President Obama’s recent visit to Costa Rica focused on enhancing competitiveness and deepening economic ties with the Central American Integration System (SICA) through a U.S.-SICA partnership based on human and economic development. The visit also served as a pressing reminder of the need to improve integration efforts within the region.
For this partnership to succeed, the countries involved should recognize that most regional challenges arise in part because of poverty. Young men and women don't see a brighter future ahead and institutions are not working for their people.
President Obama’s trip provided a renewed perspective on the relationship between the U.S. and Central America—especially for a region more used to talking about its problems than coming up with solutions and more used to asking for assistance than offering mutual cooperation. In that spirit, here are the three main themes that Central American leaders must follow up on after this visit.
Today, as U.S. President Barack Obama kicks off his sixth visit to Latin America, Americas Quarterly releases its Spring issue, Latin America Goes Global, in which, among other articles on the region’s increasing role in global affairs, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson reveals 10 generally unknown initiatives that are advancing U.S-Latin American relations.
In “10 Things You Didn’t Know about U.S.–Latin America Relations,” Jacobson looks at both long-standing and nascent efforts to promote many of the broader issues President Obama will discuss during his meetings with Latin American leaders in Mexico and Costa Rica. The president departs for Mexico this morning and will be visiting the two countries from May 2–4.
Economic and trade relations, security and cooperation will be top agenda items. And Jacobson points to local efforts already in place to connect small entrepreneurs and bolster education and opportunities in the region. From bicultural centers throughout the region that offer education in English and technology, among other subjects, to the Small Business Network of the Americas (SBNA), the hemispheric collaboration Obama seeks to expand has firm roots in place, Jacobson notes. On a larger scale, Jacobson notes multilateral alliances like the Tran-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—also explored in the Spring AQ—and its potential to deepen economic ties and opportunities.
President Obama has committed to discussing efforts to coordinate the hemispheric energy supply and demand and to launch new environmental partnerships, and Jacobson details existing efforts to collaborate on environment and energy issues. Local initiatives are raising environmental awareness and furthering initiatives to connect Latin America’s private sector entrepreneurs to U.S. clean energy companies.
The Spring AQ explores many other aspects of Latin America’s increasing global presence that will, in part, guide the issues Obama discusses and the initiatives he puts forth.
In anticipation of his May 2-4 trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out his perspectives on how regional cooperation can help to advance growth and prosperity in the Americas. In an exclusive interview for Americas Quarterly, Obama said that his sixth trip to the region will be an opportunity to consolidate joint efforts on citizen security, increase trade and investment, launch clean energy partnerships, and expand exchanges between citizens across the hemisphere.
On Thursday, Obama will travel to Mexico, where he will discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. “Building on Mexico’s presidency of the G20 last year, we’ll continue working to sustain the global economic recovery, promote global development and address climate change,” Obama told AQ. The president also highlighted Mexico’s “growing leadership in the region and on the world stage," and praised Mexico’s role in the negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he expects to be completed by the end of this year. He emphasized that TPP would bring “rewards [that] would be substantial for all our countries.”
On Friday, Obama will travel to Costa Rica, where he will meet President Laura Chinchilla and other Centro American leaders at the Central American Integration System (Sistema de Integración Centroamericana—SICA) summit in San José. During this meeting, Obama will draw attention to the importance of finding new ways to involve governments, the private sector and civil society in reducing crime and violence, as well as encourage regional partners to address citizen security from a more holistic perspective. Energy security and cooperation to provide clean and affordable energy also will be on the agenda.
Immigration will be a backdrop to the president’s discussions given the large number of Central American and Mexican migrants in the United States. Here, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to pass bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible to take advantage of the significant contributions that immigrants make to the U.S. economy. “We need to fix our broken immigration system to make sure that every business and every worker in the United States is playing by the same set of rules,” he said.
Read President Obama’s exclusive interview for Americas Quarterly here.
The White House announced on Wednesday that U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Mexico and Costa Rica in the first week of May to “reinforce the deep cultural, familial and economic ties that so many Americans share with Mexico and Central America.” Among other issues, Obama plans to discuss immigration, citizen security and economic development.
Obama has not visited Mexico since Enrique Peña Nieto assumed the Mexican presidency on December 1, 2012; the president’s last visit to the country was to participate in the G20 summit in Los Cabos in June 2012. This trip presents an opportunity for Obama to continue the work he started with Mexico’s previous administration, particularly on border security issues. According to a statement from Obama on Wednesday, “There’s so much more to the relationship—in terms of commerce, in terms of trade, in terms of energy. And so we want to highlight some of the close cooperation that’s already been taking place and to continue to build on that, so that we’re creating more jobs and more opportunity on both sides of the border.”
In Costa Rica, Obama will meet with President Laura Chinchilla and other leaders of the Central American Integration System (SICA)—over which Costa Rica currently presides—to discuss collective efforts to promote economic development in Central America and collaborate on citizen security. This will be the first visit to Costa Rica by a sitting U.S. president since Bill Clinton’s visit in 1997.
