Obama promises renewed ties with Central America on first of 2-day summit

The most powerful president in the world, Barack Obama, descended on the army-less country of Costa Rica Friday afternoon to meet with his counterparts from Central America and the Dominican Republic in a 22-hour summit that aims to strengthen economic ties between the U.S. and the region.

Public security, cleaner and cheaper energy sources, U.S. immigration reform and educational exchanges also topped the agenda on the first day of official talks.

Obama arrived on Air Force One just after 2 p.m., touching down at Juan Santamaría International Airport following a stop in Mexico the previous day to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

To prepare for the historic visit, Costa Rican and U.S. police forces planned and executed the biggest security operation in the country’s history, blocking off large sections of downtown San José and several routes across the city.

More than 1,000 Costa Rican police officers, 180 Costa Rican intelligence agents and 150 Traffic Police officers kept watch throughout the city. For three days, three Blackhawk helicopters hovered over the city, rattling buildings and drawing curious onlookers onto balconies and patios, gazes fixed upon the sky.

U.S. Secret Service agents took charge of the historic Barrio Amón neighborhood, the location of two events with Obama and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, placing snipers on rooftops near the Foreign Ministry and the National Theater, where Obama attended an official dinner with his colleagues from Central America and the Dominican Republic later in the evening.

Waiting to catch a glimpse of the president’s motorcade, hundreds of Costa Ricans lined Avenida 2 in the heart of the city, which otherwise resembled a ghost town, as most businesses nearby were closed for the day. Many Costa Ricans stayed home to watch the presidents on TV, after having been warned by officials that transit in the city of 1.4 million would be heavily restricted.

Those who did turn out to snap photos of “The Beast” – as Obama’s presidential limousine is known – likened the day to a national holiday.

“I have friends that shook [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy’s hand when he came, but that can’t happen now,” Eliecer Valverde said, standing along the president’s route to the Foreign Ministry. “Look at all this security; the whole city is shut down.” 

With recent attacks in the U.S. – including a horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon and an attempt to poison Obama and others with ricin-laced mail – Costa Rican officials said they would take no chances in ensuring the safety of the U.S. president and his colleagues from the region.

Shortly after 4 p.m. Obama arrived at the Foreign Ministry, known as the Casa Amarilla, where he was greeted by Chinchilla and a group of Costa Rican students. Earlier, four science students – winners of a scholarship to study in the U.S. given by the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica – greeted Obama at the airport as he descended Air Force One, along with Tico astronaut and local hero Franklin Chang.

One of the students, Bryan Badilla, from the Colegio Científico de Cartago, told the daily La Nación the experience was “indescribable.

“At first we were very nervous, but when [Obama] approached us, we were overcome with emotion. We told him, ‘Welcome to Costa Rica!’ and he asked each of us our names, where we study and where we’re from. He’s a very friendly person,” Badilla told La Nación.

At the Casa Amarilla, Obama posed for a brief photo with Chinchilla and the other students. He then headed to a meeting with Chinchilla and members of her Cabinet.

At 5 p.m., Obama and Chinchilla held a joint press conference at the National Cultural Center, where the Costa Rican president thanked Obama for his efforts at arms control, praised her own administration for what she characterized as efforts to improve government transparency, and urged the U.S. president to include Costa Rica in an expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a modernized trade agreement that includes Pacific rim countries and represents one-third of the world’s GDP.

The TPP is also seen as a counterbalance for the U.S. against growing influence by China in Latin America. A 17th round of TPP negotiations will take place in Lima, Peru, on May 15-24.

Common goals

“Thanks to a process of open dialogue that we’ve had, we can explore new horizons while continuing to strengthen the old traditions founded on the defense of essential values that has characterized the relationship between the U.S. and Costa Rica,” Chinchilla said at Friday’s joint press conference with Obama. “I’m referring to the values of peace, democracy, respect for human rights and human development.”

Chinchilla said bilateral talks focused on six areas: institution-building, international policy and Costa Rica’s expansion into the global economy, expanded regional trade, public security, development of new regional energy policies and education.

“Thanks to CAFTA [the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement], the countries in our region have increased trade by 70 percent, … and through that agreement we’re looking for initiatives to facilitate more trade,” Chinchilla said.

One of those initiatives entails pushing the United States to give Central America discounted rates through CAFTA on imports of liquid natural gas, a commodity that could help the region’s countries better access cleaner fuels while bringing down energy costs. It could also help boost the U.S.’ energy-export sector. Central America’s high cost of energy, the Costa Rican president said, is one of the biggest barriers to foreign investment and luring companies to the region.

