Southern swing: Obama seeks positive links with Latin America

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President Barack Obama's three-day trip to Latin America last week, the first there in his second term, involved an attempt to reset U.S. relations with at least Mexico and Central American countries from drugs, guns and immigration to economic relations.

His stops included Mexico, which has a new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, and Costa Rica, where he was hosted by President Laura Chinchilla. He also met with leaders of the other Central American Integration System countries, which include Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Mr. Obama announced no new aid to Central America, where U.S. assistance since 2008 has been $496 million.

The most important stop on his trip was Mexico. Not only is it crucial for a U.S. president to have good relations with the Mexican president, but Mr. Obama also sees immigration reform as a centerpiece of his second term. That means that the complex, multifaceted relations between the United States and Mexico have domestic political implications. These include drugs making their way to the United States across the border and U.S. guns crossing it the other way, but also the fate of at least half of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States who are believed to be Mexican citizens. Their future is an important element in American domestic wrangling over an eventual immigration bill.

In addition, Hispanic-Americans, the highest percentage of whom are of Mexican origin, voted in large part for Mr. Obama in 2012.

The nature of Mexican cooperation with the United States in drug and security matters is also a high-priority controversy for the new Mexican president. Mr. Nieto wants all coordination involving the two countries to take place through the Mexican Interior Ministry; in the past, many institutions of both governments were involved, which resulted, he believes, in inefficiency and corruption.

During his visit Mr. Obama stressed the bright prospects in the economic side of U.S.-Mexican relations. It cannot be said that the previous U.S. emphasis on drugs, guns and security has brought much in the way of positive results for either country.

Yet the United States is Mexico's largest trading partner, and Mexico is the United States' third largest, after Canada and China. Mr. Obama is correct to see what he and Mr. Nieto can do to build on that strong foundation.

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