White House Puts Security Issues on Back Burner for Summit

The White House wants to work with South America economically, but GOP wants Obama to condemn anti-U.S. strongmen.

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The White House is stressing American efforts made in regards to economic issues with South American allies ahead of a weekend summit in Colombia, but a key GOP lawmaker wants President Obama to get tough with America's foes in the region.

Obama and 33 other heads of state from the Americas will huddle together Saturday and Sunday in Cartagena for the Organization of American States' sixth Summit of the Americas, where talks will address a number of economic and security issues.

Administration officials say security issues—such as violence related to drug trafficking—will be on the agenda. But in the days before the president heads south for the sixth-annual summit, administration officials have placed much more emphasis on the economic issues that will be addressed.

For instance, in a Wednesday press briefing, Dan Restrepo, the White House's senior director for the Western Hemisphere, and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, used the word "economic" nearly 30 times. The duo mentioned "security" 17 times.

Restrepo and Rhodes said the more Washington works with South America on economic matters, the better the U.S. economy will perform. Rhodes called it "very fitting" for Obama to kick off his trip at the Port of Tampa in Florida, where he will trumpet the "economic ties that we have with the region." Rhodes also highlighted Obama's planned trilateral talks Saturday with the presidents of Brazil and Colombia. The three leaders will, Rhodes said, discuss "efforts to increase economic integration and opportunity across the hemisphere."

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Rhodes told reporters Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will discuss U.S. support for Colombia's fight against FARC rebels, but quickly pivoted back to economic talks. "We'll also be able to discuss our continued economic cooperation, building on the successful completion of the negotiations for the free trade agreement," Rhodes said.

As the White House was seeking to strike a economic-focused, conciliatory tone, a key House Republican wants Obama to use the trip to press the region's anti-U.S. strongmen.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is urging Obama "not allow tyrants to trample on basic rights and liberties."

Ros-Lehtinen blasted Obama for offering a "new beginning" to Cuba after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez "spewed anti-American rhetoric and praised the brutal Cuban dictatorship" at the summit's meeting in 2009.

"Four years into his Administration, President Obama's Latin America policy has been and continues to be a disappointment," Ros-Lehtinen said. "The administration has failed time and again to speak out against tyrants like Chavez, Castro, [and] Ortega."

She called for Obama to reverse what she called his "disappointing" record on Latin-American issues by publicly condemning anti-democratic leadership in the region.

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