“Costa Rica, like the rest of Central America, has a fundamental goal in terms of the cost of energy. If we don’t solve the problem in the short or medium term, it will have a dangerous effect on our competitiveness,” Chinchilla said.

Costa Rica is also promoting new hydrogen fuel technology being developed and tested by Chang’s Ad Astra Rocket Company, in collaboration with the U.S. company Cummings and the Costa Rican Environment Ministry. Obama said he was impressed with the research and promised to keep it on his agenda as a potential source for cleaner fuel imports. Costa Rica, which strives to become carbon-neutral by 2021, also hopes it can use the technology to fuel its transportation sector.

“[Obama] was very impressed with Franklin Chang’s and Ad Astra’s project,” Environment Minister René Castro said after the meeting. “Obama was impressed that this is being developed in a small country like Costa Rica, and the pitch to the United States was that we cooperate hand-in-hand with university researchers, investors and young engineers.”

On security, Chinchilla said the two countries would continue collaborating on programs to combat organized crime, as long as they were promoted through law enforcement, not the military.

For the past six years, U.S. and Mexican policy against drug trafficking has squeezed Mexican cartels and forced their operations south into Central America. The death toll from Mexico’s war on cartels has exceeded 60,000, with an additional 20,000 disappeared, according to some estimates.

As cartels moved their operations south, particularly to Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, homicide rates in the region skyrocketed to almost 40 people per 100,000 – five times the global average –making it the most dangerous region in the world outside of war zones.

“A country like Costa Rica cannot permit the development of warlike scenarios, and we must make a serious effort to strengthen policies that prevent criminal organizations from coming into the country,” Chinchilla said, a sign that even Costa Rica is no longer immune to drug-related violence and crime.

Obama: ‘¡Pura vida!’

As he had done the previous day in Mexico, U.S. President Barack Obama began his opening remarks in Costa Rica with some pretty good Spanish, welcoming the press with a hearty, “Buenas tardes.”

He then praised “the incredible spirit” of the Costa Rican people and the “natural beauty of the country.”

“I understand the official slogan for those who are thinking about visiting Costa Rica is that it ‘es un país sin ingredientes artificiales,’” Obama said, referring to a popular publicity campaign called “No Artificial Ingredients” that was adopted years ago by the Costa Rican Tourism Board.

Obama said the U.S. is grateful for the “contributions that Costa Ricans make to our country every day,” adding that, “you welcome many Americans and eco-tourists and many others who chose to make Costa Rica their new home.”

He then paid tribute to the 50th anniversaries of the Peace Corps in Costa Rica and the visit to the country by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Costa Ricans’ most-beloved U.S. president.

It’s about trade and development, stupid!

“Costa Rica shows the benefits of trade that is free and fair,” Obama said in his first speech of the day. “Over the last few years under the Central American Free Trade Agreement our trade with Costa Rica has doubled, creating more jobs for people in both of our countries.”

The U.S. president described Costa Rica as “an exceptional candidate” for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 34-member-country forum to develop market economies and democracy.

Costa Rican Foreign Trade Minister Anabel González, the country’s point woman on trade treaties who recently lost a bid to preside over the World Trade Organization, said Costa Rican OECD membership was a top goal for the Chinchilla administration.

“It’s a unique forum that would strengthen legal security and confidence in our country,” González said. “It would also promote economic growth, competitiveness, modernization of the state, and it would serve as another feather in our cap before countries with more advanced economies.”

Obama remained upbeat about Costa Rica’s chances of obtaining membership.

“Our partnerships are creating more opportunities for more small businesses and entrepreneurs including young people and women. As I told President Chinchilla, the United States will continue to be your partner as Costa Rica modernizes its economy, so you’re attracting more investment and creating even more trade and more jobs.”

Obama also recognized Costa Rica for being a leader in sustainable development, and said the U.S. would continue partnering on cleaner energy by creating more opportunities to access it more cheaply.

On security, Obama noted the U.S. has committed nearly half a billion dollars under the Central America Security Initiative “to help Costa Rica and its neighbors in this fight” against violence and crime fueled by drug trafficking.

“We’re disrupting drug cartels and gangs, we’re working to strengthen law enforcement and the judicial system, and working to address the underlying forces that fuel criminality, the prevention programs for at-risk youth and economic development that gives young people an opportunity.”

Obama also took responsibility on behalf of his country for the drug-related violence that has spiraled out of control in the region, saying that U.S. demand for illegal drugs is one of the primary causes of the violence.

“We’re going to keep on pursuing a comprehensive approach, not only in law enforcement, but also through education and prevention and treatment that can reduce demand,” he said.

