- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — Central American leaders will push the U.S. to slow a flood of deportations when Vice President Joe Biden meets with them Monday, promising a “new day for relations” with a region that has felt ignored.

It is the first top-level visit to the Central America by a U.S. official since President Barack Obama took office in January.

“These meetings are a first and important step toward a new day for relations and the development of a partnership between the countries and peoples of the hemisphere,” Biden said in an article published Friday in the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion.

Mexico is receiving most of the U.S. attention to Latin America, with visits from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and even Obama himself, who plans to stop on his way to the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Biden’s trip is an opportunity to reach out to the Americas in the run up to that summit and to “begin to re-energize cooperation in the hemisphere … sending a signal that the U.S. is strongly interested in engaging the region and consulting with the countries in a cooperative way,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the America’s Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Costa Rica is the second stop in Biden’s Latin American tour after a two-day visit to Chile.

Central American leaders agreed Wednesday to push the U.S. to include Guatemalans in a temporary visa program that is already in place for Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans. They also want the U.S. to soften a deportation policy that sent a record 80,000 people back to the region in 2008 alone.

The deportations and U.S. economic downturn have hit the region hard. During the last quarter of 2008, money sent home by Central American migrants living in the U.S. fell 4 percent, compared to the same period a year previous, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Remittances are a major source of foreign revenue for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Before the crisis, the amount of money sent to these countries had been growing steadily every year.

During a visit to Central America last week, Deputy Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Tom Shannon said Biden will work toward securing loans for Central American social projects from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Regional security also will be on the table. The new Merida Initiative sent $400 million to Mexico in counter-narcotics aid, while Central America and the Caribbean are receiving $65 million.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya will not attend the meeting. Neither explained why, but Nicaragua’s relations with Washington have been tense since the U.S. froze $175 million in foreign aid after allegations of fraud in November’s municipal elections. Honduras is a close ally of Nicaragua.

El Salvador’s leftist president-elect, Mauricio Funes, is scheduled to attend the meeting.

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