Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and INCAE University President… (Rodrigo Arangua / AFP/Getty…)
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — President Obama capped a three-day visit to Latin America on Saturday by urging the region's leaders to fight the drug war not with more guns or military aid but with greater investment in infrastructure, education and energy.
Communicating that message, delivered Friday night to a group of Central American leaders and again Saturday at a development conference in San Jose, was the chief aim of Obama's brief visit south, which also included a stop in Mexico City. As he zipped through the two capitals, Obama sought to change stereotypes about a troubled region by touting the possibilities in trade, energy development and democratic reforms.
"We shouldn't lose sight of the critical importance of trade, commerce, business for Costa Rica, the United States and the entire hemisphere," Obama said Saturday.
The message was a shift from years of tough talk on U.S. plans to help governments crack down on the cartels smuggling drugs to feed demand north of the Mexican border. Amid a push to pass immigration reform and with a new administration in Mexico, Obama was eager to cast Latin America in a new light.
The president's optimism came across as unfounded to some in Mexico, where President Enrique Peña Nieto is just five months into his reform efforts and questions remain about his commitment and new strategies for the drug war. And in Central America the push toward stability and stronger democracy is further behind. In spite of agreements ending years of civil wars, Central America registers some of the world's highest homicide rates largely because of Mexican drug traffickers who have expanded their operations throughout the region.
Obama adjusted his rosy message some in San Jose on Saturday, when he told business and community leaders "we've made progress; more progress needs to be made," particularly in establishing a secure border with Mexico that doesn't restrict trade.
Still, the president made clear his aim for the visit was to shift the conversation from unmet goals to future potential. In Mexico, the move is an attempt to seize on the new leadership, aides have said, and capitalize on Peña Nieto's promise to boost trade and open new markets to foreign investment, particularly in the energy sector. The youthful and politically savvy new president has proved to be an appealing partner.
Finding similar partners in the smaller nations farther south is more difficult. Obama's meeting with Central American leaders Friday put him at the table with erstwhile leftists such as Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and iron-fisted former generals such as Guatemala's Otto Perez Molina.
The president kept some distance from the group, which included the presidents of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic. The leaders were gathering for a regular meeting of the Central American Integration System, a regional partnership. The U.S. attended the meeting as an "observer," a point Obama noted in remarks before a working dinner. He met privately only with his host, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.
Several countries said they would use the meeting to ask for more money for "citizen security" programs. But the White House announced no new aid commitment, with Obama emphasizing that the Central American leaders should do more among themselves to address their problems.
Greater cooperation — between the U.S. and Central America as well as among the Central American nations — is complicated. Many countries have weak democracies, corrupt or inept institutions and security forces tainted by poor human rights records. There is little trust to go around.
"There's really much more that needs to take place dynamically within the region, but there are … some countries where it's just really hard to find institutional partners," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "If the idea is to integrate … and get greater cooperation, but you don't have a viable national partner ... what can you do?"
Decades of U.S. meddling in and exploiting the region doesn't help, noted Dan Restrepo, who served as former senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council and is now an international consultant.
"The political class in Central America became habitualized that Washington was going to solve their problems," he said. "In large measure, that's because Washington tried, for many, many years, to impose itself — to both create and solve its problems."
Obama tried to move past that legacy, calling Saturday for a partnership "based on equality and mutual respect, mutual interest."
Central American presidents seemed to welcome Obama's new tone, urging the U.S. to focus more attention, and money, on education and poverty.
"It is clear that a fundamental theme that interests all Central Americans is the fight against poverty," said Ortega, "and that creates the best conditions for fighting drug-trafficking."
Ortega's comment was echoed by President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador.
"President Obama took from here a recommendation that ... we must work not only in repressing crime but also work on prevention," Funes said after the Friday dinner. Drug-trafficking is going to continue as long as the demand for drugs continues in the U.S., Funes said.
Earlier, before the meeting, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said he too would be seeking "decisive" actions from the U.S. government to confront the deadly violence engulfing his country and other parts of Central America.
"The countries of the region supply the dead in a war we did not start," Lobo said.
Hennessey reported from San Jose and Wilkinson from Mexico City.