On May 2-4, President Barack Obama will carry out a mini-tour of Latin America, in which he will visit Mexico and Costa Rica. During his brief stopover in San Jose, he will take part in a summit of Central American presidents, as part of SICA (the Central American Integration System). Expected topics of discussion between Obama and his Latin American counterparts include immigration, natural disaster relief efforts, and citizen security.
President Obama first met with Mexican PresidentEnrique Peña Nieto(EPN), in late November 2012. Even though EPN was only inaugurated in December 2012, he is expected to fill the region’s leadership void created by the recent passing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (Brazil’s regional hegemony notwithstanding). Mexican presidencies last for six years, so EPN has plenty of time to expand his country’s influence.
During the first months of EPN’s presidency, relations between Mexico City and Washington have remained stable. For example, in March of this year, the U.S. military reached a deal with the Mexican navy in which the latter will receive two decommissioned U.S. frigates. Furthermore, on March 28 Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics William Brownfield declared that during Obama’s stopover in Mexico City, the U.S. leader will likely declare his support for EPN’s strategy to combat drug trafficking. In other words, the Obama-EPN relationship will remain business as usual.
On the subject of trade, the two governments signed the “Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement” (THA) in 2012 (during the presidency of Felipe Calderon). The agreement aims to develop “oil and gas reservoirs that cross the international maritime boundary between the two countries.” Nevertheless, this accord has yet to be ratified by the U.S., and it is unlikely that this will happen before Obama’s trip to Mexico City. It is also worthy to note that the White House is promoting the creation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP’s goal is to create a free trade area between Pacific economic powerhouses (such as México, Perú, and Chile) and countries like Australia and Singapore. President Peña Nieto will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 8 as Tokyo lobbies to join the TPP. It will be interesting to see if EPN discusses the possibility of Japanese membership in this potential trade bloc when he meets with Obama.
One issue to watch out for regarding the Obama-EPN meeting has to do with migration of Mexican citizens to the U.S. Currently the White House, as well as the Democrat and Republican political parties, seem to agree that some kind of progressive immigration reform is needed. Considering that the Mexican citizens that work in the U.S. send money back to their families in Mexico, contributing to the Mexican economy, EPN will likely praise any reform that allows his citizens to legally stay in the U.S.
Costa Rica – SICA
The second stop on Barack Obama’s tour will be Costa Rica, where he will attend a summit with Central American and the Dominican Republic’s heads of state. It is expected that SICA member states will request greater U.S. financial and military cooperation to combat the drug trafficking that is expanding in the region via transnational organizations, such as the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels from Mexico orFARCguerillas from Colombia. The meeting comes soon after the arrest of a major Zeta leader in Nicaragua (along with several of his henchmen), in an operation in which Nicaraguan security forces received Russian assistance. U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Phyllis Power has stated that the U.S. government and DEA see Russian involvement in Central America as “complementary” to their efforts to combat drug trafficking. It will be interesting to see if Obama addresses this issue.
Moreover, the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion published an article on March 28 explaining that the last time a U.S. head of state visited Costa Rica was President Bill Clinton in 1997, while he was promoting the ratification of CAFTA-DR. No particularly critical U.S.-Central America trade accords are currently in the works, but further commercial initiatives are constantly being sought out. For example, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Foreign Commercial Service as well as other federal agencies are organizing a trade delegation that will travel to Costa Rica this upcoming July. The delegation will attend “an Americas focused business conference consisting of regional and industry specific conference sessions as well as pre-arranged consultations with USFCS Commercial Officers.”
It is noteworthy to stress that the SICA summit will take place in Costa Rica, whose President Laura Chinchilla was labeled in 2012 as the most unpopular head of state in Latin America. A successful SICA summit and meeting with Obama would be a huge diplomatic victory for Chinchilla, especially if she secures agreements between the U.S. and Costa Rica. Likewise, it will be interesting to see if, during the meeting, Chinchilla raises the issue of Costa Rica’s territorial dispute with Nicaragua. In regards to this issue, it is uncertain if Barack Obama will meet with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (a faithful Chavez supporter and a U.S. foe during the Cold War). For such a small region, Obama may be walking into a diplomatic mine field.
Placing the Trip In Context
Obama’s upcoming trip to the region will be the first since his re-election last November. There has been concern among Latin American scholars that the region will receive little attention during Obama’s second presidential term. This concern has stemmed from Obama’s lack of a comprehensive policy toward the Western Hemisphere during his first term. Hence, these trips are diplomatically necessary, even more so as they will address regional issues that have a direct effect on U.S. domestic affairs, namely the migration of Latin Americans to the U.S. as well as drug trafficking from South America to the U.S. and Europe, with Central America being utilized as a narco-corridor.
Finally, it is worthy to mention not just the countries that Obama will visit, but the ones he won’t. Namely, the U.S. leader won’t visit Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a key U.S. ally. Likewise, Obama will not pay a visit to rising superstarBrazil(President Dilma Rousseff attended the BRICS nations’ Fifth Summit last month in South Africa).
In any case, for a trip that is scheduled to last only two days, President Obama will have his hands full with a plethora of issues to address.