By Anita Kumar McClatchy Washington Bureau
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Wrapping up a trip to Central America Saturday, President Barack Obama sought to put the focus firmly back on his top priority: the economy.
Obama said Saturday that he knows that people in Costa Rica and at home believe that security and immigration are the most important issues between the two regions but that a host of others – early childhood education, clean energy, trade and opportunities for girls and women – can help create jobs in all of the Americas.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of the critical importance of trade and commerce and business to the prospects both for Costa Rica, the United States, and the entire hemisphere,” Obama said.
Obama and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla answered questions at a forum attended by more than 200 business and community leaders. Guatemalan President Otto Fernando Perez Molina and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal also attended.
Obama’s three-day trip, which started in Mexico, ended at San Jose’s Old Customs House, a large brick warehouse with massive stained glass windows. Spectators gathered outside, snapping photos and waving signs. “Proud to have you Mr. Obama,” read one.
Seated on a stage with Chinchilla, Obama joked that his first trip to the tiny Central American nation known for its rainforests was so enjoyable that he would return soon. “I’ve already been scouting out where I’m going to stay when I come back here for vacation,” he said.
In his quick visits to Mexico and Costa Rica, Obama pushed for bolstering economic ties but said he understood the keen interest in a rewrite of the immigration laws in the United States as well as talk about reducing drug and gun crime in Central America.
Obama said “more progress” is needed on security and called for a “sound system” for “legitimate” movement of people, goods and services. He said he was hopeful an immigration bill could pass for the first time in three decades.
“You can’t separate out the dangers or challenges or concerns of a border from the enormous opportunities that a well-managed border represents,” he said.
Obama met privately with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as well as leaders who comprise a Central American group designed to promote cooperation – they represent Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republican – stressing investments in infrastructure, such as roads and electrical grids, energy and education.
“The United States recognizes that our fate is tied up with your success. We want to be partners,” Obama said. “If you’re doing well, we’ll do better. If we’re doing well, we think your situation improves.”
Chinchilla said Obama’s trip made her “hopeful” about the future, but that Costa Rica should not expect the United States to finance their proposals. “We cannot assume nor have the moral authority to ask Americans,” she said.
Last year, the United States sent $437 million to Central America for a variety of programs, including those focused on nutrition, agriculture and eliminating child labor, according to the White House.
The United States is Costa Rica’s most important trading partner, accounting for almost half of Costa Rica’s exports, imports and tourism and more than half of its foreign direct investment.
Saturday’s forum was organized by the Inter-American Development Bank and INCAE, a top Costa Rican business school founded nearly five decades ago following President John F. Kennedy’s trip to Costa Rica in 1963.
“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.
Although several U.S. presidents have visited Costa Rica, INCAE President Arturo Condo said Obama is the first to address a private-sector forum.
Obama urged Central Americans to provide opportunities for women – education for girls in particular – and stressed the need for early education in both regions.
“We don’t have the kind of early childhood education system that I think we should have,” he said of the United States. “We’re not where I want us to be.”
Obama also said leaders of Central America are focused on energy, living where electricity may cost three times as much as in the U.S.
“We have a common goal of creating more renewable energy sources,” he said. “It’s my view that if any of us find good answers to renewable energy, that will spread like wildfire and everybody will ultimately benefit. It almost doesn’t matter where the innovations occur because they’ll be readily transferable around the world.”