U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made few promises, but did seem to win some hearts and minds, during a much-watched, twostop trip to Latin America that concluded in San José, March 30.
Biden is the highest-level White House official to visit Costa Rica in more than a decade, and the visit comes within the first months of President Barack Obama assuming power in the United States.
During his visit, which began with the Progressive Governance Summit in Chile March 27, Biden vowed that the Obama administration wanted to put together a Latin America policy with the hemisphere, and not for the hemisphere, and expressed the U.S. s willingness to hold itself accountable for how its behavior affects the region.
We take responsibility for our own future, said the former chair of the U.S. Senate s Committee on Foreign Relations. We take responsibility for knowing that our own actions drastically impact disproportionably impact, sometimes what happens in Central America.
Biden s comments, tone and charisma impressed many observers who saw signs of what Biden himself has termed a new day in U.S.-Latin American relations.
Biden, who said the Obama administration is in listening mode, described his meeting with Costa Rica President Oscar Arias and the Central American leaders and representatives as refreshingly honest and worthwhile.
The visit was seen well, and with some affection, said Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the Press and Freedom of Expression Institute (IPLEX) and former editor of the daily La Nación. Where I see an important contribution is the change of rhetoric from what was an imposition of a very strict line to an apparent and manifested openness to listen.
Biden insisted that the United States would support initiatives to bolster the staggering economies of the region but stressed that the biggest hurdle would be to get the U.S economy back on track.
It cannot work for Latin America unless our economy begins to grow, Biden said, asking for patience and forbearance from Central American leaders.
Honesty on Sensitive Issues
He did not give much leeway, however, on two issues of importance to Central America: immigration and Cuba.
Latin American leaders have been pushing the Obama administration to lift the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a move Biden has rejected. The vice president promised to reach out to Cuba and ease tensions, but said the Obama administration would be looking for a commitment from the communist government to respect human rights and democracy.
Over the next decade, there are likely to be and need to be changes in the relationship with Cuba and the United States, Biden said.
Central American leaders also pushed Biden on immigration, asking for a temporary halt in deportations of illegal immigrants. In a press conference following Biden s (see related story), El Salvador s president-elect, Mauricio Funes, said $1.5 billion, or 18 percent of the small country s gross domestic product, comes from money sent home by Salvadoran workers in the United States.
El Salvador is particularly affected by problems in the United States, Funes said. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, remittances sent by Central Americans living in the United States to their home countries were down 4 percent in the last quarter of 2008, compared to the same quarter the year before.
There will not be an immediate response to deportations, Biden said, explaining that the issue would be handled as part of a comprehensive immigration reform, but did not say when. Biden then asked for understanding, noting that U.S. citizens were facing record unemployment and fewer jobs.
The economy overshadowed many of the issues that the leaders discussed, principally an increase in U.S. aid for Central America as the region began grappling with their own economic woes. Biden, however, said he had little he could offer the region until the United States got its own house in order. Economic growth in the United States is central to us being able to do anything, Biden said.
Addressing concerns about the increasingly violent drug trade, Biden did, however, promise an increase in funding for Central American nations under the anti-drug Merida Initiative from $65 million to $100 million to fight drug trafficking.
He was frank in saying that there isn t money for international aid, and to be patient … and it was good that he said that, Constantino Urcuyo, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica, told The Tico Times. There are those who are desperate for the United States to come down here with hands full of money. That s not going to resolve our internal economic conditions.
Representatives of the Central American nations met prior to Biden s visit in Managua, Nicaragua, to hash out an agenda before the one-day summit.
In Costa Rica, Biden met with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colóm, Panamanian President Martín Torrijos, Belize s Prime Minister Dean Barrows, Salvadoran President Antonio Saca and the president-elect of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes.
Nicaragua and Honduras, both strident critics of the United States, sent a deputy foreign minister and a vice president, respectively.
According to a statement released after the meeting, the Central American leaders also had agreed to lobby Biden on environmental issues, such as the transfer of technology low in carbon emissions and the creation of a Central American Climate Change Fund. Speaking afterward, however, President Arias noted that those issues got little time during the meeting.
We don t need any interlocutor.
Arias, who opened the press conference by saying that the Obama administration appeared to be putting together a Good Friend Policy toward Latin America a hallmark to former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt s regional Good Neighbor Policy smiled when a reporter from the business daily La República asked Biden if the Costa Rican president was becoming something of a spokesman between Central America and the United States.
But Biden said the United States was seeking strong bilateral ties with every country in the region.
We don t need any interlocutor, Biden said. We want direct, immediate and personal contact with each of the leaders, each of the countries in the region.
Still, hosting the region s leaders was a feather in the cap for Arias, who has seen his rivalry with Nicaraguan President Manuel Ortega extend into a competition over who would assume the unofficial mantle of Central America s leader.
In the previous meeting of Central American leaders March 25, which Arias did not attend, Ortega lobbied for more U.S. aid for the region, asking for an economic bailout for Central America from the U.S. government.
But Ortega did not come to Monday s meeting with Biden, and instead sent Foreign Vice Minister Manuel Coronel.
The Captain of That Boat
Arias, in his private meeting with Biden, apparently took the vice president to task for his nation s militant history. In 1987, Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize his work during his first presidency (1986-1990) on a peace plan for the then-war-torn region, a time when he often found himself at odds with the Ronald Reagan administration.
The vice president told me that I was known for wanting to tell the Unites States what it should do he used the words lecturing the U.S., Arias said. It s not about that. It s that, that s what friends are for, to say things like they see them.
Arias also called on the Obama administration to offer moral leadership to the world.
In this world, we are all in the same boat, and the captain of that boat is named Barack Obama, Arias said. And, frankly, I hope that this captain guides us in the right path, because the entire world is expecting him to guide us.