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Obama to promote trade at Americas summit

WASHINGTON, April 12 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama sees Latin America as key to U.S. economic growth, White House officials said as he was to travel to the Sixth Summit of the Americas.

"The Western Hemisphere is the destination for over 40 percent of U.S. exports, which is more than any other region," White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a briefing with reporters Wednesday.

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"And U.S. exports to the Western Hemisphere grew by more than 17 percent last year, which is a higher growth rate than the increase of our exports to other parts of the world."

At the summit, to be held in the Caribbean beach resort city of Cartagena, Colombia, Saturday and Sunday, Obama was expected to "continue his efforts to advocate for U.S. businesses and increase trade and investment across the Americas," Rhodes said.

The summit is a meeting of the 34 Organization of the American States members -- representing North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. The last summit was held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in April 2009.

The democratically elected countries join to discuss common issues, including poverty, terrorism, illegal drugs and corruption -- and those topics will be discussed this weekend, White House officials said.

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Obama is to arrive in Cartagena Friday night, after delivering remarks at Florida's Port of Tampa, the White House said.

The Port, about 25 miles from open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is being upgraded with millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements.

"Three of the top five export destinations from the port in Tampa are Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina," and Obama will talk about "the need to deepen trade and investment," Rhodes said.

In Cartagena, Obama was to participate in a pre-summit dinner with other national leaders Friday night, the White House said.

Saturday is scheduled to begin with a "CEO summit" with dozens of private-sector executives from U.S. companies discussing increasing business ties and trade with their Latin American counterparts.

This is to be followed by a general session, which will run throughout the afternoon, followed by a working dinner, the White House said.

Sunday morning is to be a leaders' retreat, the White House said. Obama will later meet separately with Caribbean leaders and one on one with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

After touring Cartagena's historic San Pedro Claver church, Obama was to return to Washington Sunday night.

Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 and will not participate in the summit.

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When asked if the White House wanted Cuba's participation in future summits, Dan Restrepo, Obama's top Latin America adviser, said Cuba did not meet the summit's standards of democracy.

But he said the Obama administration would support Cuba's inclusion if it made democratic and economic reforms.

"The path is there for Cuba's return to the inter-American system, and we very much hope that Cuba will travel down that path as soon as possible," he said.

Cuban ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez intended to be at the summit, at least briefly, if his doctors say it's OK, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Wednesday.

Chavez returned to Caracas late Wednesday following his latest round of cancer treatment in Cuba, saying he was "doing very well."

The 57-year-old anti-U.S. politician has "exploited" the forum in the past "to try to create a significant rift," Rhodes said.

"We're not interested in debating the 20th century -- we're interested in working together in the 21st century," Rhodes said, adding that such a message "has resonance in the region."

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