Today, U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Costa Rica as part of a trip to promote trade and business ties, discuss the implications of U.S. immigration reform for the region, and address security issues in Central America and Mexico. Compared with past visits of U.S. presidents to the country, which were major events, Obama’s trip is generating little excitement, despite his personal popularity in Costa Rica.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, including an uninspiring agenda, few opportunities for the public to see and hear Obama and Costa Ricans’ disgust with their own politicians. According to polls, President Laura Chinchilla is the least popular leader in the Western Hemisphere, which dampens Costa Ricans’ interest in politics, generally. However, the best explanation is that the relationship between Costa Rica and the U.S. has changed fundamentally over the past few decades, making a U.S. presidential visit seem less significant than it used to.
When U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica in March 1963, he arrived to promote the Alliance for Progress. During his visit, huge crowds turned out to hear him speak, with many following him from event to event. Even today, many Costa Ricans remember clearly and speak with excitement about the events of those two days. While Kennedy’s charisma played a role, the United States and its support for Costa Rica’s development also elicited enthusiasm.
Since 1942, when bilateral economic assistance to Costa Rica began, the U.S. government had implemented a low-key, relatively inexpensive but highly effective and popular technical assistance program. In partnership with the Costa Rican government, the project built most of the Inter-American Highway in Costa Rica, supported significant increases in agricultural production, and promoted improvements in public health—notably infrastructure to provide potable water and help build the National Children’s Hospital.
Mexico City residents rarely pay attention to visiting heads of state. Except for foreign flags on light posts along Reforma Avenue and inside Chapultepec Castle, no one really knows, cares or feels the presence of any visiting leader—except when the president of the United States visits.
On his third visit to Mexico, President Obama was courted by Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto. On display was Peña Nieto’s desire to re-set the clock with the U.S. and his administration’s continued focus on the economy. Peña Nieto wants to reverse his predecessor’s policies, which allowed increased cross-border surveillance, and sanctioned an unprecedented increase in technical assistance in a number of important areas, including rule of law, money laundering, and intelligence-sharing. This assistance, I would argue, is valuable and necessary.
President Obama has never had a better partner in Mexico than Enrique Peña Nieto—for both good and bad reasons. Nieto comes from the party that founded Mexico’s institutions and set the country on the international course it’s on today. After 70 years in power, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party–PRI) lost the presidency to the Partido Accion Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) in 2000, and only recently re-took political reigns.
Peña Nieto is a good partner for Obama because Peña Nieto is willing to work across party lines. His first official act was to sign a political pact covering 95 points of interest with the main opposition parties, the PAN and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD). Unlike his predecessor, Peña Nieto is thus far willing to work with all political constituencies on critical issues. This is a plus for the bilateral agenda.
President Obama’s trip one week later: Did it matter? It barely made a splash in the U.S. media, but at a regional and personal level it did. Talk to Brazilians, Chileans or Salvadorans and they appreciate the fact that he went there. Sure, he couldn’t do it with the festive, family-oriented aura that he had hoped, given world events, but it was precisely the frenzied swirl of those events that gave his trip to the region that much more credibility in the region.
For many of us (here I speak not of Latin Americans but Latin Americanists) rooting from the sidelines, his trip meant, “Yes, yes he does care!!!” (Maybe we’re just really needy.)
But the proof now is in what happens next. The personal relationships President Obama developed with Presidents Rousseff, Piñera and Funes are immeasurably important. There may be no tangible, obvious benefits of personal chemistry (speaking at least from a diplomatic standpoint), but these things are important. They allow a president to make a phone call, personally press a position and establish the foundation for the sort of partnership that he talked about.