Latin leaders hit Obama trip as 'social event'

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets,Barack Obama

Even before he travels to Mexico and Costa Rica later this week, Latin American leaders and experts are shrugging off President Obama's trip as a "photo op" and social visit meant boost his fight for immigration reform at home rather than revive languishing U.S.-Latin relations.

"I think the trip to some extent did catch by surprise many people in Central America. It was welcome news, but at the same time they sort of perceive it as a social event," said Manuel Orozco, a Latin America expert with the authoritative Inter-American Dialogue, said Monday.

"What do they want to achieve?" asked Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica and currently the secretary of political affairs for the Organization of American States. "Quite frankly it's not clear to me. In the case of President Obama, I would posit that it's probably an issue of drumming support for immigration reform," he added.

While the president's team has called the May 2-4 trip a trade and business excursion, it's viewed in Latin America more as a relations-building exercise. Obama last visited the region in June, attending the G-20 summit in Mexico.

"Ultimately all politics is local. It's also a good photo op for some of the presidents in Central America which are in a slightly weak political position in their own countries," said Casas-Zamora at an Inter-American Dialogue conference to preview the trip.

In Mexico, Obama plans to meet with political and business leaders to discuss immigration and trade. At a Central American summit in Costa Rica, drugs and security issues will join economics as the top agenda items. Latin leaders are also likely to push for more security money, but they concede that Congress isn't likely to agree to new spending.

As with other corners of the world, Central and South America had hoped that Obama would build relations but instead the U.S. has for many become a long-distance ally. American support for trade and security issues in Central America, especially Mexico and Colombia, have kept relations cordial, but in South America the U.S. is viewed as "less and less relevant," added expert Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Another Latin diplomat told Secrets, "I just hope his trip isn't another lost opportunity."