U.S. President Barack Obama got the expected lectures Saturday from Western Hemisphere leaders over his insistence on vetoing Cuban participation in future summits and his refusal to abandon a drug war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and undermined governments.
The opening salvo came from the summit's host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who reiterated the message nearly all his colleagues brought up: Drop attempts to isolate Cuba.
"There is no justification for that path that has us anchored in a Cold War overcome now for several decades," Santos said, suggesting a change might encourage reforms on the communist-led island.
"It is the hour to overcome the paralysis produced by ideological stubbornness and seek minimal consensus so that process of change arrives at a good result," he said.
Speaking to a CEO summit earlier, he also urged a reconsideration of the war on narcotics, citing the irony of Colombia's successes: While it extradites hundreds of alleged drug traffickers for trial to the United States, criminals turn to other countries where law enforcement is weaker.
"We know that our success has (hurt) affected other countries and we are pedaling and pedaling and pedaling like we're on a stationary bike," he said.
"The moment has come to analyze if what we're doing is best or if we can find a more effective and cheaper alternative for society."
For some, the summit was overshadowed by an embarrassing scandal involving prostitutes and U.S. Secret Service agents that widened when the U.S. military said five service members staying at the same hotel might have also been involved in misconduct.
U.S. Rep. Peter King told the Associated Press after being briefed on the investigation that "close to" all 11 of the Secret Service agents who were put on leave Saturday had taken women to their rooms at a hotel a few blocks from where Obama is staying.
The New York Republican said the women were "presumed to be prostitutes" but investigators were interviewing the agents.
Three waiters at the hotel told the AP that about a dozen U.S. government workers they presumed were the Secret Service agents had spent about a week drinking heavily. One of them said he witnessed a man appearing to be their supervisor line them up and scold them on the hotel's back terrace at about 4 p.m. Thursday.
The agents were apparently ordered to leave because they immediately packed their bags and left, said the waiter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because, like his colleagues, he feared for his job.
Against the backdrop of the scandal, the fate of the summit's final declaration is uncertain because the foreign ministers of Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay said Friday that their presidents wouldn't sign it unless the U.S. and Canada removed their veto of future Cuban participation.
The charismatic Obama may be able to charm the region's leaders as he did in 2009 with a pledge of being an "equal partner," but he will also have to prove the U.S. truly values their friendship and a stake in their growth.
In large part, declining U.S. influence comes down to waning economic clout as China gains on the U.S. as a top trading partner. It has surpassed the U.S. in trade with Brazil, Chile and Peru and is a close second in Argentina and Colombia.
The Cuba issue led Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to boycott the summit, while moderates such as Santos and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil said there should be no more America's summits without the communist island.
Obama's administration has greatly eased family travel and remittances to Cuba, but has not dropped the half-century U.S. embargo against the island, nor moved to let it back into the Organization of American States, under whose auspices the summit is organized.
One potentially prickly confrontation for Obama was averted Saturday when Venezuela's foreign minister announced that President Hugo Chavez was skipping the summit. The minister, Nicolas Maduro, said Chavez took the decision because of a medical recommendation related to his treatment for cancer.
Chavez was heading instead to Cuba to continue radiation treatment. He had dominated attention at past summits with his trademark fiery speeches.
Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona, Pedro Mendoza, Marco Sibaja and Julie Pace contributed to this report.
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