Obama: US, Latin America must strengthen economies
By JULIE PACE
AP White House Correspondent
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- Eager to move the conversation beyond drugs and violence, President Barack Obama met with Central American leaders Friday and declared that building stronger economies and greater trade ties will allow nations of the region to offer their residents a better way of life and reduce incentives to support narco-trafficking.
"We have to make sure that everybody feels opportunity," the president declared in a joint news conference with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla. "Even in countries that are doing well, the scourge of drugs and drug-trafficking will still be there. And there still needs to be a strong law enforcement component. But we can do better than we are currently doing. "
The president had sounded a similar message earlier Friday in Mexico, where he cast the nation as ready to take "its rightful place in the world" and move past the drug battles and violence that have defined its relationship with the United States.
The president's three-day visit to Mexico and Costa Rica is his first to Latin America since winning a second presidential term in an election in which he gained the support of Hispanic Americans by a large margin. His trip is being followed with great interest by Hispanics in the U.S. as well as in Mexico, Central America and farther to the south.
In both countries, the president said his talks with leaders focused on how to strengthen the regional economy and build trade ties, adding that the stronger that local economies are and the more opportunities that people have, "the less powerful these narco-trafficking operations are going to be."
The president also spoke hopefully of prospects for immigration reform that he said would be a boon on both sides of the border.
Obama arrived in the capital of San Jose on a rainy afternoon but received a warm welcome from thousands of Costa Ricans who lined the road near the airport. Some waved American flags. Others held homemade signs, including one that said "Fired Up!" -- a reference to his campaign slogan -- in a much more demonstrative welcome than he had received in Mexico.
After meeting with Chinchilla, the president was meeting with leaders of regional Central American Integration system, chaired by the Costa Rican president. The network also includes Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
Central American leaders see drug consumption in the U.S. as a driving factor in their security issues, and many of them want the U.S. to take more responsibility in the fight against drug cartels.
Obama acknowledged the role of U.S. demand for drugs, and his administration has spent $30 billion to reduce demand in recent years. But he acknowledged the U.S. is a "big market" and that "progress is sometimes slower than we'd like it to be."
Obama will speak to business leaders in Costa Rica on Saturday before returning to Washington.
In Mexico, the president tried to set a new course for ties between the U.S. and its southern neighbor, eagerly promoting Mexico's improving economy and its democracy.
"A new Mexico is emerging," Obama told a crowd of young people during a speech at Mexico City's grand National Museum of Anthropology. "Mexico is also taking its rightful place in the world, on the world stage. Mexico is standing up for democracy not just here in Mexico but throughout the hemisphere. Mexico's sharing expertise with neighbors across the Americas. When they face earthquakes or threats to their citizens or go to the polls to cast their votes, Mexico is there helping its neighbors."
Despite Obama's rosy portrayal, Mexico's high poverty rates have barely budged in recent years. Its economy grew by only about a 1 percent rate in the first three months of 2013 and is not creating anywhere near the 1 million jobs annually it needs to employ young Mexicans entering the workforce. Without jobs or opportunities to study, many young people have become easier prey for recruitment by drug cartels.
The president conceded his own country's role in the troubles that have plagued Mexico, acknowledging that most guns used to commit crime in the country come from north of the border. A key cause for Mexico's violence is the demand for illegal drugs in the U.S., Obama said, though he reiterated his opposition to legalization of such drugs, which some Latin American leaders have called for.
Still, the president pressed for the U.S. and Mexico to move beyond the "old stereotypes" of Mexico as a nation consumed by sensational violence and of the U.S. as a nation that seeks to impose itself on Mexico's sovereignty.
"In this relationship, there's no senior partner or junior partner," he said. "We are two equal partners."
The president has a domestic political incentive for trying to change America's perception of Mexico. As Washington debates overhauling the nation's immigration laws, Obama is seeking to convince the public and lawmakers that Mexico no longer poses the illegal immigration threat it once did.
While the prospects for immigration overhaul by Congress remain uncertain, the president said he was optimistic the U.S. will change its patchwork laws this year.
Obama sought to link his push for more economic development in Mexico with the immigration debate, saying, "The long-term solution to the challenge of illegal immigration is a growing and prosperous Mexico that creates more jobs and opportunities for young people here."
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