President Barack Obama is greeted at the airport as he arrives to Cartagena, Colombia, Friday April 13, 2012. Obama is in Cartagena to attend the sixth Summit of the Americas. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) — President Barack Obama's challenge as he rubs shoulders this weekend with CEOs and political leaders from the Americas is convincing U.S. business that he's serious about expanding trade in the Americas and persuading Latin American leaders to once again look northward.
"Put simply, we have one of the world's most dynamic trade relationships," he planned to tell top executives gathered here Saturday during the sixth Summit of the Americas.
But playing the persuader is not an easy task. Obama faces trade competition from China, resistance from U.S. labor, a passel of thorny regional issues that could dilute any focus on trade, and now the distraction of Secret Service agents in Cartagena relieved of duty on allegations of misconduct.
Obama will set the tone when he attends the CEO summit, a high-powered gathering that is expected to include top executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PepsiCo, Yahoo and Caterpillar.
"Here in Latin America, the U.S. is the largest foreign investor, and we're the largest customer of manufactured goods from countries across the hemisphere," Obama will say, according to prepared text released by the White House.
Still, while U.S. exports in dollar amounts have increased in the Americas, its share of the market has declined over the past decade. China, in particular, is surpassing the U.S as a trading partner with Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
In the United States, labor is already restive over a U.S. trade deal with Colombia that is awaiting final certification. The Colombian government has worked to meet the requirements of a labor rights agreement that was a condition of passage in Congress last year. The question bubbling in Cartagena was whether Obama, over the objections of U.S. union leaders, would certify that Colombia has successfully met the terms.
And trade could get lost in the discussion over Cuba's exclusion from the summit, a rising call from Latin American countries to consider legalizing drugs to ease the violence associated with narco-trafficking, and even Argentina's claims to the British-controlled Falkland Islands. Adding an embarrassing wrinkle to the visit was Friday's acknowledgement by the Secret Service that agents facing allegations of misconduct for deeds before the president's arrival had been sent home.
What's more, U.S. influence in Latin America has waned as countries such as Brazil and Chile gain economic stature. The U.S. can no longer buy its standing in the Americas through development assistance.
In that reality, Obama on Saturday was appealing to the executives to work with governments to expand commerce and help improve the lives of people still living in poverty despite the region's improving economic stance.
"Governments can't do it alone," he said. "We need you — the private sector — to work with us. We need your ideas. We need you to join with us. Working together, I'm confident that we can advance the jobs, prosperity and opportunity that our people seek."
Among those pushing Obama to engage further in trade with Latin America is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's blunt-speaking president, Tom Donohue, told business leaders in Colombia that the U.S. is focusing too much on the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of Latin America. He called for more countries from the Americas to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Chile and Peru.
"The TPP is mostly dancing to an Asian tune, I think the TPP could use a little salsa, cumbia, or even samba," he said, noting that Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica have expressed interest in joining.
Obama, in answers to questions submitted by Latin American journalists before leaving for Cartagena, argued that the U.S. exports three times more to Latin America than to China and noted that 60 percent of Latin America's exports to the United States are manufactured goods whereas 87 percent of Latin America's exports to China were commodities.
"We believe that economic partnerships can't just be about nations extracting another's resources," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is having an increasingly contentious relationship with Argentina, with U.S. companies complaining that it is throwing up sizable barriers to U.S. exports. The Obama administration has bristled at the behavior and some in Washington wonder whether Argentina will long keep its membership in the G-20 group of large and emerging world economies.
Those issues could likely come up when Obama meets with Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez, on Sunday on the sidelines of the summit.