Obama Vows to Shift Focus on Central America to Economy

President Barack Obama is seeking to refocus U.S. ties with Central America to highlight the region’s economic potential and play down the security issues that have made past relations contentious.

During a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica that ends today, Obama has stressed that concerns about drug trafficking and organized crime shouldn’t overshadow the importance of strengthening economic partnerships between the U.S. and its southern neighbors. Greater economic growth, he said, will help control the gang violence and illegal immigration that has plagued the relationship.

“It’s very important to make sure that our bilateral relationships and the United States relationship with the region as a whole is not solely defined by this problem because when it is we’re missing all the opportunities that exist out there,” Obama said yesterday in a news briefing with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla at the National Center for Culture in San Jose.

Speaking at an economic development meeting today, Obama used international issues to boost his domestic agenda. Passage of an immigration law by Congress will improve border security and create jobs in the U.S. and abroad, he said.

“Comprehensive immigration reform, which hopefully will pass this year after 30 years, can make an enormous difference,” he told entrepreneurs and community leaders at the Central America Forum.

Trade Agreement

Costa Rica is pressing to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord that now includes the U.S., Mexico and nine other nations.

Costa Rica withstood the shock of the global recession and, like Mexico, its economy has expanded faster than the U.S. Costa Rica’s gross domestic product grew at an average annual rate of

4.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Costa Rican government declared a national holiday for Obama’s visit, the first by a U.S. president since 1997. Costa Ricans lined the streets, waving flags and cheering as the president’s motorcade passed through San Jose.

At their joint news conference, Obama and Chinchilla vowed to increase economic, energy, and educational ties between the two nations.

“The United States will continue to be your partner as Costa Rica modernizes its economy so that you’re attracting more investment and creating even more trade and more jobs,” Obama said.

Growing Trade

U.S. trade with Central American countries has increased to more than $61 billion in 2012 from $35 billion in 2005, according to data provided by the Costa Rican government.

Obama arrived in Costa Rica yesterday from Mexico, where he urged setting aside “stereotypes” of the region as a source of illicit drugs and immigrants fleeing to the U.S.

At a speech yesterday to students and business leaders at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Obama talked of a Mexico that’s “creating a new prosperity” through trade and manufacturing.

Since arriving in Mexico City on May 2, Obama has announced a new working group of high-level U.S. and Mexican officials, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, and dined with Central American leaders. He also promised to support Costa Rica’s bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that counts the world’s most-advanced economies as its members.

Mexico’s Economy

As Mexico’s economy has gained strength, net migration from there into the U.S. fell to zero from 2005 to 2010, according to a Pew Research Center study. White House officials say the main cause of illegal immigration into the U.S. has become the unrest and poverty in other Central American nations.

That shift led Obama yesterday to urge increased investment in “human development” in the region, pushing for greater educational exchanges and funding of youth centers.

“We also have to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty,” he said.

Still, security and immigration issues shadowed Obama during his visit. He waded into a debate over proposed revisions to U.S. immigration laws, saying that he supports recognizing gay unions as part of the pending legislation.

Gay Rights

Gay-rights supporters are pushing for an amendment to the Senate measure that would allow gays to sponsor their partners to come to the U.S. Republicans in Congress have made clear that the provision would sink their support for the bill.

Obama said it was premature to say whether omission of such a provision would cost his support for the legislation.

“I can tell you that the provision is the right thing to do,” he said during the news conference in San Jose. “I can also tell you that I’m not going to get everything I want in this bill.”

The illegal drug trade also remains a major problem in Costa Rica. Though the country’s beaches and rain forest have made it a tourist destination for decades, in 2010 it was included on the U.S. State Department’s list of major drug transit nations for the first time.

In Mexico, where security changes put in place by Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto have limited access by U.S. agencies, Obama said that it is “obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security.”

The comment marked a shift from his first visit as president to Mexico in 2009, when Obama committed $700 million to beef up law enforcement on the border, provide Mexico with military equipment, and bolster intelligence cooperation to stop the flow of illegal drugs.

This time, Obama focused on the responsibilities the U.S. has to help its neighbors. He vowed to work with lawmakers to change immigration laws and stem the flow of firearms from the U.S. into Mexico by trying again to pass new gun-control measures, which were thwarted in Congress last month.

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