Immigration reform is a top issue for Mexico and Central America. The Senate Gang of Eight is expected to share a draft immigration reform bill in early April, with the expectation that a bill could be passed by the end of the summer. Read AS/COA’s Get the Fact series for more on immigrants and the U.S. economy.
Costa Rica, among Latin America’s oldest and best-established democracies, is facing an unusual crisis of confidence on the part of the population in the country’s politicians and institutions. This goes beyond unhappiness with the administration of President Laura Chinchilla (among the least popular leaders in the Americas, according to polls); it is also targeted at the gridlocked legislative assembly, scandal-ridden government ministries and institutions, and bickering political parties. More than anything, the scorn appears directed toward an entrenched and entitled political class that is widely perceived as corrupt, incompetent and self-serving.
While some say that Costa Rica’s political culture hasn’t changed, but rather that its nature is more visible because of an increasingly resourceful and aggressive press (including online blogs far removed from the country’s political and economic establishment) the unhappiness might also be related to concentration of power in the hands of the National Liberation Party (PLN). While the PLN has always been the dominant political force in modern Costa Rica, the recent breakdown of Costa Rica’s two-party system has made matters worse by taking away from voters the option of throwing the incumbents out (which in the case of the PLN, used to occur roughly every third election).
Since 2006, when a series of spectacular corruption scandals (unearthed by investigative reporters) led to the arrest of two of the country’s former presidents—both from Costa Rica’s second political party, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC)—the PLN has been firmly in control. While shifting coalitions in the Legislative Assembly have sought to temper this dominance, breakdowns in alliances and within opposing parties have only served to highlight the lack of credible opposition. In the last presidential and legislative elections the PLN won easily, while since then, the left-leaning and reformist Citizen’s Action Party and the right-wing Libertarian Party, which came in second and third, have all but disintegrated in the wake of internal divisions and, in the case of the Libertarians, ethical questions related to campaign-finance. The PUSC has enjoyed a mild resurgence in popularity, but is still a far-distant second.
Top stories this week are likely to include: U.S. congressional interest in Iranian activity in Latin America; Brazil responds to low 2011 growth numbers; Hugo Chávez returns from Cuba; drug legalization to be a topic of debate at the Summit of the Americas; and Costa Rica and Nicaragua agree to cooperate on their shared border.
Congress To Demand Iran Knowledge: The Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives last week passed H.R. 3783, also known as the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act.” The bill, which will advance to consideration by the full House in the near future, requests that the State Department provide Congress with a detailed report of the activities that Iranian agents and proxy organizations Hezbollah and Hamas are undertaking in the Western Hemisphere. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini said in The Washington Times that the legislation “smacks of Cold War backyardism” because Iran’s presence in Latin America is the only Latin America-related issue that is being discussed in the 2012 presidential campaign rather than, say, the rise of Brazil.
Brazil Adjusts to Low 2011 Growth: After the Instituto Brasileiro de Georgrafia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) reported a 2.7-percentage GDP growth in 2011, Brazil’s central bank cut the key Selic interest rate by 75 basis points last Thursday to 9.75 percent. What does this mean going forward? AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak observes: “Although economic growth in 2011 was 5 percentage points below that of 2010, this must be looked at in context with the global situation and the fact that 2010 growth was the highest in 25 years; plus, these latest numbers also show that Brazil overtook the United Kingdom to become the world’s sixth biggest economy. Still, expect the rolling out of various measures to boost growth before voters head to the polls in October’s municipal elections.”
Chávez Returns Home: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will return home this week after recovering from another surgery in Cuba to remove a malignant lesion. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed the news after traveling to Havana last week. Cubadebate reports that Chávez will immediately begin his electoral campaign for president ahead of the October elections. Expect the populist leader to be publicly energetic while the Venezuelan electorate remains highly skeptical over his long-term health.
Drug Legalization at the Summit: The number-one topic of debate during U.S. Vice President’s visit to Mexico and Honduras last week, drug legalization will be an agenda item at the Sixth Summit of the Americas next month in Cartagena, Colombia. Marczak says: “U.S. willingness to discuss drug legalization shows that the Obama administration is listening to the frustrations of various countries that are seeing legalization as a possible way to reduce the violence inflicted by the narcotics trade. Still, opening it up to discussion does not mean that the U.S. has shifted in its rejection of legalization.”
Nicaraguan–Costa Rican Coordination: The announcement last week that Nicaragua and Costa Rica would jointly coordinate on security matters related to their shared border is welcome news amid their longstanding border dispute over the island of Calero. The Calero incident “was a sharp reminder that border conflicts persist in the region. While this one looks fortunately to be resolved, there are at least a half-dozen others that could flare given the political differences in the region,” notes Sabatini.
AQ Online today launches its weekly Monday Memo that looks ahead to what it expects to be the top headline grabbers for the week. The top anticipated stories for the week of February 27 include: Hugo Chávez’ surgery; U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s current five-country Latin America tour; U.S. Vice President’s forthcoming visit to Mexico and Honduras; the search for a new prime minister in Haiti; and FARC suspending kidnappings in Colombia.
