LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
President Obama is in Colombia today, along with 33 leaders, gathered for the Summit of the Americas. During his visit, the president hopes to highlight growing economic ties within the region. On his way to Colombia, Mr. Obama made a swing-state pit-stop in Tampa, Florida.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama toured the Port of Tampa, checking out the oversized crane used to load and unload shipping containers. The visit was meant to underscore the United States' growing volume of exports.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Tampa's one of the biggest ports in the country. And a lot of the business being done here has to do with trade between us and Latin America. So...
HORSLEY: Other countries in the Americas account for more than 40 percent of U.S. exports, and the volume is growing - up 17 percent last year. Much of that increase stems from the region's underlying economic growth. Mr. Obama notes over the last decade, tens of millions of Latin Americans have moved out of poverty and into the middle class.
OBAMA: That means they've got more money to spend. We want them spending money on American-made goods, that American businesses can put more Americans back to work.
HORSLEY: The president hopes two newly signed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama will spur additional exports to the region. Here in Colombia, the summit host country, the tourism slogan, The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay, hints at lingering defensiveness about the country's recent past.
But development analyst Daniel Runde of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Colombia's outlaw reputation is out of date.
DANIEL RUNDE: Colombia's country brand hasn't fully caught up with the good-news story that is Colombia. When you tell people you're going to Colombia, people still say, oh. Actually, Colombia's a really great place to be.
HORSLEY: One official even joked Colombia's goal is to become a boring country. If boring is a sign of progress, this weekend's summit meeting could prove a big success. The hot-button debates of previous gatherings have largely given way to more mundane discussions like how to more closely connect the countries with railroads, pipelines and electric cables.
One exception is the likely debate over drug trafficking and related violence, as criminal gangs compete for access to the giant U.S. market. Guatemala's president has suggested decriminalizing drugs. Dan Restrepo of the National Security Council says the Obama Administration is not interested.
DAN RESTREPO: U.S. policy on this is very clear. The president doesn't support de-criminalization. But he does think this is a legitimate debate that we welcome having because it helps demystify this as an option.
HORSLEY: Restrepo notes the administration has increased spending on drug treatment and prevention in the U.S., and is seeking $10 billion for those efforts in its current budget.
Mr. Obama is generally well regarded in Latin America, even if much of his foreign policy energy is devoted to the Asia Pacific region and the Middle East.
Stephen Johnson, who directs the Americas Program at CSIS, says with the rise of other countries in the hemisphere, such as Brazil, the U.S. is not as dominant as it once was.
STEPHEN JOHNSON: It's more of an equal partner. It certainly has a great deal of weight and a great deal of influence, and probably always will. But it's not going to be the most preeminent actor on the stage.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama seems comfortable with that. He speaks tomorrow at a historic church in Cartagena. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says his remarks will be aimed at the people of Colombia.
BEN RHODES: It is very much a part of our agenda to signal the deep interconnections among the peoples of the Americas; the ways in which the United States is enriched by the immigration from Latin American and the ways in which we're pursuing policies that seek to deepen the integration within the hemisphere.
HORSLEY: And even a he spends the weekend in Colombia, Mr. Obama still has one eye firmly fixed on the voters back home. That includes the 50 million U.S. residents who trace their roots to Latin America.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Cartagena, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.