CARTAGENA, Colombia — Declaring that a new environment for cooperation exists in the Americas, President Barack Obama sought to convince U.S. business Saturday that he's serious about expanding trade in Latin America while persuading the region to look northward once again.
Obama dismissed some of the tensions in the region as remnants of the past. He said the discussions and press accounts sometimes make him feel like he is in a "time warp" of "gunboat diplomacy and yanquis and the Cold War and this and that" dating to a time before he was born.
"That's not the world we live in today," he said. "My hope is that we all recognize this enormous opportunity we've got."
But playing the persuader is not an easy task. The United States faces trade competition from China, resistance from labor at home, a set of difficult 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.
The business session was the first ever associated with a Summit of the Americas and it included executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PepsiCo, Yahoo and Caterpillar. Obama was joined on the stage at the forum by the host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
He complimented the governments of Colombia and Brazil for their remarkable economic growth, saying that they served as models for success in the region.
"When we look at how we're going to integrate further and take advantage of increased opportunity in the future its very important for us to not ignore how important it is to have a clean, transparent, open government that is working on behalf of its people," he said.
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 United States as a trading partner with Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
In the United States, labor is restive over a 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 in Cartagena was whether Obama, over the objections of U.S. union leaders, would certify that Colombia successfully has met the terms.
Obama commended the trade deal with Colombia as a "win-win" for both countries, but was silent on its final implementation.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue, who was among the attendees, said in an interview Saturday that even if Obama did not take that step while in Cartagena, he would not consider that a setback and predicted final certification probably would come within weeks. He said Obama may not make a major announcement so as not to irritate allies who oppose the deal.
Trade could be eclipsed by other issues: the discussion over Cuba's exclusion from the summit; a call from Latin American countries to consider legalizing drugs; even Argentina's claims to the Falkland Islands.