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Colombia president to Obama: Don't ignore your neighbors

Handout / Reuters

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, left, his wife Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, and his Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, right, receive President Barack Obama at a state dinner Friday before the start of the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.

Updated at 12:15 a.m. Saturday ET: CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Washington should turn back to alliances with neighbors in Latin America rather than focus on faraway conflicts like Afghanistan, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said on Friday before welcoming President Barack Obama to the Americas Summit.

U.S. influence has waned in recent years in a region it traditionally saw as its backyard, allowing China to gain ground and emerge as the No. 1 trade partner with various countries including regional powerhouse Brazil.


"If the United States realizes its long-term strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in Latin America ... there will be great results," Santos said just before Obama flew into Cartagena, on Colombia's north coast.

Obama was greeted about 5 p.m. local time with a military band and honor guard in white uniforms, according to White House reporters traveling with him.

Obama later had dinner with Santos, Santos' wife and the Colombian minister of foreign affairs, Maria Angela Holguin, at Castillo San Felipe, a colonial-era hilltop fortress.

"Hello, my friend," Obama called out as he approached Santos. "This is spectacular."

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Bombs go off
Later, two small bombs exploded in Colombia's capital Bogota, about 650 miles away from Cartegana, and police said they may have been a protest by leftist guerrillas against the presence of Obama.

Guillermo Legaria / AFP - Getty Images

Members of the Technical Investigation Corps of the Colombian Attorney investigate an area where unknown assailants activated an explosive device Friday near the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia.

"There are windows broken, but nobody hurt or killed,'' a senior police source told Reuters, saying the explosives were placed in a ditch in a residential area near the attorney general's office and the U.S. Embassy.

Two small bombs were also reported in Cartagena, where no one was hurt and no major damage was reported, NBC News said. 

Obama was welcomed at the last Summit of the Americas in 2009. But Latin American hopes, including for a U.S. rapprochement with communist-run Cuba, were largely dashed as Obama has focused on other global priorities.

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Santos' comments came in a speech to hundreds of businessmen from North and South America meeting ahead of the Organization of American States' (OAS) sixth summit attended by more than 30 heads of state in the historic Caribbean port of Cartagena.

With deep ideological fissures dividing Latin America over the last decade, the Colombian leader urged his fellow heads of state -- who meet on Saturday and Sunday -- to follow his example of putting pragmatism first.

"Let's respect our differences, but stay together. Who would have imagined Venezuela and Colombia working together?" asked Santos, whose first action after taking office in 2010 was to bury the hatchet with socialist President Hugo Chavez next door.

Various presidents had arrived by Friday, some donning traditional loose-fitting "guayabera" shirts to cope with the heat in tropical Cartagena.

Inter-American Development Bank head Luis Alberto Moreno said the region contributed 14 percent of global GDP, was enjoying annual growth of about 4 percent, and looked on course to double per capita income by 2030.

"Latin America is one of the motors of world economic recovery," he said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon also addressed business leaders, making an impassioned plea to curb rising protectionism in the region in response to a flow of funds from rich nations that has strengthened currencies and hurt competitiveness.

In an interview with a Colombian radio station, Obama did, however, took a conciliatory line on efforts to legalize drugs, echoing the region's oft-cited complaint that the United States is the biggest consumer and so must sort out the problem at its end.

"In the United States we have a responsibility to reduce demand for drugs, and that's why I've put in billions of dollars in public health to try to encourage the treatment programs, the education programs, the prevention programs that can reduce drug demands of the United States as such a large market for the drug traffickers," he told the Radio W station.

This article includes reporting by Reuters.

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