Tuesday, March 22, 2011
In Central America, Obama's worries closer to home
AP – U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attend their official state dinner offered
Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press – Tue Mar 22, 3:10 am ET
SANTIAGO, Chile – After days of promoting the international ties that bind, President Barack Obama shifts his Latin American tour to a closer neighbor and the more sensitive U.S. policy interests of immigration, narcotics wars and gun trafficking.
The president pivots Tuesday from stops in Brazil and Chile for El Salvador, where he will meet with President Mauricio Funes. Washington is growing increasingly concerned about rising crime south of the U.S. border, and El Salvador is hardly immune. It has seen murder rates rise amid an influx of drugs and displaced traffickers from crackdowns in Colombia and Mexico.
El Salvador also has one of Central America's highest rates of emigration, especially to the United States. About 2.8 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States sent home $3.5 billion last year, so laws that crack down on immigrants can significantly affect the Salvadoran economy.
Obama can offer little to fix El Salvador's devastating crime and fragile economy. Fiscal pressures have limited the amount of money the federal government can provide as part of its drug-fighting efforts, and congressional politics have made it difficult to restart talks about overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
Before leaving Chile, Obama will have one more face-to-face session with President Sebastian Pinera.
In a broad-ranging speech that spelled out his policy in Latin America, Obama called on the region's rising economies to take more responsibility and play a larger role both in the region and around the globe.
He also described U.S. initiatives in Latin America to help curb the proliferation of drugs. Congress approved $1.8 billion for the so-called Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico. After complaints that Central America was shortchanged, Congress created a separate Central America Regional Security Initiative with a total of $248 million so far. Central American leaders say that has not been enough.
Obama also prodded the region to fight poverty, lauding countries that have pushed more of their population into the middle class.
"We'll never break the grip of the cartels and the gangs unless we also address the social and economic forces that fuel criminality," he said Monday.
Funes, who despite being elected with support from former Marxist guerillas has charted a moderate course in El Salvador, agrees with Obama that all countries in the region need to contribute to a solution.
Some Central American leaders have expressed annoyance that Obama chose to meet with Funes instead of a broader group of Central American leaders. But Latin America policy experts said it was important for Obama to endorse Funes' pragmatic approach despite the leftist inclinations of his party.
Funes said he would raise the issue of security with Obama in regional terms. "Security cannot be seen as exclusively an issue in El Salvador, or Guatemala or Nicaragua," he said recently. "Central American countries all suffer from the same problem."
Obama conceded Monday that the United States also bears a burden when it comes to gun trafficking.
"Every gun or gunrunner that we take off the streets is one less threat to the families and communities of the Americas," he said.
But Obama, in calling for a new discussion on guns, recently declined to endorse the very gun control measures he had supported in the past.