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Costa Rica's Arias wowed by US president who actually listens

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias sounded content Sunday following the morning meeting between fellow heads of state from Central America and the Dominican Republic and U.S. President Barack Obama.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Costa Rican President Osar Arias (R) at the Sunday meeting of leaders from Central America. (photo courtesy of the Costa Rican government press office)

Arias poured out his satisfaction in words that almost seemed fit for a happy customer’s testimonial on the White House’s homepage.

“Now there’s a different president in Washington, a president who listens, who wants to learn,” said Arias, who again had a coveted seat near Obama during the meeting just as he had during the broader Americas summit.

“Without a doubt we have big expectations that relations between the United States and Latin America, and particularly with Central America, will be stronger, where at least we’re always going to be heard … (without) impositions, but rather everything achieved will be done through respectful dialogue,” Arias said, according to a press release from his office issued shortly after the conference.

To Costa Rica's delight, Obama gave special mention to this "small country" following the meeting. "We recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them," Obama said, according to Associated Press. The fact that an idea comes "from a small country, like Costa Rica," should not diminish its benefit, he added.

In addition to Arias and open-eared Obama, the post-summit meeting welcomed leaders from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and El Salvador — a group known by the Spanish acronym SICA, which stands for the Central American Integration System. Issues discussed during the U.S.-SICA sit-down included immigration, the global economic crisis and drug- and weapons-trafficking.

Obama said the U.S. is committed to being an “effective partner,” the newswire UPI reported, citing a White House statement. The president spoke positively about dealing directly with a regional group rather than the whole Organization of the Americas. It’s “more difficult,” he said, to get down to regional issues at a summit of more than 30 nations. "So this gives me an opportunity to hear more directly about both challenges and opportunities in the region," Obama said.

However, the region the U.S. met with today may not be the unified bloc SICA’s founders had envisioned.

Political alliances like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s coziness with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez tend to eclipse any semblance of a unified bloc in Central America, said Constantino Urcuyo, of the Center of Political and Administrative Research, a San Jose think tank. The region’s division was recently evidenced when Nicaragua walked out of the drawn-out Central America-EU trade association talks. Costa Rica’s role this weekend, according to Urcuyo, was to stand behind what he described as the “progressive democratic left” — nations like Brazil, Chile and Uruguay — to pose a counterweight to outspoken leaders like Ortega, Chávez and members of a further left leaning — and U.S.-bashing — trade bloc known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

The need for U.S. immigration law reform, however, is an issue SICA states seem to agree on. With migrant laborers in the U.S. facing police raids and possible deportation, this poses a threat to the many families in Central America whose remittances from U.S. migrants provide an essential source for their daily bread. The total amount of money being sent home from Latino laborers up north is expected to shrink for the first time since the Inter-American Development Bank began taking count in 2000.

The drug war was also on their minds.

With hard-fist policies in place in Colombia and Mexico, Central American countries are concerned about increased drug- and weapons-trafficking on their shores including Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Arias told reporters Central American leaders urged Obama to pay closer attention and higher funds toward fighting drug mafias.

“It was indicated that what the United States is putting toward combating drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America is what it spends in just a day in Iraq, which makes it very clear that with this amount of money we won’t be successful in defeating these criminals,” he said.