WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump welcomed the president of Panama to the White House on Monday, pointing to the United States' role in the construction of the Panama Canal at the start of his first face-to-face meeting with the Central American leader.
Trump was meeting with Panama President Juan Carlos Varela to discuss organized crime, immigration, fighting drug trafficking along with economic issues. After Trump and first lady Melania Trump escorted Varela and his wife, Lorena Castillo, to the Oval Office, the president quickly noted their historic ties.
"The Panama Canal is doing quite well. I think we did a good job building it, right?" Trump told Varela, who responded, "very good job."
Trump added: "Things are going well in Panama. The relationship is very strong."
Opening in 1914, the Panama Canal was built by the United States between 1904 and 1913 and revolutionized sea traffic travel in the region. The canal was under U.S. control until a 1977 agreement led to its transfer to Panama in 1999. The canal recently expanded its locks as part of a $5.25 billion expansion project.
Trump has worked to strengthen the U.S. border and reduce the flow of migrants at the start of his administration. U.S. officials have pointed to the need for greater stability in Latin America amid drug-fueled violence in the region and the flow of U.S.-bound drugs from Central America.
Varela pointed to the "long relationship" between the U.S. and Panama and said "we face the same challenges in the region. So the idea for this visit is to work closely together." He said he looked forward to working together "very closely with the President Trump administration for the future of the region."
The two leaders were also expected to address unrest in nearby Venezuela, which has been grappling with anti-government protests and calls for new presidential elections amid major inflation, crime and food and medical shortages.