SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Wrapping up a three-day trip to Latin America, President Barack Obama on Saturday emphasized the "enormous importance" he says the U.S. places on its trading relationships with countries in the region and said improving those ties will help them compete in a 21st century world.
"If we do not have effective integration in our hemisphere, if we don't have the best education systems, the best regulatory systems, if we don't coordinate our activities, then we're going to fall behind other regions in the world," Obama said. "I'm confident that we can compete."
"When you look at the scale of business that's being done currently, it's creating jobs in the United States, it's creating jobs here," said Obama, who stressed trade and economic issues during his day and a half each in Mexico and Costa Rica. "What we want to do is to continue to find ways to enhance that relationship," get ideas and improve and foster small-business development.
"We now live in a very competitive 21st century world," Obama said at a forum on economic growth and development that was organized by INCAE, a prominent business school in Costa Rica, and the Inter-American Development Bank.
In addition to its economic aims, the trip — Obama's first to the region since winning re-election — served as a nod to the vast Hispanic population back home, which heavily supported Obama in the 2012 election and which retains strong family and cultural ties to Latin America.
In his radio and Internet address released Saturday, Obama also made the case that deepening economic ties with the Americas will mean more jobs in the United States, where the economy continues its slow recovery from the worst downturn since the 1930s.
"One of the best ways to grow our economy is to sell more goods and services made in America to the rest of the world," Obama said in the address. "That includes our neighbors to the south."
At the forum, Obama also discussed the benefits of early childhood education and investments in renewable energy during a brief question-and-answer session with some of the business leaders, students and civil society leaders in the audience.
Asked twice about education, Obama pointed to his proposal to significantly expand pre-kindergarten education, calling it the single most effective way to boost educational outcomes in the U.S., despite the dual challenges of paying for it and ensuring high-quality programs.
Obama included a nearly $1-per-pack federal tax on cigarettes to pay for expanded pre-K in the budget proposal he sent Congress last month, but told the forum he wasn't sure whether it would pass. Republicans in Congress are resistant to new taxes and to expanding the scope of government.
Energy was another area Obama said was ripe for cooperation between the U.S. and Central America, which has high energy costs but also substantial renewable energy resources. He alluded to decisions facing his administration about whether to allow U.S. natural gas to be exported to countries that don't have free-trade agreements with the U.S. He urged the enhanced cooperation on technology, infrastructure and the expertise needed to advance a long-term transition from oil and gas to renewable sources of energy.
"If any of us find good answers to renewable energy, that will spread like wild fire, and everybody will ultimately benefit," Obama said.
Another recurring theme during the trip was the U.S. effort to overhaul its immigration laws, an issue of intense interest among Latinos in the United States, including those who voted to give Obama a second term, as well as those in Mexico and Central America.
The vast majority of the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. are from Latin America, about 6 million of them from Mexico alone. Obama supports legislation that would give those immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship and he told Univision in an interview aired Friday that he would not sign a bill that did not provide such a pathway. Republicans are demanding greater border security.
"The truth is, right now, our border with Mexico is more secure than it's been in years," he said in the radio address. "We've put more boots on that border than at any time in our history, and illegal crossings are down by nearly 80 percent from their peak in 2000."
The immigration legislation should be a compromise, he said, "which means that nobody got everything they wanted — including me."
Even as he tried to stay focused on economics and immigration, Obama couldn't escape the issue of drugs and violence wracking the region. He said Friday that the U.S. and Latin America share "common effects and common responsibilities" for the troubles and argued to his dinner companions that his country is suffering from the drug epidemic as well.
"If you go to my hometown of Chicago, and you go to some neighborhoods, they're just as violent, if not more violent than some of the countries at this table — in part because of the pernicious influence of the drug trade," he said.
Drug-fueled violence remains an undeniable part of daily life in many parts of the region. Costa Rica has fared better than many of its neighbors, but it worries about spillover from nearby countries. Honduras, for example, now has the highest homicide rate in the world, with about 7,200 people murdered last year in the tiny nation of 8 million people, most in drug-related crime.
Obama acknowledged the role of U.S. demand for drugs and said his administration has spent $30 billion to reduce demand in recent years. But he acknowledged that the United States remains a "big market" and that "progress is sometimes slower than we'd like it to be."
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He has argued that economic prosperity is the best antidote to drug and gang violence and, by extension, to the illegal immigration the U.S. is seeking to control.
In the Republican's address Saturday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory argued that Washington should learn from Republican governors how to make government work efficiently. He said governors need Washington to give states more flexibility, independence and accountability, and called on Obama to show more leadership.
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