(CARTAGENA, Colombia) — Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos tells ABC News he believes President Obama’s visit to Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas is a “smart move” to help him win support with Hispanic voters in the U.S.
“I certainly think this will help him, because the fact that he is here, what he is going to say, what we, with Colombia, are going to decide on the free trade agreement and other issues, this will definitely help him with the Hispanic vote in the U.S.,” Santos said Friday. “I think it’s a smart move on his part to come at this moment.”
Obama is expected to push economic issues at the election-year summit, emphasizing trade and commercial ties to Colombia, Panama and other countries that could help boost job growth back at home. The summit also gives the president a chance to convince millions of Hispanic voters in the U.S. that he still cares about the region, amid criticism that he has neglected relations with Latin America.
With the White House’s foreign policy focus largely in the Middle East, it’s no surprise Santos worries the Obama administration isn’t paying enough attention to South America’s economic potential.
“For some time we’ve been saying that the U.S. should look much more to the countries south of the Rio Grande because here is where your real strategic interests lie. They are not in Afghanistan, they are not in Pakistan, they are here. Here the potential for U.S. businessmen, for trade, for every vital interest in the U.S.,” he said.
Other leaders are expected to pressure Obama during the weekend summit to rethink the war on drugs, but the president is not likely to engage while facing re-election.
“We feel like we’re pedaling on a static bicycle,” Santos said of the fight to curb the illegal drug trade, but questioned, “Is there a better alternative that is more effective and less costly?”
Leaders from 33 countries will come together at the summit to discuss a range of issues vital to the region. One country notably absent, however, is Cuba. While some think Castro should be invited to join the dialogue, Santos said he understands why the U.S. is hesitant to embrace the idea.
“If I were the White House, quite frankly, I would not include Cuba because this is a very sensitive political issue in the U.S.,” he said. “I hope the U.S. … hears the voice Latin America, an increasing voice. There are better ways than sanctions and blockades to press Cuba for more freedom and more democracy. Why don’t we invite them and, being a member of the community, we can maybe be more effective?”
Finally, Santos publicly dissed the leader of the free world, saying he has no faith in President Obama’s soccer skills. “I don’t think President Obama is a very good soccer player. … I believe more in his basketball skills.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN