're saying.

Options that some leaders have proposed include decriminalizing some drugs. In response, Mr. Obama says he welcomes a debate. But he was clear where the U.S. stands in the war on drugs.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I personally, and my administration's position, is that legalization is not the answer.

FORERO: On the surface, the summit in this colonial gem on the Caribbean was all about regional unity, future opportunities and new-found prosperity, in countries that had once been unstable and poor. It was all presented with a dash of show biz.

SHAKIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: Colombian pop star Shakira sang her country's national anthem for the 30 heads of state. And another popular singer, Carlos Vives, entertained hundreds of summit guests with his brand of folkloric rock.

CARLOS VIVES: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: Not everything went according to script. The Secret Service placed 11 agents on administrative leave, while investigating allegations that the men had brought prostitutes into their hotel rooms. The agents, who'd been in Cartagena before the president's arrival, where sent home and replaced.

Officials said Mr. Obama's security was never compromised and the incident did not overshadow the summit.

The region's toughest disputes - on drugs, Cuba, monetary policy - were mostly debated behind closed doors. Still, at a forum on Saturday, the underlying tensions between some Latin American countries and the region's superpower made it to the surface.

That was where Mr. Obama, Santos and Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, debated the issues.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Rousseff was most direct, saying that what she calls the expansionist monetary policies of developed countries is creating a monetary tsunami in hers. She argues that the U.S.'s low interest rates and spending cuts drive up Brazil's currency. That makes it more expensive for Brazilian exporters and floods Brazil with imports.

Mr. Obama gently defended the U.S., and instead said he wanted to focus on the future.

OBAMA: We've never been more excited about the prospects of working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean, because...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

OBAMA: ...that's going to be the key to our success.

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News, Cartagena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.