U.S. President Barack Obama has returned to Washington after a brief trip to Mexico and Costa Rica. During his trip to San Jose, he attended a meeting with the Central American heads of state. The trip, the first to the region after the U.S. leader was reelected last November, occurred with lots of fanfare, but very little to show for it.
Even though no pressing agreements were reached, Obama’s trip cannot be cataloged as a failure, since hereceived support from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto(EPN) for his proposals for immigration reform. Moreover, the trip to San Jose ended without any official declaration among the attending heads of state.
Obama’s first stop on his mini tour of Latin America was Mexico, where he met with President EPN. The last time the two leaders met was in November 2012 when EPN traveled to Washington after winning his country’s July 2012 presidential election. The list of issues that were addressed, both publicly and behind closed doors, were fairly predictable. The two governments discussed increasing trade, energy deals, security issues, and immigration reform. Unfortunately for Obama, he did not go to Mexico with the U.S. Congress having ratified a2012 hydrocarbons agreement.If he had done so, this would have been a crucial diplomatic victory, demonstrating Obama’s commitment to strengthening ties with Mexico under the EPN government.
On the other hand, EPN declared his support for Obama’s proposed immigration reform, which would provide undocumented immigrants the opportunity to legalize their status in the United States. The Mexican president’s public support for his U.S. counterpart’s plan is a diplomatic victory for the White House, even though it does not have any political weight (i.e. EPN cannot vote in Obama’s favor in the U.S. congress),.
Finally, it is unsurprising that Obama made frequent reference to trade between the two countries, stating that “we are your largest customer buying the vast majority of Mexican exports. Mexico is the second largest market for U.S. exports.” The United States and Mexico, not just the governments but industries and population in general, are joined at the hip due to increasingly close ties between them, particularly after NAFTA came into effect two decades ago. If nothing else, the latest meetings between Obama and EPN show that any future bilateral relations will essentially be “business as usual.” We should keep in mind that Mexican presidencies last six years, which means that EPN will be in power throughout all of Obama’s second tenure as well as two years into the next U.S. president’s term. Hence, reassurances of stability (and even predictability) in bilateral ties are always a positive development.
Central America: Sizzle but no Steak?
As for Central America, Obama traveled to meet with regional heads of state, the first trip of a U.S. president to San Jose since President Bill Clinton. What may be most noteworthy about this stopover is what did not happen, namely the lack of an official resolution or agreement, there was no “Declaration of San Jose,” that the attending regional heads of state agreed upon. Nevertheless, the U.S. leader held plenty of meetings including one with some 200 Central American businessmen. Interestingly, one issue that was raised was theenergy sector in Central America. The Costa Rican government reportedly wants the United States to sell it natural gas at a “precio domestico” (household prices, meaning cheaper), while President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama also lobbied for the use clean energy. Unsurprisingly, Martinelli also wants Washington to sell its natural gas at more competitive prices.
Arguably, the big winner of Obama’s trip to Central America was Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who received a boost by organizing a generally successful, or at least unproblematic, summit. Obama certainly did her popularity a favor by stating that Costa Rica is a country that is ready to join the “club of rich countries.” Nevertheless, the Costa Rican media quickly put such praise in a more sober manner, stating that Washington may eventually support a Costa Rican candidacy for membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); however, this will not happen yet, and maybe not even during Chinchilla’s presidential tenure.
Probably because Latin America has received so little attention during the first Obama presidency, there were unrealistic expectations of the issues that the U.S. leader could, or should have, addressed while in Latin America. Such expectations included Obama discussing the future of the embargo on Cuba, the closure of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, or maybe even a word about the trial of former Guatemalan strongman,Efrain Rios Montt.
In addition, President Obama did not, at least publicly, discuss the outcome of the April 14 elections in Venezuela and the controversial victory of President Nicolas Maduro. The U.S. government has been reluctant to recognize Maduro’s victory, while close friends of the late Hugo Chavez, such as Bolivian President Evo Morales, have declared that they were “convinced” that Washington wanted to stage a coup in Venezuela to overthrow Maduro. Speaking of Bolivia, President Morales also recently closed theUSAID office in Bolivia, an issue that was also not publicly mentioned by Obama.
Nevertheless, Obama did take a moment to say that it was “ridiculous” to think that U.S. citizen Timothy Tracy, who was recently arrested in Venezuela, was a spy for the U.S. government. Caracas has accused Tracy of encouraging protests by students after the April elections. Unsurprisingly, Maduro responded to Obama’s statements in a very Chavez-esque way, declaring that, “there’s now no doubt that Obama himself, as the puppet of that imperial power, is behind the financing in dollars of this right wing that wants to mess with and destroy Venezuela’s democracy.” It is debatable if the latest divide between Caracas and Washington will grow in the comings weeks. Nevertheless, it seems that any hope there was that a post-Chavez Venezuela would signal improved relations with Washington, now appears to be quickly disappearing.