Obama then called his administration’s push for comprehensive immigration reform back home “of great interest to the entire region.”

“In the United States we’re thankful for the many Costa Ricans who contribute to our prosperity and our liberty,” he said, ending his speech with a gem: “In my best Tica, ‘Pura vida.’”

Central American leaders weigh in

While the brief bilateral talks between Costa Rica and the U.S. dominated most of the day’s activities, Obama and Chinchilla joined other Central American leaders for a working dinner at the historic National Theater downtown. The presidents of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic, who flew in earlier in the afternoon, attended the meeting as part of a Central American Integration System (SICA) summit.

“Our meeting tonight with the leaders of Central American and the Dominican Republic is a sign of the importance that the United States places on this region, as well as our commitment to being a steady and strong reliable partner, because we believe that no matter where you live, the people of this region deserve security and opportunity and dignity,” Obama said.

While the SICA leaders may agree with Obama on the need for new regional energy policies, and for a better response to the worsening security situation, they don’t all see eye-to-eye on the best way to achieve peace and stability in light of the ongoing battle against drug traffickers and organized crime.

Since taking office in January 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has pushed for legalization of illicit drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, noting that while U.S. federal law criminalizes marijuana, an increasing number of states are passing their own laws to legalize it. Before Friday night’s dinner, Pérez Molina said he would insist on the need to look for alternative strategies to fight drug trafficking, Terra reported.

“That’s one of the issues I’m bringing,” Pérez Molina said. “I insist that we look for alternative ways to be more efficient in fighting [illicit] drugs. It’s an issue that gains more relevancy every day.”

But it appears the Guatemalan president failed to convince Obama to take alternative strategies like legalization seriously. After the dinner, Pérez Molina said Obama was not willing to consider a policy change, but that “dialogue remains open, and we’ll keep working at it.”

Obama vowed, however, not to resort to more military action to address the situation. “I have no interest in militarizing the fight against drug trafficking,” he said, despite a recent Washington Post story showing that the U.S. military is heavily involved in collaborating with Mexico’s war on the cartels.

Ortega plays it cool

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who has a chilly relationship with both the U.S. and Costa Rica, struck a diplomatic tone as he descended a plane from Managua, saying his government was “willing to strengthen relations with Costa Rica,” Terra reported.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua are enmeshed in an ongoing border dispute over an alleged invasion by Nicaraguan troops of a piece of swampland in northeastern Costa Rica. Both countries filed formal complaints with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. A final ruling on the case is pending, but Nicaragua recently lost a series of minor rulings on counterclaims in the suit.

Nevertheless, Ortega said he and Chinchilla “maintain cordial relations.” 

At the presidential dinner, Ortega, in a disheveled white shirt and dark jacket – and no tie – sat at the table with Obama and Chinchilla, his wife and presidential spokeswoman, Rosario Murillo, closely behind. Earlier, Ortega said he would emphasize to Obama the need to discuss efforts to fight poverty, create jobs, promote education and improve health care on the isthmus, Radio ADN reported.

Central American leaders also discussed U.S. immigration reform, with Pérez Molina, Honduras’ Porfirio Lobo and El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes saying they would add the issue to the agenda during Friday night’s discussions.

It is an issue that Obama is looking to score political points on, as the U.S. is on the verge of adopting the most comprehensive reforms on immigration in the country’s history. Obama said that reform would “pave the way for millions of undocumented immigrants to receive citizenship” and avoid becoming “victims of abuse and exploitation.”

Most of the immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico and Central America. Five million Central Americans live there, and thousands of families back home in Central America depend on remittances from family members in the U.S. Last year, remittances from the U.S. to Central America totaled $12 billion, the equivalent of 7 percent of the region’s gross domestic product.

‘Obama go home’

Not everyone was happy to have Obama visit Costa Rica. Dozens of protesters gathered peacefully in San José’s Central Park on Friday to express their collective frustrations with long-standing U.S. policies in the region and Costa Rica’s cordial relationship with the “big country up north.”

“We don’t want to be a North American colony,” protesters chanted. “Obama, go home.”

Some bystanders flipped Obama the bird as his motorcade paraded up Avenida 2.

Obama will honor their wishes and return to the U.S. on Saturday at 1 p.m., after a forum on growth and development with Central American business leaders.

Then, as one Costa Rican reader tweeted, “Costa Rica’s two days of international spotlight will fade.”

AFP’s Marcelo Daniel Brusa and Isabel Sánchez, and The Tico Times’ Ashley Harrell, Lindsay Fendt and Alberto Font contributed to this report.