By Dan Robinson
President Barack Obama has arrived in Cartagena, Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas. The president will emphasize the importance of expanding economic and other ties across the region, and underscore Colombia’s progress.
A welcome dinner hosted by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos marked the official start of this summit that brings together 33 leaders from the United States and Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America.
On Saturday, Obama, Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff attend a CEO summit with business leaders before the actual summit, which has the theme, “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.”
Stop in Tampa
On his way to Cartagena, Obama stopped in the port of Tampa, Florida, from where an increasing percentage of U.S. exports flow to major trading partners such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015. He wants to expand trade and investment opportunities for small and large businesses in the U.S. and throughout the Americas to help boost job creation.
The president used the Tampa appearance to highlight the importance of regional trade before he sits down with leaders at the summit.
“We now export more to the Western Hemisphere than to any other region in the world. And those exports support nearly 4 million U.S. jobs,” said Obama.
Officials here with the president include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
The summit is also an opportunity for Santos to showcase his country’s progress after years of conflict with narco-traffickers and FARC guerrillas. Colombia received billions of dollars in U.S. military and other assistance.
In remarks in Washington this past week, Clinton spoke about the strength of the relationship.
“If we look back at the work we have done through the last years to support Colombia, it is quite remarkable where Colombia stands today,” she said.
Free Trade Agreement in spotlight
News reports have said Obama may use his visit to announce that Colombia has met labor rights conditions required for final implementation of the U.S. – Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
The White House has not confirmed this. Dan Restrepo, the top Western Hemisphere official on the National Security Council, said the two sides are working toward that goal.
“Our continued commitment to labor rights in Colombia will certainly be part of the president’s agenda with President Santos,” said Restrepo.
Recently, leaders of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. trade union confederation, wrote to Obama saying it would be premature to declare the Labor Action Plan a success due to ongoing labor rights issues in Colombia.
Media here are highlighting the fact that Obama is the first U.S. president to stay overnight in Colombia.
White House officials say the president recognizes the symbolism of his two-night stay, not just for bilateral relations but for a significant Colombian-American population back home.