Washington (dpa) - President Barack Obama is to travel this
week to a Latin America that Washington no longer sees as just a
source of trouble with drug trafficking and other security issues.
Now, the United States sees its southern neighbours also as a region that offers generous, and growing, opportunities for trade and economic exchange.
As Obama travels to Mexico and Costa Rica on a three-day trip starting Thursday, the White House has made it clear that security and the fight against the drug gangs will remain at the top of the agenda - but that economic and commercial issues are to have pride of place too.
"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 borders," Obama said of Mexico.
Faced with a US economy that remains sluggish in its effort to recover from crisis and create jobs, a region like Latin America, expected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to grow by 3.4 per cent overall this year, is an attractive market.
It is also one that is very close to the United States - and Washington is keen to avoid Chinese influence growing even more in the area it still considers its "back yard."
When he Met with Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama had given him clear instructions to expand the agenda between the two countries.
"President Obama has asked me to focus on how we can strengthen our economic partnerships in Latin America and Central America," Kerry said.
"We don't want to define this relationship with Mexico or with other countries in the context of security or, you know, counter-narcotics traffic. We want to define it much larger in the context of our citizens' economic needs and our capacity to do more on the economic front," Kerry said.
The words were well received in Mexico, which has a new government and a new party in power. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December, has been keen to distance himself from the war that his predecessor Felipe Calderon declared on the drug gangs - at a cost of more than 60,000 lives during his six-year mandate.
As Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong put it in Washington, Mexico seeks ties among "equals" with its northern neighbour, based on a simple premise: "Mexico needs the United States, but the United States also needs Mexico."
Despite the mutual interest in broadening the agenda, however, security will remain ever-present, according to Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.
"It is not surprising that Pena Nieto wants to change the narrative that dominated the Calderon period. But reality matters, and if the security situation does not improve, it will not be possible to put it under the rug," Shifter told dpa.
"Obama will agree to tout the economic message but will also convey that progress needs to be made on the security front," the expert said.
Obama will be able to take to Mexico and Costa Rica - as a trophy or at least a promising gesture - recent progress on immigration reform, a long-time demand from Latin Americans and the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
However, no matter how welcome US efforts on immigration and investment are, Central American leaders who are to meet with Obama in Costa Rica have already made it clear that they expect more from Washington, particularly regarding security and the fight against the drug trade.
"We agree that as long as the main consumer market for drugs (the United States) does not get more involved, the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime will not be enough, nor will it deliver the results we hope for," Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes said in Washington earlier this month.
A likely bone of contention is the change of "focus" in the anti-drug strategy that Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla is expected to demand on behalf of the whole of Central America.
Obama last saw all his Central American peers together last year, at the Summit of the Americas in the Colombian city of Cartagena. At the time, he managed to shake off the pressure by saying he was willing to discuss the option of legalizing some drugs, without further commitments.
According to Shifter, that will no longer be enough.
"Obama will have to go further and commit the United States to engaging in a serious search for alternatives to a policy that has not worked and that is contributing to deepening insecurity in Central America," he said.
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