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Obama quits El Salvador, wraps up Latin America trip

March 23, 2011

SAN SALVADOR – President Barack Obama departed El Salvador on Wednesday morning, wrapping up a five-day, three-nation Latin America trip meant to turn the page on troubled US relations with the region and usher in a new era of partnership.

The trip, shortened a couple of hours by Obama’s last minute conference with aides about US military operations in Libya, saw the US leader sign trade and open skies deals with Brazil, education and nuclear-cooperation agreements with Chile, and security agreements with El Salvador.

And during a major address Monday, the US leader acknowledged the region’s growing economic and political importance, telling an audience in Chile that Latin America had become “more important to the prosperity and security of the United States than ever before.”

On his last stop in El Salvador, Obama said Tuesday that he remains committed to reforming US immigration policies and pledged to help keep the tiny Central American country on a path of development.

Over the past few decades millions of Salvadorans have immigrated to the United States some fleeing war and political repression, others seeking to improve their economic situation.

The visit to the violence-wracked Central American nation was overshadowed by the conflict with Libya, and Obama trimmed his schedule for Wednesday to hold a morning teleconference with his national security advisers.

US officials said the scheduling change meant he had to miss an outing to a Mayan ruin with First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia.

On Tuesday he held talks with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, a leftist who welcomed him to the country where the United States was once enmeshed in a brutal civil war.

El Salvador depends heavily on remittances from more than two million Salvadorans — about a third of the population — who have emigrated to the United States.

It is also struggling to cope with gangs that have made it one of world’s most violent countries.

Obama praised Funes for investing in education, rural development and infrastructure, and for his efforts to build political consensus in a historically divided society.

“As El Salvador’s largest trading partner, we’ll help identify reforms that can mobilize private investment, increase trade, and create opportunities for the Salvadoran people,” Obama said.

He announced plans for a $200 million regional security program to help countries in the region strengthen their courts and other institutions that foster the rule of law.

Obama said he remains “firmly committed to comprehensive immigration reform” that would give undocumented immigrants in the United States a path to legality while strengthening border controls.

Despite some political pushback from opposition Republicans, “I am confident that ultimately we are going to get it done,” he said.
El Salvador was devastated by civil war from 1980-1992 in which 75,000 people were killed. A US-backed right-wing government and military fought a leftist insurgency that produced the leaders now in elected office.

The tiny Central American country has emerged from civil war, but still is among the world’s most dangerous.

Ahead of his arrival here, large numbers of heavily armed police and soldiers were deployed around the presidential palace in El Salvador and near the hotel where he stayed.

Obama late Tuesday also visited the tomb of slain archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whom he called “an inspiration to people all around the world.”

Romero’s assassination in 1980 — while celebrating Sunday mass — ignited the civil war pitting the left against the country’s right-wing elites.

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