The dream of democracy lives on in the Americas


In 1994, President Clinton invited 34 democratically elected leaders to Miami for the first Summit of the Americas. The summit, which I was honored to help organize, was a milestone in the Western Hemisphere, marking the transition from the bitter divisions of the Cold War to a shared commitment to democracy, free markets and cooperation.

Twenty years later, that consensus is frayed. The inter-American system built on consultation and common purpose is at crossroads. For the United States, the changing landscape raises important questions about our influence in Latin America, where we face competition from within the region and from global rivals such as Russia and China.

The U.S. dilemma is in sharp focus with signs that Panama, which hosts the seventh summit next April, will invite Cuba for the first time. Such an invitation, supported widely in Latin America, would hand President Obama a difficult choice: either to accept Cuba at the table, contrary to principles that have limited the summit to democracies, or sit on the sidelines of a forum that we first convened.

Now is not the time to choose the sidelines. The United States can show strong leadership by setting an agenda that recognizes historic new realities in Latin America. The agenda should include challenging Cuba on human rights. But it should go much further, seizing opportunities across the region to make real progress on jobs, civil liberties, education and trade.

President Obama has taken strides in this direction, as did both Bush presidencies and the Clinton administration. This week in Miami, in anticipation of the Panama summit, President Clinton is marking the 20th anniversary of the original summit by convening working sessions on the future of the Americas that include private- and public-sector leaders.

While the future of the Americas might not loom with the urgency of ISIS or Iran, the region of more than 600 million people is vital to the U.S. economy and security, and it is woven into our culture. Canada and Mexico rank first and third as U.S. trading partners. But the region is not standing still. Recently, three important developments in Latin America illustrate the shifting climate for U.S. engagement.

▪ First, economic growth is fueling greater assertiveness, and reduced dependence on the United States. Per capita GDP in Latin America has increased 30 percent in the last decade, twice the traditional rate. The size of the middle class has doubled in the last 15 years. The percentage of people living in poverty has dropped by one-third. Stronger economies have deepened countries’ determination to act independently and be treated as equals.

▪ Second, Latin American economies are globalized. U.S. exports to the region surpassed $400 billion last year, but the share of Latin American trade to North America has declined. The biggest new customer? China. China is the top trading partner of Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, and of Peru, one of its fastest growing.

▪ Third, ideological movements are seeking to marginalize U.S. influence. Populist leaders in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have pushed for regional institutions that exclude the United States and embrace a broader (and weaker) definition of democracy. Countries that have strengthened democracy and open markets have done more to improve the lives of their citizens. But they do not own the only megaphone.

A contentious mood at the last Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012, featured hostility to U.S. policies on Cuba and drugs. Despite President Obama's laudable efforts to move the summit forward, it ended in deadlock. (An agreement on drugs reflecting a more holistic approach was forged the next year). The sharp divisions led a Brookings Institution report to conclude, “Clearly, what is at stake today is not only the future of the summits, but also the very future of the inter-American system.”

Fortunately, there is still much common ground among our citizens. The most important issues for Latin Americans would sound familiar to any North American: jobs, education, equality, trade, energy, security, health, the environment. With the commodities boom waning and their economies slowing, Latin American leaders have strong incentives to expand trade and integration with the north, which benefits the U.S. economy.

Even before the summit, President Obama can take the lead in defrosting chilly relations with Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff, who last year canceled a visit to Washington, won a difficult re-election battle this fall. She must now unite Brazilians and revive the economy, a matter of mutual interest for the two largest countries in the hemisphere.

On Cuba, the presence of President Raúl Castro at the Panama summit would be a chance for President Obama to shift the spotlight from the legislatively mandated U.S. embargo, which has not achieved its goals in five decades, to Cuba’s status as the hemisphere's true anachronism, an outlier on human rights, democracy, economic progress and technology.

President Obama will find many allies in Panama, not just among heads of state. Latin America’s flourishing civil society, its robust private sector, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations have all grown stronger and more dynamic in the last 20 years. They’ve responded to the key declaration to emerge from the Miami summit, that “for the first time in history, the Americas are a community of democratic societies.”

This remains the most powerful American Dream, north and south.

Mack McLarty was White House chief of staff and Special Envoy for the Americas under President Clinton. He is chairman of McLarty Associates.