San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Why is Obama coming to Costa Rica?


U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Central America in early May. Although he only will stay in Costa Rica a few hours, the visit has been categorized as “regional” because Obama also plans to meet with his Central American presidential colleagues.

Evidently, the summit is of significant geopolitical importance and underscores a process that, initiated by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, was continued by his successors beginning with Ronald Reagan in 1982, and George H.W. Bush in 1989. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush traveled to Central America during their respective terms. Now it’s Obama’s turn, and the obviously obligatory questions are: What does Obama hope to accomplish? What proposal has driven him to meet with his Central American colleagues?

Those questions still don’t have clear answers. In past trips by U.S. presidents to the isthmus, the objectives of their tours were more than clear. Kennedy, enveloped in the Cold War, came to consolidate his Alliance for Progress. Reagan traveled to reaffirm his commitment to maintaining strong relations with Costa Rica in the midst of a regional crisis and as a counterweight to the Sandinista Revolution.

With Clinton, the focus was the environment. Since 1994, Central America has promoted an Alliance for Sustainable Development with the support of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. This initiative, signed in Gore’s presence at a presidential summit at Masaya Volcano in 1995, pried open a door that later would be pushed wide open at the Americas Summit in Miami. On that occasion, and in an act unprecedented in the region’s history, five democratically elected presidents from Central America signed with the United States the Joint Central America-U.S. Declaration.

George W. Bush, for his part, traveled to San Salvador to consolidate a regional alliance against terrorism, and he put on the table an issue that Central American elites had been demanding since the Clinton administration: a free trade agreement.

Propelled by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the more dramatic consequences of the Iraq War, Bush managed not only to solidify the position of all countries in the region, which had begun during the El Zamorano Summit, but also he announced the most important initiative of trade liberalization proposed by the U.S. in the region since the era of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In addition, he planted the seed for another initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which created a type of agency parallel to USAID, but with a private-business philosophy to promote infrastructure projects and combat poverty.

Given these precedents, what exactly will Obama’s agenda be in San José? Will he broaden security issues – especially the effort to combat illegal drug trafficking – which is already contemplated in the Central America Regional Security Initiative?

Or will he focus on putting forward a plan to provide more economic balance and a new dynamism to relations on the isthmus, which have been stagnant for some time as a consequence of the financial crisis up north?

For the moment, no one seems to know what Obama is coming to do, nor has any preparatory process been made public as happened with the visits of Clinton and Bush, both characterized by a much more explicit agenda.

This is a curious situation, as it’s not very often that the U.S. president, especially someone like Obama who is not particularly a Latin America expert, embarks on an adventure to the region without previously agreeing on a common agenda.

It’s also not as if his colleagues on the isthmus have been explicit about it either – with more than five national agendas, Central America should have the capacity of speaking to Obama with one voice and from a collectively agreed position. That agenda (and the will to form one without complicating things) remains to be seen.

Luís Guillermo Solís is a political scientist, historian and presidential candidate for the Citizen Action Party. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with their permission.

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