A couple of minutes past 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Barack Obama placed his hand on the Bible and was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.
Cheers erupted from approximately 75 Ticos and U.S. citizens gathered in La Luz Restaurant outside the western San José suburb of Escazú, where the inauguration was projected on a giant screen. Some wiped away tears, while others simply smiled broadly, taking in a historic moment for the United States and toasting what they hope will be a new era of cooperation in the world.
“Personally, I just felt it was a very terrific moment in our history,” said Timothy Lattimer, regional environmental officer at the U.S. Embassy in San José. “It marks a new beginning, and I think that it sets a great example of how our democracy can renew itself.”
Some grew emotional at the sight of Obama taking power as the first African- American president. Obama acknowledged this feat briefly in his speech, noting that a “man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
Gregory Toussaint, a Miami resident traveling in Costa Rica and an African-American, said the achievement gives him hope of better opportunity.
“It shatters the highest glass ceiling,” he said.
But for many in Costa Rica – and throughout the world – the inauguration highlighted anticipation for better relations with the United States, whose last president, George W. Bush, suffered a dramatic loss of trust around the world.
“People are getting excited,” said U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Peter Cianchette, a Bush appointee, who watched the inauguration at La Luz. “They feel that it’s a new day in the United States, as it is for every inauguration.
As I talk to people in Costa Rica, as well as the United States, there’s a great sense of optimism.”
Much of that optimism stems from the feeling that the era of “cowboy diplomacy” and unilateralism that marked Bush’s foreign policy is now over. Indeed, Obama pronounced Tuesday that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.”
Expectations are high for Obama in Costa Rica. President Oscar Arias told La Nación this week that the new president must close its prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and step up efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
“The inauguration of new President Barack Obama is extremely important, not just for the United States but for the whole world,” Arias said. “May (the administration) act with the humility that the world expects from the United States … and not with the arrogance of the past, acting unilaterally, rejecting the sentiments of the rest of the world.”
While experts say Obama has an opportunity to make a fresh start with U.S.-Latin America relations, the region will not be high on a foreign policy priority list dominated by two wars and a global economic crisis.
Still, a president who campaigned on renegotiating the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may look to do the same with the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA). And in a May speech on Latin America in Miami, Obama acknowledged the need for the United States to engage the region and stem the rising influence of China and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Obama has indicated he may lift restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba. He controversially stated in one presidential debate that he would negotiate with leaders such as Chávez or Cuba’s Castro brothers – moves that have signaled a dramatic change in U.S. relations in the region.
But Obama and Chávez have already traded barbs this month, with Obama accusing the Venezuelan of “disrupting progress” in the region and Chávez accusing Obama of having “the same stench” as Bush.
For many Ticos, Tuesday was largely business as usual. While millions around the world sat glued to their television screens to watch the ceremony, San José was much more subdued, with patrons casually glancing at newscasts in sodas over lunch.
“We just have to wait and see if there will be any change,” said Jaqueline Malegro, a waitress at one corner restaurant. “We don’t know anything yet.”
By contrast, more than 1 million people filled the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration firsthand. PAC President Ottón Solís, who received three tickets from a group of Democratic members of Congress, called the occasion “emotional” and “a moment of history.”
Words to the World
Roughly one-quarter of the U.S. president’s inaugural remarks were aimed at international issues. Here are some excerpts:
On U.S. Military Power:
“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man. …Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
“Earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”
On U.S. Leadership:
“To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.”
“We can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. … With old friends and former foes, we’ll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet.
To the United States’ Enemies:
“For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, “Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”
“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
On Diversity and Multiculturism:
“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
“We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass, that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself, and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
To the Third World:
“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”
To the First World:
“To those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.”