Chávez' Cancer: As the Venezuelan president heads to Cuba for a second surgical operation, the rumor mill on his real health status will continue as will the discussion about what its implications will be for Venezuela's October presidential election. Christopher Sabatini, AQ editor-in-chief, observes: “While it may translate into sympathy support, President Chávez' lack of transparency about his illness and treatment will likely raise fears among some Venezuelans about their future and a potential successor—irrespective of what the president says upon his release.”
Napolitano on Latin America Tour: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano begins a five-country tour today through Wednesday in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) press release, Secretary Napolitano will be accompanied by Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection David Aguilar and DHS Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Alan Bersin. Her visit is likely intended to reiterate support for security measures like the Central America Regional Security Initiative and reinforce counter-trafficking efforts to interdict narcotics through key transit points.
Biden to Mexico and Honduras: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit Mexico and Honduras on March 4-6, meeting with both Presidents Calderón and Lobo. Why is the Vice President going to Honduras? While Mexico remains an important economic, diplomatic and strategic partner in the war on drugs, the trip to Honduras is a mystery. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become the murder capital of Central America. Two weeks ago, a fire at a Honduran prison left 350 inmates dead—an incident that Human Rights Watch blamed on poor and overcrowded conditions in Honduran prisons.
Haiti Prime Minister Watch: The abrupt resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Gary Conille on Friday culminated weeks of disagreement between him and President Michel Martelly. The departure of the former UN diplomat and favorite of the international aid community is a blow for both political stability in Haiti and for donor nations that had great hopes in a government that included his technical skills. Jason Marczak, AQ senior editor, says: “Expect President Martelly to move quickly in naming a successor, with a candidate likely announced this week.” Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe is one possibility as is Chief of Staff Ann-Valerie Milfort. However, both would face a tough confirmation by an opposition-controlled legislature.
FARC Hostage Release: Colombia's FARC announced on Sunday that it will suspend all kidnapping and free remaining prisoners. Is this a political ploy or a true change in tactics? Given the group's decentralized nature, it is unclear whether the FARC secretariat can actually enforce the order, if it chooses to do so. Expect renewed debate this week on whether this may help to clear the way for an eventual peace dialogue or if the current strategy should continue without talks.
As the global marketplace becomes increasingly competitive, the pressures of manufacturing costs have risen to the forefront. These challenges drive the locations of manufacturing, where products are transported and where investors look to spend their capital. It seems that the days of faulty, substandard major projects in Central America are over as individual governments take seriously the attractions for businesses to manufacture in other world regions.
From Guatemala to the end of the isthmus at Panama, Central American nations have all realized that the only way their countries can be competitive in the modern global economy is by building a first-class infrastructure. These outputs must offer sufficient capacity to handle the demands of the movement and delivery of goods, people and services in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Every country is pouring significant funds into infrastructure, with Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica leading the pack.
Panama, which is often considered to be the “hub of the Americas” in terms of maritime and aviation, has spent over $3 billion in projects related to the widening of the Panama Canal, and another $3 billion in the construction of a metro-rail transportation system, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Costa Rica has posted an impressive growth rate in recent years due primarily to tourism and producing high-value products. However, Costa Rica has been criticized for its lack of infrastructure and for the bureaucratic delays that surround the approval of any major project. With hopes of sustaining its current growth, Costa Rica has responded to this criticism by reforming its concessions law to further attract investment as well as signing a historic free-trade agreement with China, aimed at attracting heavy infrastructure-related foreign direct investment as it recently did.
Costa Ricans are a small population to begin with, but now there are even fewer of them than previously thought. At the current growth rate, their numbers could one day start to shrink.
For years, expert projections had put the population of this country—the size of West Virginia—at 4.5 million and higher. But the new national census—the first in 11 years—counted just 4,301,712 people, according to preliminary data released this week by Costa Rica’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, or INEC).
Annual population growth from 1984 to 2000—the last two census years—averaged 2.8 percent. But between 2000 and this year’s census, this rate plummeted to 1.1 percent.
In an interview, Costa Rica’s communications minister, Roberto Gallardo, said he was very surprised by the figure. Jorge Barquero, a leading demography expert at the Universidad de Costa Rica, said that, pending on the final results of the census, his team may have to rework years of projections and analysis that had been based on previous INEC studies.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla yesterday signed an agreement in Mexico City with her counterpart, President Felipe Calderón, which will expand bilateral cooperation on security issues, including anti-drug trafficking efforts. Chinchilla and her delegation will also hold talks on a wide range of bilateral issues including improvements in investment and trade between the two countries.
The agreement signed yesterday includes a new extradition treaty to allow for criminals and suspects to be transferred more easily between the two countries and will create new mechanisms to share information on organized crime groups. “Collaboration on security matters is essential to strengthen the fight against crime,” said Chinchilla. “It's a problem that will get out of hand if we don't confront it now."
Following the signing, President Calderón stressed the regional nature of the fight against organized crime: “All nations in the Americas share the common challenge of providing security to our citizens, even in the context of an increasingly intense and challenging fight against transnational organized crime.”
Before meeting Calderón, President Chinchilla visited Mexican businesses organizations to promote trade and investment between the two countries. In 2010, trade between Mexico and Costa Rica topped $2.7 billion, up from $551 million in 2001.