A prostitution scandal involving US security personnel in Colombia and an unprecedented regional push to end the isolation of Cuba threatened on Saturday to eclipse US President Barack Obama’s charm offensive to Latin America.
In a major embarrassment for Washington at the Summit of the Americas attended by more than 30 heads of state, 11 US Secret Service agents were sent home and five military servicepeople grounded over “misconduct” allegations in a hotel.
Prostitutes were taken to the hotel, according to a Colombian police source.
The widening controversy was overshadowing a host of weightier topics at the two-day summit that began on Saturday.
“I had a breakfast meeting to discuss trade and drugs, but the only thing the other delegates wanted to talk about was the story of the agents and the hookers,” one Latin American diplomat chuckled in the historic city of Cartagena.
Locals were upset about the bad publicity for their city and the scandal was raising eyebrows around the region.
“Obama’s guards expelled in Colombia over prostitution — shame the gringos think that Latin America is a brothel and they act like it too,” left-leaning Venezuelan political commentator Nicmer Evans commented on Twitter.
Obama’s rapprochement with the region — already undermined by the titillating headlines from Cartagena — also faces a rare display of unity among both leftist and conservative-run nations in Latin America in allowing communist-run Cuba at the next summit.
Argentina’s foreign minister said the final summit declaration was stalled over the issue of Cuba, with 32 nations supporting its inclusion in the next Summit of the Americas, but the US vetoing that.
Unlike at previous summits, backing for Cuba has also come from Colombia, Washington’s strongest ally in South America.
Latin American leaders are also pressuring the US for an overhaul of anti-drug policies, including possible narcotics legalization as a way to take profits out of the trade.
“Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born,” Obama said wryly. “And sometimes I feel as if in some of these discussions, or at least the press reports, we’re caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War, and this and that and the other.”
Many in Latin America feel a new approach is needed to the drug war — and a shift away from hardline policies — after decades of violence, in producer and trafficking nations like Colombia and Mexico.
However, Obama was firm in rejecting calls to legalize either growing or consuming drugs.
Meanwhile, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff gave Obama an earful on US expansionist monetary policy that is sending a flood of funds into developing nations, forcing up currencies and hurting and other rich nations’ competitiveness.
“The way these countries, the most developed ones, especially in the euro region in the last year, have reacted to the crisis with monetary expansion has produced a monetary tsunami,” she said, as Obama listened.
“Obviously we have to take measures to defend ourselves. Note the word I chose — ‘defend,’ not ‘protect,’” added Rousseff, whose government’s actions to curb imports have been decried as protectionism by some in the region.
The host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, is using the summit to showcase Colombia’s new economic stability after decades of guerrilla and drug violence that scared off investors.