CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Latin America's militant opposition to the decades-old U.S. isolation of Cuba put more pressure on President Barack Obama at the Americas Summit on Sunday and threatened to sink a final declaration.
Seeking to woo a region whose trade could help create American jobs, Obama has instead had a bruising time at the two-day hemispheric bash attended by more than 30 heads of state in Colombia.
Sixteen U.S. security personnel were caught in an embarrassing prostitution scandal, Brazil and others have bashed Obama over monetary expansionism, and he has been on the defensive over calls to legalize drugs.
Above all, the prostitution saga was a major blow to the prestige of Obama's Secret Service bodyguards and turned into the unexpected talk of the town in historic Cartagena.
Eleven agents from the Service were sent home and five military servicemen grounded after trying to take at least one prostitute back to their hotel the day before Obama arrived.
A local policeman told Reuters the affair came to a head when hotel staff tried to register a prostitute at the front desk, but agents refused and waved their ID cards.
"Someone who's charged with looking after the security of the most important president in the world cannot commit the mistake of getting mixed up with a prostitute," said Cartagena tourist guide Rodolfo Galvis, 60. "This has damaged the image of the Secret Service, not Colombia."
For the first time, conservative U.S-allied nations like Colombia are throwing their weight behind the traditional demand of leftist governments that Cuba be in the next meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Diplomats said the dispute could block the final declaration planned for Sunday at the closing of the meeting, and originally intended as a hemispheric show of unity.
"The isolation, the embargo, the indifference, looking the other way, have been ineffective," summit host and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said of the Cuba issue.
A major U.S. ally in the region who has relied on Washington for financial and military help to fight guerrillas and drug traffickers, Santos has become vocal over Cuba despite his strong ideological differences with Havana.
Cuba was kicked out of the OAS a few years after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, and has been excluded from its summits due to opposition from the United States and Canada.
"All the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean support Cuba and Argentina, yet two countries refuse to discuss it," Bolivian President Eva Morales said, also referring to widespread support for Argentina's claims to sovereignty over the British-ruled Falklands islands.
"How is it possible that Cuba is not present in the Summit of the Americas?" Morales asked. "What sort of integration are we talking about if we are excluding Cuba?"
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa boycotted the meeting over Cuba, and fellow leftist Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua also stayed at home. The leftist ALBA bloc of nations - including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and some Caribbean nations - said they will not attend future summits without Cuba's presence.
"It's not a favor anyone would be doing to Cuba. It's a right they've had taken away from them," Ortega said from Managua. "At this meeting in Cartagena, I think it's time for the U.S. government, all President Obama's advisors, to listen to all the Latin American nations."
Though there were widespread hopes for a rapprochement with Cuba under Obama when he took office, Washington has done little beyond ease some travel restrictions, saying democratic changes must come on the island before any further steps can be taken.
Obama has not spoken of Cuba in Colombia, though he did complain that Cold War-era issues, some dating from before his birth, were hindering perspectives on regional integration.
"Sometimes I feel as if in some of these discussions, or at least the press reports, we're caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War, and this and that and the other," the 50-year-old Obama said.
"That's not the world we live in today."
The controversy at the summit added to strain on the Washington-dominated system of hemispheric diplomacy that was built around the OAS but is struggling to evolve with changes in the region.
Regional economic powerhouse Brazil has led criticism of U.S. and other rich nations' expansionist monetary policy that is sending a flood of funds into developing nations, forcing up local currencies and hurting competitiveness.
"The way these countries, the most developed ones, especially in the euro region in the last year, have reacted to the crisis with monetary expansion has produced a monetary tsunami," she said in Obama's presence on Saturday.