Obama wants to show he's serious about trade

JIM KUHNHENN Associated Press Published:

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) -- President Barack Obama's challenge as he rubs shoulders with CEOs and political leaders from the Americas this weekend is convincing U.S. business that he's serious about expanding trade while persuading Latin American leaders to once again look northward.

It's not an easy task. Obama faces trade competition from China, resistance from U.S. labor, a passel of thorny 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.

Obama will set the tone Saturday when he meets with top CEOs from the hemisphere who are holding their own parallel high level meeting during the Summit of the Americas. Among those expected are executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PepsiCo, Yahoo and Caterpillar.

While exports in dollar amounts have increased in the Americas, the U.S. share of the market has declined over the past decade. China, in particular, is surpassing the U.S in trade with Brazil, Chile, and Peru.

In the United States, labor is already 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 bubbling in Cartagena was whether Obama, over the objections of U.S. union leaders, would certify that Colombia has successfully met the terms.

And trade could get lost in the discussion over Cuba's exclusion from the summit, a rising call from Latin American countries to consider legalizing drugs to ease the violence associated with narco-trafficking, and even Argentina's claims to the British-controlled Falkland Islands. Adding an embarrassing wrinkle to the visit was Friday's acknowledgement by the Secret Service that agents facing allegations of misconduct for activities before the president's arrival had been sent home.

"The policy challenge and the commercial challenge, is for us to continue to remain relevant and competitive in the Latin American market," said Nelson Cunningham, who was the White House's top Western Hemisphere adviser under President Bill Clinton.

One of the powerful calls for the U.S. to engage further in trade with Latin America is coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's blunt-speaking president, Tom Donohue, told business leaders in Colombia that the U.S. is focusing too much on the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of Latin America. He called for more countries from the Americas to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Chile and Peru.

"The TPP is mostly dancing to an Asian tune, I think the TPP could use a little salsa, cumbia, or even samba," he said, noting that Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica have expressed interest in joining.

Speaking in Tampa Bay, Fla., on Friday, Obama once again put Latin America at the top of a U.S. trade agenda.

"Everybody here knows how critical this part of the world is to our economy and to creating jobs," he said. "A lot of the countries in the region are on the rise. In Latin America alone, over the past decade, tens of millions of people have stepped out of poverty and into the middle class. So they're now in a position to start buying American products."

In answers to questions submitted by Latin American journalists before leaving for Cartagena, Obama argued that the U.S. exports three times more to Latin America than to China and noted that 60 percent of Latin America's exports to the United States are manufactured goods whereas 87 percent of Latin America's exports to China were commodities.

"We believe that economic partnerships can't just be about nations extracting another's resources," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is having an increasingly contentious relationship with Argentina, with U.S. companies complaining that it is throwing up sizable barriers to their products.

The Obama administration has bristled at the behavior and some in Washington wonder whether Argentina will long keep its membership in the G-20 group of large and emerging world economies..

Those issues could likely come up when Obama meets with Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez, on Sunday on the sidelines of the summit.