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Obama in Costa Rica: Seeking Consensus Among Central America’s Leaders

Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla speaks during celebrations of Independence Day, in Cartago (REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate).

Editor’s note: In the second of a three-part series on Obama’s trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, Diana Negroponte outlines the challenges President Obama will face in seeking consensus among Central America’s leaders. Negroponte reviewed what is at stake for the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship on May 1. She will preview Obama’s visit with Central American business leaders on May 3.

On May 3 and 4, President Obama has two meetings with Central American political and business leaders in San Jose, Costa Rica. The first meeting is with the seven Central American presidents plus President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic (DR). Developing consensus among the eight leaders on both the agenda and the desired goals is difficult and a watered down consensus document is likely to emerge, which will disappoint all participants.

The basis for skepticism regarding this meeting is the disparate objectives of the eight leaders. Although the overt purpose is for the Central American and DR leaders to engage with the U.S. president under the auspices of the Central American Integration System (Sistema de Integración Inter-Americana or SICA), that multilateral organization relies upon the political will of the member states to implement their far reaching plans. Despite its foundation in 1991, SICA faces a continual challenge to harmonize its regional plans. In the absence of a common Central American plan of action to which all nations have committed resources and political will, the individual presidents will seek to pursue their own national goals:

  • El Salvador will seek faster disbursement of U.S. government funds appropriated under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI);
  • Guatemala will ask for additional numbers for permanent non-agricultural EB-3 workers;
  • Honduras seeks additional funds for addressing extreme poverty;
  • Belize seeks additional funds with which to combat emerging youth gangs, as well as assistance in monitoring its intricate coastline and dense forests;
  • Nicaragua will focus on investment in its major infrastructure projects;
  • The Dominican Republic will focus on immigration issues for its citizens within the 2013 Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S744)
  • Panama seeks further training in counteracting money laundering; and
  • Host Costa Rica will focus on strategic policies for the region, as well as investment in green energy.

All these countries seek to confirm their commercial and political ties with Washington in the face of growing instability in Venezuela. The task is to harmonize these distinct objectives into a single agenda; a most challenging enterprise.

President Obama does not come to this summit empty handed. His government has a successful track record since CARSI was founded in 2008. To date $496.5 million has been appropriated for security and violence prevention projects in Central America. (The Dominican Republic participates in a separate security program for the Caribbean nations.) In FY 2012, the State Department requested $100 million for CARSI, but succeeded in raising that sum to $135 million thanks to the recognition that Central Americas’ problems were serious and impacted the United States. This year, State requested $107.5 million but, after a full review of projects, expects that amount to rise to between $150 and $160 million. In addition, USAID has received $146 million between FY2008 to FY2013, and in FY2012 alone, USAID implemented projects worth $50 million.

The U.S. Congress has agreed with State that Central America is geographically caught in the transshipment corridor between cocaine producers in South America and the North American market. Until such time as the nations of Central American – in particular the three northern nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – strengthen their rule of law and law enforcement institutions, they will remain vulnerable to drug traffickers and international criminal organizations. Belize, a nation of 350,000 people is also affected by smugglers who use the coastal bays and forest tracks to transport drugs, people and wildlife to the U.S and European markets.

Beyond overall dollar figures, President Obama must demonstrate the impact of CARSI, as well as USAID projects. Since 2008, USAID has committed $132 million to support justice sector reform, municipal crime prevention and services for at-risk youth. In FY 2012, USAID implemented $46.5 million in projects to support social prevention and citizen security. These included working with local mayors and stakeholders in Central American municipalities to develop their own crime prevention plans. Also, outreach centers have emerged in high-risk communities to provide vocational training for at-risk youth. Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Guillermo Céspedes is working in El Salvador to adapt Los Angeles’ Youth Services Eligibility Tool (YSET) to the context of this and, in future, other countries of the region. The intent is to show a decrease in the number of youth joining the gangs and an increase in the number who stay in school, or join technical training programs. Measuring success can be subjective, but Vanderbilt University’s three-year impact evaluation study has demonstrated -- at its mid-point -- lower crime rates and improved public perception of security in communities receiving USAID programs.

In addition to sharing the positive news of U.S investments in law enforcement and socio-economic projects, Obama will have to listen to complaints. This is a tiresome exercise, but it fulfills the cultural need of national leaders in Central America to articulate their demands before the U.S. president. We must hope that the chair will limit the time allotted to each Central American leader, but Obama must recognize that each leader is writing the headline in his or her national media. Should the meeting be off the record, we can expect less public pontification, but equal quantity of gripe about unmet needs.

So how does President Obama emerge from the meeting with a constructive way forward? He has listened, he will digest and he will seek ways to accommodate through current legislative debate on immigration and maybe on gun control. He can seek to increase CARSI funds from the requested $107.5 million, but he should ask the recipients to share effectively in implementing the projects and measuring impact. He might also ask them to contribute a larger amount of tax revenue to education, skills training and housing programs. The United States can assist the Central American nations in responding to public security threats, but the prime responsibility for strengthening democratic institutions must lie with the nations themselves. The hegemonic age is over and the people of Central America and the DR have the capacity to strengthen the rule of law through regional and national efforts. SICA is the vehicle through which they constructed regional plans. With the roadmap in place, it is now up to each nation to implement the programs. 

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