US to hear grumbling at Americas summit
Cartagena - US President Barack Obama is likely to face complaints about a perceived US neglect of Latin America when he huddles with regional leaders at a summit in Colombia this weekend.
The sixth Summit of the Americas, which brings together leaders of the 34 member states of the Organisation of American States (OAS), is being held in Colombia's Caribbean resort city of Cartagena, where security has been tightened with the deployment of nearly 8 000 police.
The 14-15 April meeting is to focus on regional integration as well as the fight against poverty. But the 50-year-old US trade embargo on Cuba and the devastating effects of cocaine trafficking will also be high on the agenda.
The talks come as Obama gears up for November's election, in which he will need the support of the 50-million-strong US Hispanic community in his bid for a second presidential term.
Obama faces a much more assertive and independent Latin American bloc led by economic powerhouse Brazil, which has been filling the vacuum left by Washington in recent years, according to experts.
"The prevailing feeling is one of disillusionment over Obama's apparent lack of interest in Latin America, which will undoubtedly trigger complaints," said Ruben Sanchez, a political scientist at Rosario University in Bogota.
US neutral on Falklands
Another hot issue to be discussed will be the territorial dispute between Buenos Aires and London over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, which Argentina claims and refers to as the Malvinas.
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said last month that the summit would issue a statement on the dispute.
Thirty years after the conflict ended in defeat for Argentina, all Latin American countries back Buenos Aires's claim to the remote British-ruled archipelago and oppose any British military presence in the region.
The United States has said it will remain neutral and has recommended a negotiated solution.
Obama is meanwhile likely to face tough questioning over the thorny issues of immigration and security.
"The 'Hispanic' vote [in the United States] is increasingly demanding, and on these issues [immigration and security], Obama is ambiguous and evasive," Vincente Torrijos, a Colombian international relations expert, said.
Some Central American leaders, reeling from 20 000 murders linked to cocaine cartels in their region last year, also plan to push for drug decriminalisation, which Washington opposes.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who leads the world's leading cocaine producer, welcomed a debate on the issue, suggesting that all possible scenarios be put on the table.
Francisco Thoumi, a Colombian drug expert at the United Nations, said the summit was unlikely to make "much progress", but that a debate was worthwhile.
The other bone of contention will be the US embargo against Cuba.
Cuba, which was expelled from the OAS in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, has never taken part in a summit of the Americas. The expulsion from the OAS was rescinded in 2009, but Cuba has refused to return.
To rejoin the group, Cuba's one-party communist regime would have to accept the OAS charter, which states that "representative democracy is indispensable for the stability, peace, and development of the region", and that one of the OAS's purposes "is to promote and consolidate representative democracy".
Lack of consensus
Cuba has normalised ties with all nations in the region except the United States, and has participated in other high-level regional events such as the Ibero-American Summit.
Last month, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said he would not attend the Cartagena summit and blamed Havana's absence from the meeting on a US-decreed "boycott" of Cuba.
Santos travelled to the Cuban capital earlier last month to explain that a lack of consensus prevented Cuba's being invited.
But Argentina and Brazil have warned that this week's summit will be the last held without a Cuban presence.
In the absence of a solution in the future, "no one will show up", the Colombian foreign minister has said.