CARTAGENA, Colombia - A summit of 33 Western Hemisphere leaders opened Saturday with the United States and Canada standing firm, but alone, against everyone else’s insistence that Cuba join future summits.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a US ally, opened the summit with a criticism of Cuba’s exclusion, calling it an unjustified anachronism of the Cold War.
He also urged a reconsideration of the war on narcotics that he said began a century ago, referring obliquely to growing suggestions that the hemisphere’s nations consider ending a prohibition of many drugs that has fed violence and crime.
President Obama has been clinging to a rejection of Cuban participation in the summits, which everyone but Canada deems unjust.
“This is the last Summit of the Americas,’’ Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told the Associated Press, “unless Cuba is allowed to take part.’’
The fate of the summit’s final declaration has been thrown into uncertainty as the foreign ministers of Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay said Friday their presidents would not sign it unless the United States and Canada removed their veto of future Cuban participation.
Vigorous discussion is also expected on drug legalization, which the Obama administration opposes. And Obama will be in the minority in his opposition to Argentina’s claim to the British-controlled Falkland Islands.
Obama may be able to charm the region’s leaders as he did in 2009 with a pledge of being an “equal partner,’’ but he will also have to prove the United States truly values their friendship and a stake in their growth.
“The United States should realize that its long-term strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or in Pakistan but in Latin America,’’ Santos said in a speech to business leaders at a parallel CEO summit on Friday.
In large part, declining US influence comes down to waning economic clout, as China gains on the United States as a top trading partner. It has surpassed the United States in trade with Brazil, Chile, and Peru and is a close second in Argentina and Colombia.
“Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs - and with declining capacity to propose and carry out strategies to deal with the issues that most concern them,’’ the Washington-based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue noted in a pre-summit report.
Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, was boycotting the summit over Cuba’s exclusion, while moderates such as Santos and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil said there should be no more summits without the communist island.
Obama’s administration has greatly eased family travel and remittances to Cuba but has not dropped the half-century US embargo against the island, nor moved to let it back into the Organization of American States, under whose auspices the summit is organized.
Meeting with Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez, at his request, Obama can expect to discuss that country’s claim to the Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas by the Argentines, after Argentina lost a war with Britain 30 years ago while trying to seize them.