SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Wrapping up a trip to Central America on Saturday, President Barack Obama sought to put the focus firmly back on his top priority: the economy.
Obama said Saturday that he knows that people in Costa Rica and at home believe that security and immigration are the most important issues between the two regions but that a host of others — early childhood education, clean energy, trade and opportunities for girls and women — can help create jobs in all of the Americas.
"We shouldn't lose sight of the critical importance of trade and commerce and business to the prospects both for Costa Rica, the United States and the entire hemisphere," Obama said.
Obama and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla answered questions at a forum attended by more than 200 business and community leaders. Guatemalan President Otto Fernando Perez Molina and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal also attended.
Obama's three-day trip, which started in Mexico, ended at San Jose's Old Customs House, a large brick warehouse with massive stained glass windows. Spectators gathered outside, snapping photos and waving signs.
In his quick visits to Mexico and Costa Rica, Obama pushed for bolstering economic ties but said he understood the keen interest in a rewrite of the immigration laws in the United States as well as talk about reducing drug and gun crime in Central America.
Obama said more progress is needed on security and called for a sound system for legitimate movement of people, goods and services. He said he was hopeful an immigration bill could pass for the first time in three decades.
Obama met privately with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as well as leaders who comprise a Central American group designed to promote cooperation — they represent Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republican — stressing investments in infrastructure, such as roads and electrical grids, energy and education.
"The United States recognizes that our fate is tied up with your success. We want to be partners," Obama said. "If you're doing well, we'll do better. If we're doing well, we think your situation improves."
Chinchilla said that Obama's trip made her "hopeful" about the future, but that Costa Rica should not expect the United States to finance their proposals.
Last year, the United States sent $437 million to Central America for a variety of programs, including those focused on nutrition, agriculture and eliminating child labor, according to the White House.