Washington — President Obama travels to Cartagena, Colombia, April 13 to participate in the sixth Summit of the Americas with 33 other leaders from the region.
The trip is an important demonstration of U.S. engagement in the region, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, which “supports both our economic growth here at home and the advance of security and democracy throughout the hemisphere, which is very much in our interest.”
Rhodes briefed reporters about the trip April 11, joined by White House Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Dan Restrepo.
The Colombian hosts of the meeting have defined the theme of the two-day event as “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” The theme is a good match for the president’s policy agenda for the region, according to Restrepo.
Since the president’s first trip to the regional summit in 2009, the United States and Latin American governments have been “working as equal partners to address these challenges and these opportunities in the Americas,” said the administration’s Western Hemisphere adviser.
Restrepo also identified other themes in the region’s pursuit of prosperity, citizen security being one of them.
“It’s an issue that we’ve been very engaged in from the beginning of the administration, recognizing the shared responsibility the United States has to confront transnational organized crime in the Americas, largely fueled by the drug trade,” Restrepo said. He said the administration has demonstrated its support of the priority on two fronts: increasing funding in the United States for drug treatment and prevention to reduce domestic demand, and boosting aid to help partners in the region enhance their security efforts.
The United States has built an “unprecedented security partnership with Mexico,” Restrepo said, known as the Mérida Initiative. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $1.6 billion since the Mérida Initiative began in 2008. The partnership is devoted to the disruption of organized crime, strengthening institutions, modernizing border controls and building strong communities.
The United States has also increased funding for the security partnership with Central America by $40 million, Restrepo said, for a more than $100 million investment in Central America since Obama took office. Just last year, the United States launched the Central American Regional Security Initiative, bringing other donors and capable partners to the table to address citizen security challenges in the region.
Further, the U.S. has invested more than $200 million in the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative since its inception at the last Summit of the Americas in 2009.
News reports indicate that some leaders of the region are preparing to raise the issue of decriminalization and controlled sales of some drugs as a way to reduce the violence associated with drug trafficking.
Asked for the Obama administration view on that proposition, Restrepo was unequivocal. “The president doesn’t support decriminalization.” The White House aide said the United States does welcome a discussion on how governments of the Americas can work more cooperatively to address crime and violence.
“We need to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to build the kinds of rule-of-law institutions necessary to defeat these transnational criminal organizations,” Restrepo said.
Bolstering those institutions is consistent with another conference theme: government transparency, accountability and democratic governance. The administration has some continued concerns for the security of democracy in some pockets of the region, but hailed the region’s collective defense of democracy after a presidential crisis in Honduras in 2009.
“We believe that there’s a positive success story about democracy in the region,” Rhodes said. “You see that in the vibrancy of democracy from Brazil to Chile, to Mexico, to Central America and across the region.”
Government openness and transparency will come to the forefront on the heels of the Summit of the Americas with the first high-level meeting of the Open Government Partnership, April 17–18 in Brasilia, Brazil. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend that meeting of more than 50 governments. The meeting will be co-chaired by the United States and Brazil.
Rhodes said that meeting will further highlight the strength of democracy in Latin American governments, which have become “positive models for the world.”
Improving disaster response and energy security are other subthemes of the conference, Restrepo said, citing the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas that President Obama launched three years ago at the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago. The United States is engaged in more than 40 projects throughout the region focused on enhancing energy security, improving energy efficiency and adopting clean-energy technologies.
Obama will leave Washington for the summit on April 13, Rhodes said, with a stop in Tampa, Florida, on the way. A city on the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa is an important center for trade between the United States and the Americas, so an appearance there underscores the important economic ties to the region, Rhodes said.
The president will arrive in Cartagena that evening to attend a dinner with summit leaders. On April 14, Obama’s day will begin at a summit side event organized by chief executive officers representing Colombian businesses, further highlighting the importance of economic integration in the hemisphere. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff,will join Obama at that event.
The summit will begin in earnest the afternoon of April 14 with an arrival ceremony and an afternoon session. April 15 will open with a retreat for the leaders, where Obama will have the opportunity to speak one-on-one with other national leaders.
Later on April 15, the U.S. president will have a multilateral meeting with Caribbean leaders, emphasizing security cooperation, the close relationships bonding people of the United States to the Caribbean, and the promotion of economic growth.
Also on April 15, Obama will have another bilateral meeting with President Santos that will “highlight a very successful relationship that is advancing our security and economic priorities in the region,” Rhodes said. That meeting will be followed with a press conference and a public event at a Cartagena church.
President Obama returns to Washington late on April 15. He will travel to Latin America again in June to attend a summit of the G20 major economies to be held in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur, in northwest Mexico.
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Obama to Focus on Security, Democracy at Summit of the Americas