Obama Goes To Colombia: Should U.S. Latinos Pay Attention?

President Barack Obama will be travelling to Cartagena, Colombia for this weekend’s Summit of the Americas. And if that sounds like filler copy on a late night radio talk program, you’re right. But wait…

The chunk of the world that exists on the American continent south of the U.S.-Mexico border is paying close attention. And although it’s not topping the list of Twitter’s #trendingtopics, I think we – the royal U.S. we – should pay attention too. The problem is that most American’s (read here: people from the U.S.) are at an information disadvantage – ironic as it may seem – when it comes to the Summit of the Americas. There’s also a disconnect in understanding how the U.S. policy towards Latin America affects and in some cases mirrors the domestic policies that affect U.S. Latinos.

So in order to bridge that gap, or fill that ditch as it may be, I’ve put together a quick and easy primer to follow as the news of the Summit spreads:

  • For purposes of the primer and the Summit (and as far as everyone else living on this continent is concerned) when the words America, American or Americas are used, they refer to the American continent and people living in it or things related to it. The words are not exclusive to the people living in the United States.
  • 34 heads of state, from the 34 countries in the Americas, will attend.
  • According to the Associated Press, Latin American leaders have expressed frustration at President Obama’s lack of forward movement on immigration, drug policy and Cuba.
  • Those same issues put the President at odds with his domestic Latino constituency.
  • Yet, polls show that a majority of U.S. Latinos support President Obama. But that support is weakening as a consequence of his deportation policies and slothful immigration reforms.
  • The most talked about topic at the Summit will be international drug trafficking;
  • but for the U.S., expanding markets and exports will be a major goal (Total U.S. exports in the Americas amount to $700 billion).
  • According to Bloomberg Businessweek: “The president may use the summit to announce that Colombia has fulfilled terms of a “labor action plan” to proceed with implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement…”
  • But the President is under pressure about that deal. The AP reports: “Obama is under pressure from U.S. labor leaders to put off that announcement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, …is pushing Obama to implement the trade deal.”
  • On the drug issue, there’s a new-old idea on the table. According to the Christian Science Monitor: “At least one attendee at the Summit of the Americas,Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, even wants to discuss legalization of drug use.”
  • There’s nothing new about this issue. Again the CSM: “About 15 percent of Latin America’s economy is lost to violence generated by organized crime, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. In Mexico, drug-related killings have reached 50,000 since 2006.”
  • There are other problems that plague the large chunk of the continent to the south: corruption, infrastructure, tax collection, educational standards, industrial competitiveness.
  • But the overall assessment is that the Obama administration has been less than enthusiastic towards Latin America, and that any attention now would seem superficial, coming as it would, so close to a reelection campaign and a Latino constituency deemed vital for victory.

So in the end, will this be more than an expensive Colombian photo-op for 34 American heads of state?

As in all things of this nature, the real dealings happen among the staffers and ministers and exchanges of ideas and proposals and plans. It’s the face-time and the handshakes that matter. Because by next year’s Summit there will be a new President in Mexico, and the White House, as it now stands, is up for grabs. Those are two of the largest countries on the continent, so the balance is on hold.

[Photo by Summit of the Americas]

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