- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador | Making his first visit to Central America, President Obama brought promises of crime-fighting money and a vow to push the U.S. Congress to pass an immigration bill to aid El Salvador, a once war-torn country that has emerged as a stable democracy and a friendly ally.

In keeping with the other stops on his extended Latin American tour, Mr. Obama held up the tiny nation’s recent peaceful transition between political parties as a model for other nations looking to emerge from chaos or dictatorships.

“There are few better examples of both the opportunities and challenges facing the Americas today than here in El Salvador,” Mr. Obama said at a joint news conference with President Mauricio Funes, whom he commended for overcoming “old divisions” and showing that “progress comes through pragmatism and building consensus.”

Mr. Obama is cutting his visit here short, though, to return to Washington and oversee the U.S.-led effort to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. He held a bilateral meeting with Mr. Funes and attended a state dinner Tuesday night, forgoing a previously scheduled visit to local Mayan ruins on Wednesday.

The leaders unveiled a series of partnerships on issues ranging from climate change to security, with Mr. Obama pledging $200 million in U.S. aid to help Mr. Funes‘ government address the “social and economic forces that drive young people to criminality.”

The president also sought to reassure El Salvador — which has nearly 2 million of its citizens living in the U.S. — that he’s still committed to shepherding comprehensive immigration legislation through Congress, though he acknowledged the politics are tough.

“America is a nation of laws, and it is a nation of immigrants. And so our job is to create secure borders, to make sure that we’ve got a legal immigration system that is effective and is not frustrating for families, doesn’t divide families,” he said, citing declining Republican support for a bill that would lay out a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “My hope is that they begin to recognize over the next year that we can’t solve this problem without taking a broad, comprehensive approach.”

El Salvador was by far the smallest country on Mr. Obama’s itinerary — its population hovers just above 7 million — but regional analysts say his stop there could end up being the most substantive of the trip. Mr. Funes has emerged as a possible interlocutor among other Latin American countries that might not be as friendly toward the U.S.

“I get the sense that President Obama decided that [Mr. Funes will be] his go-to person in Central America,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They probably decided that all the other leaders … are too weak, too corrupt or too controversial.”

Indeed, analysts agree that Mr. Obama’s Latin American tour had to include a visit to a country in Central America, a vital bridge between drug producers in South America and consumers in the United States, and El Salvador represented the most obvious choice.

Anti-Americanism among leaders in Guatemala and Nicaragua and a 2009 coup in Honduras likely ruled out those countries. And with Mr. Obama bearing no good news on a long-stalled free-trade agreement, Panama would have been an awkward option, while the government of Mr. Funes is seen as more in need of shoring up than that of Costa Rica, another U.S. ally.

Some observers were concerned initially that the election in 2009 of Mr. Funes — the first center-left candidate to win office since a truce ended the fighting in 1992 — would spiral the country back into violence. Instead, Mr. Funes, a former TV personality, has been credited with bolstering the nation’s democratic credentials.

“Thirty years ago, we were shooting bullets [at] each other,” said Francisco Altschul, El Salvador’s ambassador to the U.S., at a discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation. “Twenty years ago, we were able to find a political solution to our conflict. The past two years, we have been advancing and consolidating our democratic institutions.”