Leaders of the Americas opened a two-day summit to push for expanded regional trade and tackle contentious issues such as alternatives to the failing war on narcotrafficking and relations with Cuba.
The Sixth Summit of the Americas formally opened under tight security in this northern Colombian city with US President Barack Obama and most other democratically elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere in attendance.
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is suffering from cancer, did not make the trip on the advice of his doctors. He was to travel to Cuba for further radiation therapy to treat a recurrence of cancer, according to his foreign minister Nicolas Maduro.
The official theme of the gathering is "Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity," but two issues -- the pros and cons of drug legalization and Cuba's continued exclusion from the summit -- were expected to dominate the agenda.
Obama, who arrived Friday on his first visit to Colombia, said his goal here was to open new markets for American goods.
"I am going to be thinking about how we can get more business, access to more markets and more customers in the region," he said during a stop over in Tampa, Florida Friday.
But most of his peers from Latin America want to discuss prospects for a new strategy to combat narcotrafficking and their desire to see Cuba represented at the summit.
The devastating effects of narcotrafficking, although not formally on the summit agenda, is a major worry for Central American leaders.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said he plans to put forward a proposal to open a high-level dialogue to seek new strategies to combat drug trafficking, including decriminalization and regulation of the drug market.
The six central American leaders met to discuss the issue on the sidelines of the summit Saturday.
Speaking at a summit of regional corporate leaders ahead of the summit, Obama said he favored a debate on alternatives to the current strategy for the regional war on narcotrafficking. On Friday, he said he opposes decriminalization or legalization of drugs.
"I think it is a valuable agenda to have a conversation whether the laws in place are laws that are doing more harm than good in certain places," the US leader said Saturday. "we can't look at the issue of supply without looking at the issue of demand coming from the United States."
On Cuba, Obama said Friday that the communist regime in Havana lacks the democratic credentials to attend the summit.
The United States and Canada are opposing any reference to Cuba in the summit's draft final statement prepared by the region's foreign ministers, according to diplomats.
But the leaders could revisit the issue to find an accord.
But the draft final statement prepared by Colombia focuses on poverty eradication, regional integration, transnational crime and increased access to technology, leaving aside controversial issues such as Cuba, the drug fight and Argentina's claim on the Falklands.
Joined by his counterparts from Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, at the corporate leaders summit, Obama also hailed the progress and increased potential of Latin America in terms of social and economic development.
The summit opened after pop superstar Shakira sang the Colombian national anthem.
Source: AFP Global Edition