In Latin America, Obama Stresses Partnership

President Obama traveled to Central America this weekend, to Mexico and then to Costa Rica, where he met with other leaders from the region. Host Rachel Martin speaks with Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who attended the meeting.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. President Obama traveled to Central America this past weekend, to Mexico and then to Costa Rica where he met with other leaders from the region. The U.S. relationship with some Central American countries has been difficult at times. There's the long, bloody drug war in Mexico supported in the U.S. And a history of mistrust has developed between the U.S. and Central American countries. Eric Olson was at that meeting. He is the associate director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He joins me on the line from San Jose, Costa Rica. Mr. Olson, thanks very much for being with us.

ERIC OLSON: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Why is the president making this trip now?

OLSON: Well, I think it's early in his second term and he wants to signal the importance of the relationship with Mexico in particular. And Central America is also an area that's been enormously important to the United States over the years. And I think meeting with all the Central American presidents together and encouraging them to take the steps they need to be more effective governments and to partner with the United States was really important.

MARTIN: In Costa Rica, what do people there need to hear from this president?

OLSON: Well, number one, they need to hear that there's a willingness to work with them, that they're not forgotten. The northern part of Central America is now considered the world's most violent area, with homicides at record levels and some of the countries. Drug trafficking is coming in, going through, some of it is staying in these countries. And that local drug market has also become very violent. They're feeling vulnerable and they need U.S. and international support. The same time, I think the message that President Obama wanted to send was, yes, we're committed, yes, we'll partner with you but we need the region to take its own responsibilities, make some hard decisions involved reform, involving economic inclusion and dealing with poverty.

The real underlying question, however, is not whether there's collaboration or not. The question is what are you going to do in the context of that collaboration that's effective? Nobody seems particularly enamored with what's come before. It's resulted in Mexico and about 100,000 people being killed over the last six years. The violence is even worse in Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador. So, people are really searching for new directions to this enormously intractable problem and nobody has presented yet an alternative policy that everybody can agree on.

MARTIN: Eric Olson. He is the associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He joined us on the line from San Jose, Costa Rica. Mr. Olson, thanks so much.

OLSON: Very glad to be with you.

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