SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – President Barack Obama’s trip to Latin America had a decidedly domestic feel, with issues such as immigration, energy and education that are in the forefront of U.S. political debate also dominating his talks with regional leaders.
The shared priorities show how closely entwined the U.S. is with its southern neighbors. These ties stem not only from geography, but also from the growing number of Hispanics living in the United States – and their rapidly increasing political power.
“The United States recognizes our fates are tied up with your success,” Obama said Saturday during an economic forum in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital where he wrapped up his three-day trip.
“If you are doing well, we will do better. And if we are doing well, we think your situation improves,” he said.
Obama’s stops in Mexico and Costa Rica marked his first visit to Latin America since winning re-election last November. His second-term victory resulted in part from the overwhelming support he received from Hispanic voters.
The election results have led Republicans to reconsider their opposition to overhauling U.S. immigration laws, and a bipartisan bill is now being considered on Capitol Hill.
The immigration debate is under close watch in Latin America, and Obama was asked often about it. He used the opportunity to address the concerns of Republican lawmakers, who argue that the U.S. must secure its 2,000-mile border with Mexico before offering a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.
Appealing to congressional concerns over spending, Obama said he is looking for ways for Mexico to pick up some of the cost of enforcing security at the border.
“When it comes to borders, they’re shared,” he said. “Are there ways in which we can share some of the costs of continual infrastructure upgrades?”
Obama was greeted warmly in Costa Rica, with crowds gathering along the roads in San Jose to watch his motorcade speed from the economic forum to the airport, where Air Force One waited to take him back to Washington.
Obama’s agenda in Costa Rica included meetings with President Laura Chinchilla and talks with several Central American leaders. The president opened his visit Thursday in Mexico, where he held talks with new President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Throughout his trip, Obama tried to play down the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime that has dominated the U.S. relationship with Latin America for years.
He aimed to recast the relationship as one centered on economic issues, arguing that boosting jobs and growth is a central part of resolving the region’s security issues.
“It’s very hard to create a strong economy when people are personally feeling insecure,” he told an audience of business and community leaders at Saturday’s economic forum.
During a question-and-answer session, Obama was pressed about clean energy and early childhood education, two issues he has been promoting at the start of his second term.
On education, Obama highlighted a proposal from his State of the Union address to significantly expand prekindergarten education, calling it the single most effective way to boost educational outcomes in the U.S.
But the president said he was unsure whether his plan would pass. Republican lawmakers are reluctant to expand the scope of government, and even more resistant to new taxes, such as the nearly $1-per-pack federal tax on cigarettes Obama proposed in his budget this year to pay for the expanded schooling.
“It’s always a struggle to get new revenue for worthy endeavors,” Obama said.
He also pressed for energy cooperation between the U.S. and Central America, which has high energy costs but also substantial renewable energy resources. Companies in the region are among those petitioning the U.S. Department of Energy for exports of U.S. stockpiles of liquefied natural gas.
Federal law requires approval of natural gas exports to countries that have a free-trade agreement with the United States, including Mexico. For countries that do not have such an agreement with the U.S., the department is required to grant applications for export authorizations.
Obama said a decision on the permits would be coming soon, and he urged the two regions to enhance cooperation on technology, infrastructure and expertise needed to advance a long-term transition away from oil and gas.
“If any of us find good answers to renewable energy, that will spread like wildfire and everyone will benefit,” Obama said.
The president’s trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to the region. The influence of Kennedy’s visit still loomed large, with Obama and his counterparts frequently citing the themes Kennedy espoused, including expanding economic opportunity for all people and strengthening ties between governments and the private sector.
“For me to be able to visit 50 years later and to see how much progress has been made both in the region and in the ties between the United States and Central America, I think indicates that President Kennedy’s vision was sound,” Obama said.