Obama's Latin American Disconnect

By Carlos Gutierrez

The unfolding Secret Service imbroglio has completely overshadowed the results of the Summit of the Americas that took place in Colombia last weekend. That is a pity, for the gathering of leaders was significant for far more important reasons: it made clear that President Obama's policy toward Latin America is in tatters.

The summit was an opportunity to reach consensus on how best to defeat the region's burgeoning drug cartels, to augment trade and to promote democracy and human rights. Instead, its primary accomplishment was to reveal, and to exacerbate, the very rifts between the United States and our southern neighbors that the Obama administration has opened up over the past three years.

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Concerning the illegal flow of narcotics, the Obama administration completely lost control of the summit agenda. The main policy proposal discussed in Colombia was not new ways to end the scourge that has ruined countless lives and undermined effective governance and the rule of law. Rather, it was to legalize drug consumption, a policy that the president himself opposes. That legalization received a serious hearing at the gathering is an undeniable setback at a moment when the reach of cartels and their horrific violence is at a peak.

In the area of trade, the summit became a forum to lambast America. Unfortunately, the number one criticism directed at Washington happens to be true: under President Obama we have had an anemic economic recovery and have been a poor trade partner. Nowhere is that complaint more just than in our relations with the host country of Colombia.

Appeasing his political base in the labor unions, President Obama procrastinated for three years before submitting the Colombia Free Trade Agreement for approval last fall. Having belatedly embraced an agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration, Obama held it up as kind of trophy at the summit. But what our friends in the region recognize is the fact that the Obama administration has not only failed to pursue new trade agreements with other Latin American countries, but he has dragged its feet on a whole host of other measures to expand commerce.This inertia has had the alarming consequence of benefiting China, which has been actively building strong trade and investment relationships throughout the region.

American interests suffered an even greater setback on the future of human rights and democracy in the region. Decades of progress toward freedom and self-government are under increasing threat from Hugo Chavez, the Castro brothers and their cohorts. At the same time, President Obama has failed to stand up in strong terms for our democratic allies and basic principles of freedom. The summit epitomized the damage that has been done over the past three years: instead of fostering greater democracy, the major topic of conversation was whether to invite Cuba to the next summit. This is what the lack of American leadership has wrought.

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Mr. Gutierrez served as U.S. secretary of commerce from 2005 to 2009. He is the chair of Mitt Romney's Trade Policy Advisory Group.

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