Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 10:32 UK

US eyes new Central America ties

US Vice President Joe Biden speaking in Costa Rica
Mr Biden indicated the US is ready to listen to its neighbours

The US is seeking new relations with Central America based on "mutual respect", Vice President Joe Biden has told the region's leaders.

Mr Biden was speaking in the Costa Rican capital, San Jose, on the first visit to Central America by a senior member of the Obama administration.

Among the issues discussed were the economic downturn and immigration.

An estimated 12 million immigrants live illegally in the US, many from Mexico and Central America.

Mr Biden indicated that his one-day visit was aimed at heralding a fresh start to ties between Washington and Central America based on mutual respect.

"We are not putting together a policy for the hemisphere," he said. "We are putting together a policy with the hemisphere."

Correspondents say Central American leaders felt largely ignored by the Bush administration. They are now keen to see an easing of the number of deportations of their nationals who are illegally in the US.

Some 80,000 people were sent back to Central America in 2008, adding to the strain of the region's economies which are heavily dependent on trade with the US and on remittances.

Mr Biden said Central America must be patient while the US government addresses immigration reform amid the economic downturn.

A Cuban man sits in front of a large Cuban flag
The embargo on Cuba is set to be raised at the Summit of the Americas

"It's a difficult time to tell a constituency while unemployment is rising, they're losing their jobs and their homes, that what we should do is in fact legalise (illegal immigrants) and stop all deportation," Mr Biden told a news conference in San Jose.

"We believe, the president and I, that this problem can only be solved in the context of an overall immigration reform."

On Cuba, Mr Biden reiterated that Washington would need a "firm commitment" from Cuba that it is moving towards democracy and respect for human rights before the US embargo on the island would be lifted.

But he suggested this did not mean tensions could not be eased.

"Over the next decade, there are likely to be and need to be changes in the relationship with Cuba and the United States,'' he said

"President Obama and I campaigned on a platform that said we are willing to reach out, and I think you will see us reach out," he said.

Latin American leaders are expected to renew calls for an end to the US embargo at next month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, which President Obama is due to attend.

The Costa Rica meeting brought together Mr Biden, the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama, representatives from Honduras and Nicaragua and the prime minister of Belize.

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