SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — President Obama on Friday cast Mexico as a nation ready to take ‘‘its rightful place in the world’’ and move past the drug battles and violence that have defined its relationship with the United States. He then headed to Costa Rica to prod Central American leaders to tackle those same issues more aggressively.
Obama’s three-day visit to Mexico and Costa Rica is his first to Latin America since winning a second presidential term in an election in which he gained the support of Hispanic Americans by a large margin. His trip is being followed with great interest by Hispanics in the United States as well as in Mexico, Central America, and farther to the south.
In Mexico in particular, he tried to set a new course for ties between the United States and its southern neighbor, eagerly promoting Mexico’s improving economy and its democracy.
‘‘A new Mexico is emerging,’’ Obama told a crowd of young people during a speech at Mexico City’s grand National Museum of Anthropology. ‘‘Mexico is also taking its rightful place in the world, on the world stage. Mexico is standing up for democracy not just here in Mexico but throughout the hemisphere. Mexico’s sharing expertise with neighbors across the Americas. When they face earthquakes, or threats to their citizens, or go to the polls to cast their votes, Mexico is there helping its neighbors.’’
Despite Obama’s rosy portrayal, Mexico’s high poverty rates have barely budged in recent years. Its economy grew by only about a 1 percent rate in the first three months of 2013 and is not creating anywhere near the 1 million jobs annually it needs to employ young Mexicans entering the workforce. Without jobs or opportunities to study, many young people have become easier prey for recruitment by drug cartels.
The president conceded his own country’s role in the troubles that have plagued Mexico, acknowledging that most guns used to commit crime in the country come from north of the border. A key cause for Mexico’s violence is the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, Obama said, though he reiterated his opposition to legalization of such drugs, which some Latin American leaders have urged.
Still, Obama pressed for the United States and Mexico to move beyond the ‘‘old stereotypes’’ of Mexico as a nation consumed by sensational violence and of the United States as a nation that seeks to impose itself on Mexico’s sovereignty.
‘‘In this relationship, there’s no senior partner or junior partner,’’ he said. ‘‘We are two equal partners.’’
The president has a domestic political incentive for trying to change America’s perception of Mexico. As Washington debates overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, Obama wants to convince the public and lawmakers that Mexico no longer poses the illegal immigration threat it once did.
While the prospects for immigration reform by Congress remain uncertain, the president indicated that he was optimistic the United States will change its patchwork laws this year.