When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lands in Costa Rica this Sunday, he will sit down with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a man whose trademark legislation, the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) Biden once adamantly opposed in the halls of the U.S. Senate.
CAFTA aside, however, the two leaders largely see eye-to-eye on a host of other issues – especially on the economy, which will likely be the dominant subject at Monday’s meeting of Central American leaders.
The region’s leaders hope Biden’s visit, which follows a meeting with South American leaders in Chile Friday and Saturday, is an indication that the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama will be more engaged with Latin America.
“The visit of Vice President Biden is a clear sign of renewed interest of the U.S. government with its closest partners and neighbors,” Arias said earlier this month, when he announced Biden’s tour.
According to the White House, Biden’s sweep through Chile and Costa Rica will help set the stage for the Fifth Summit of the Americas, taking place in Trinidad and Tobago next month. There, the leaders of the region will, for the first time in most cases, meet with Obama, whose campaign included promises of better relations with Latin America.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Thomas Shannon said at a State Department briefing earlier this month that the summit presented an opportunity for a fresh start in relations between the United States and Latin America, based on “a spirit of engagement and constructive dialogue.”
Absent at April’s summit will be Cuba, although it may be on the minds of many leaders and the elephant in the room during Biden’s visit to Costa Rica. With Arias’s decision to reverse nearly 50 years of policy and restore diplomatic relations with Cuba (TT, March 20) as well as promises to do the same from El Salvador President-elect Mauricio Funes, the U.S. will be the only country in the hemisphere not to formally recognize the island nation.
Biden may expect some subtle poking and prodding from the region’s leaders for the Obama administration to go beyond its recent easing of restrictions of travel for Cuban-Americans to their homeland, but focusing too much time and attention on Cuba, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Frank McNeil, would be a mistake.
“The problem with Cuba is that it’s been an irritation between the U.S. and Latin America,” McNeil said. “But if they spend too much time on Cuba, it will be a misfortune.”
The most important issue, McNeil says, is the economy, which U.S. officials have indicated will be at the top of the agenda for both Monday’s meeting and the summit in April.
A key purpose of Biden’s visit will be to “hear firsthand what assistance is needed” among countries in the region, as well as “try to assure that the most vulnerable countries have access to loans to protect their public sector budgets,” Shannon said at a press conference during his visit to Guatemala last week.
With the economy the central issue of Monday’s meeting, it is likely that CAFTA comes up in the discussion, said Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the Press and Freedom of Expression Institute (IPLEX) and former editor of the daily La Nación. But despite Biden’s no vote on the treaty, Ulibarri doesn’t expect CAFTA to be a point of contention between Arias and the U.S. vice president.
“I don’t think there are fundamental differences,” said Ulibarri, who considers the visit an opportunity to “advance relations” between the United States and Latin America, but says such an improvement “will not be automatic.”
Just showing up, McNeil said, is a step in the right direction for the United States, which was largely absent in the region – and especially in Costa Rica – during the presidency of George W. Bush.
“The symbolism is important,” McNeil said, adding that the visit acknowledges “Costa Rica’s place as a functioning democracy, with warts, and its respect for human rights.
“Bush didn’t like Costa Rica very much,” McNeil continued. “Normally Costa Rica has been a place (where U.S.) presidents come.”
Biden, who will be accompanied by his wife, Jill, is the highest-level visitor from the United States since then-President Bill Clinton came to Costa Rica in May 1997.
Joining Arias and Biden Monday will be the Belize Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, Salvadoran President Antonio Saca, Honduran Vice-President Aristides Mejía and Nicaraguan Vice Foreign Minister Manuel Coronel.
Funes, the president-elect of El Salvador, is also expected to attend, having received a personal invitation from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s visit will also be an inauguration for Luis Diego Escalante, Costa Rica’s recently named ambassador to the United States. Escalante officially assumes his new role April 1, but will participate in the conference as an observer.