Marcel Biato, Foreign Policy Advisor to President Lula
The Summit of the Americas, underway in Trinidad and Tobago, is a unique opportunity to reset relations between Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. This is not because the US has elected an eminently able leader, someone open to dialogue and willing to look through the fog of Cold War rhetoric and supremacist hubris at a fast changing world where strength lies in helping to mold the multi-polar world in the making rather than fighting it.
The truly decisive change, slower but no less spectacular, is taking place in Latin America. The most obvious sign is the rise of left-of-center governments bent on making democracy at home more than an empty formulaic slogan.
In contrast to previous crises, Latin America is showing surprising resilience in the face of an economic downturn that has left much of the world economy, including in the advanced North, reeling. The region is determined to preserve the significant advances in poverty reduction and income distribution achieved through prudent economic and financial management. Together with more robust balance of payment numbers, this has meant that the Latin Americans have become more confident about their chances in a highly competitive global economy.
If integration is the name of the game, then it must start at home. Major infrastructure investments have begun to reduce transportation costs, speed up communications and cut energy bills. Only thus will a continent with such enormous energy reserves cease to suffer power failures; only thus will the world’s breadbasket no longer have to see many of its children go hungry.
These profound changes, above all in Latin America’s self image, also challenge traditional US attitudes towards the region. The tectonic shift going on in these relations is best felt in the growing fissure over the issue of Cuba. This island nation maintains a longstanding love-hate relationship with Washington that mirrors the turbulent mix of admiration, envy and fear between the USA and its Latin neighbors.
A more mature relation must be premised on a balanced and secure partnership. Latin America, for its part, is determined to assume full responsibility for bringing peace and prosperity to its region and people. This is the message behind MINUSTAH, as well as the setting up of a South American Defense Council and soon of one dealing with drug trafficking. These initiatives do not seek to isolate the USA, but rather to ensure that South America and eventually the entire region can cooperate with the USA on an even footing on security issues, as well as trade, energy and investment.
Vice President Biden said he had news for the region. The good part was that “things are changing’’ and Washington is now listening. The bad part was that ‘’things are changing’’ and US arrogance would no longer be a pretext for Latin American countries to shirk responsibilities. The fact is that Latin American are increasingly determined to do their part and expect nothing less from the US. President Obama will have a chance to feel this new mood first hand in Trinidad and Tobago.