San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. State Dept. Official Visits President

Thomas Shannon, Jr., the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, met Wednesday in San José with President Oscar Arias, legislators and a group of young people studying English as part of a trip that also took him to Nicaragua earlier in the week. Though the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) was, as expected, the primary item on the agenda, the U.S. official also discussed the controversial war in Iraq, Arias’ strategies for reducing the international arms trade, and the possibility of increased U.S. aid to Latin America.

Shannon’s visit to Nicaragua stirred up controversy, with U.S. activists apologizing for what they called their government’s “meddling” in that country’s elections (see story in The Nica Times).Here, union leader Albino Vargas told the daily La República Shannon’s comments in favor of CAFTA constitute “shameless interferance.”

However, Shannon apparently steered clear of other potential apples of discord. Asked his opinion on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to forge new links within Latin America – Arias set the stage last week for oil and financial agreements with Venezuela (see separate story) – Shannon told reporters “we aren’t competing with anyone…we are trustworthy and strategic partners.”

Meanwhile, the issue of Costa Rica’s inclusion on a list of countries supporting the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003, a hot-button issue here in recent weeks, was not mentioned in his public appearances. U.S.

Ambassador Mark Langdale replied last week in the negative to a request from the Costa Rican government that the United States remove Costa Rica’s name from the 2003 documents (TT, June 23).

After a lunch with Arias at Casa Presidencial, as well as during a conversation with English students at the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center in eastern San José, Shannon said the United States is very receptive to the Costa Rican President’s initiative to control the global arms trade.

“It’s a very interesting, very creative idea… it’s very welcome,” he said of Arias’ proposed Costa Rica Consensus, which calls for developed countries to take developing countries’ spending habits into account when calculating debt forgiveness.

According to Shannon, his government will speak further with Arias about the proposal – designed to reward countries that reduce their military spending in favor of health and education – in the near future.

Arias said the United States would have to alter a 2004 law that created the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the agency through which all U.S. aid to developing nations is channeled, to comply with the consensus. The President worked to drum up support for the plan at the United Nations and International Labour Organization during his recent tour of Europe (TT, June 16).

Shannon also spoke about the potential benefits of CAFTA, signed in 2004 by the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, and since ratified by all signatory countries except Costa Rica. Like other U.S. leaders during past visits to promote the agreement, Shannon said the Caribbean Basin Initiative, through which 24 countries including Costa Rica receive preferential access to the U.S. market, should not be viewed as a long-term option for the country.

However, Arias said he didn’t need any convincing about “the urgency of the free trade agreement,” which he ardently supports.

The agreement is being debated in the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Legislative Assembly. Shannon had breakfast with commission members before meeting with Arias.

At the Cultural Center, Shannon fielded questions in both English and Spanish on topics from the war in Iraq to U.S. farm subsidies.

“I think the United States made the right decision,” he said when a student asked how he feels about the children orphaned by war related deaths in Iraq. He added that U.S. actions protected not only that country’s security interests, but also the United Nations’ ability to influence world events.

Regarding farm subsidies, he said U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed his willingness to reduce subsidies and tariffs in the United States if other developed countries make the same commitment.


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