President Obama’s Trip to Mexico and Costa Rica: What was the Outcome?

In many ways, President Obama’s three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica last week was an effort to redefine the U.S. relationship with the region, particularly with the countries that the United States has the closest ties.

In the run-up to the trip, the president and his staff made no secret that the visit was part of an effort to build on the “traditional agenda” that focuses on security and transnational crime; it remains important but does not define relationships with these countries today.

In many respects the president’s intention was to elevate themes that increasingly define the region and impact U.S. prosperity. In Mexico, this included issues ranging from the bilateral energy relationship to increased academic exchanges. In Costa Rica, energy issues again became a focus of the discussion, as well as efforts to increase the competitiveness of the region on the global stage.

Both stops saw regional citizen security efforts and U.S. assistance as an important point of the discussion as well. Regional leaders also sought to address U.S. drug policy and the administration’s views on current U.S. immigration reform efforts which served as the backdrop to the president’s visit.

Given the diversity of topics discussed during the president’s trip, it’s worth looking at what came out of the visit and whether it helped redefine perceptions of the region here in the United States. Did the president’s trip, and his message, strengthen the argument that developing closer ties with countries in Latin America is a first tier foreign policy objective for the United States?

Q1: How did President Obama’s stop in Mexico highlight the growing importance of a broad U.S.-Mexico relationship?

A1: The president’s bilateral meeting with the Mexican government and speech to Mexican students highlighted the important role that Mexico plays in the U.S. economy, with Mexico the second largest importer of U.S. goods after Canada. One of the chief outcomes of the meetings was the creation of the high-level economic dialogue. The first meeting will likely take place this fall with cabinet-level participation from both governments, including Vice President Biden.

As Ricardo Zuñiga, President Obama’s chief adviser on the region, stated at a recent CSIS discussion, the connections between the U.S. and Mexican economies, and size of bilateral trade, means that dozens of U.S. agencies are involved in various capacities. There are numerous opportunities to streamline the activities of both governments and make regional trade more efficient. At the same time, the dialogue will help both countries better coordinate positions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The trip’s outcome shows that the United States increasingly sees Mexico as one of its most important economic partners globally, not just in the Americas.

Another outcome of the trip exposed one area where both countries could be doing much better: student exchanges. Despite the considerable economic and cultural ties between the two nations, student exchanges are much lower than one would expect. Costa Rica and Argentina receive more students than Mexico and smaller nations with fewer ties to the United States, such as Chile, receive comparable numbers of U.S. students. In a way, this is not surprising—security concerns brought a steep decline beginning in the mid-2000s—but Mexican students studying in the United States have stagnated as well. A recent op-ed in the Miami Herald by Andrés Oppenheimer pointed out that while there are 13,700 Mexican enrolled in U.S. colleges, there are 194,000 Chinese. Surely this needs to change. Greater bilateral academic exchanges can play a pivotal role in enhancing U.S.-Mexico economic and cultural ties and the forum’s creation recognizes the new needs of the bilateral relationship.

Q2: Did the trip accomplish anything in terms of U.S. immigration reform?

A2: The trip provided symbolic support for immigration efforts by the administration. By all reports, the status of U.S. immigration reform was a frequent topic of discussion. And while the president’s trip ostensibly sought to bring attention to the growing U.S. partnership with the region, it also showcases the importance of immigration reform to Mexico and Central American countries. This is not surprising. Roughly one-tenth of Mexico’s population lives in the United States and millions of additional migrants are from Central America, particularly the “northern triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Given that most illegal immigrants in the United States are from the region, regional leaders have a vested interest in how immigration reform efforts play out in the U.S. Congress.

These flows are increasingly becoming a topic of concern. This has brought considerable regional attention to Mexico’s porous southern border and for the need to improve its infrastructure to better manage migrant flows. While U.S immigration reform efforts undoubtedly seek to better manage flows on its southern border, governments from Mexico and Central America will need to play a bigger role in managing flows through their borders if the region is to address the migration issue to the benefit of North and Central America.

Q3: Does the president’s trip represent a shift in strategy for Latin America?

A3: Instead of a shift, the president’s trip is better described as an important step in prioritizing new themes and formulating a contemporary narrative of his policies towards the region. With Chilean President Sebastian Piñera and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala making separate visits to the United States in June, and with Vice President Biden traveling to Colombia, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago in late May, it appears the administration is increasing its activity with the region.

The president’s trip and increased activity, though positive, suggests the administration may still be focused on trips and rhetoric more than transformative action—the jury is still out. At the same CSIS event with Mr. Zuñiga, he noted that the United States would not include Mexico in trade negotiations between the United States and the European Union as the administration does not want to make already difficult negotiations more complex. Yet incorporating NAFTA into negotiations with the EU would construct one of the largest global trade blocs and signal to the region that it is willing to include a Latin American country in a “first tier” initiative along with the countries of the EU. Though the officials charged with the region are exceptional in their quality and competence, their tepid response signals that the administration might not yet realize the full potential of its regional partners.

Bottom line, if the region is going to move into being a “first tier” priority for the United States, trips and talking big won’t be enough, coming through with big initiatives will make the real difference.


Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michael Graybeal, program coordinator with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Carl Meacham