A new vision for the Summit of the Americas

April 15, 2009

— Jeffrey W. Rubin is professor of history and a research associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University, where he directs the Enduring Reform Project. Emma Sokoloff-Rubin is a Yale undergraduate and an associate editor of The Yale Globalist. The views expressed are their own. —

As leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies debated stimulus packages and financial regulation at the G20 in London in early April, policemen kept at bay protesters’ calls for attention to inequality, hunger, climate change, and human rights. The leaders talked economic shop as the protesters demanded new visions — and the disconnect did not offer much hope for addressing the ravages of crisis worldwide.

The Summit of the Americas this week is where leaders could link the issues discussed in G20 meetings to the concerns of citizens protesting outside. The Summit brings together the largest regional group of democratically elected, progressive leaders in the world today. By adopting a broader view than that taken at the G20, leaders of the United States, Canada, and Latin American countries could look for ways of responding to the economic crisis that also tackle the deep inequality facing nations across the hemisphere. As elected representatives of majorities seeking inclusion and change, these leaders have the unique opportunity to begin a conversation that will transform the terms of debate and action in the global public sphere.

In Latin America, economic crisis has started nations on the path to social and political transformation before. While memories of the depression in the United States focus on hardship, the 1929 global depression in fact ushered in an era of dramatic positive change in Latin America. No longer able to count on a stable world market, Latin American governments abandoned their reliance on agricultural and mining exports and instead began to stimulate dramatic and ultimately successful processes of industrialization. At the same time, populist leaders articulated new notions of nationalism, accepting and even welcoming long-excluded groups of rural peasants and urban workers onto the scene and granting them new citizenship rights.

In response, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to reverse a history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America with his Good Neighbor Policy, emphasizing trade and cultural exchange as a means for peaceful coexistence. This commitment to inclusion and alliance was crushed in subsequent decades by elite opposition to socioeconomic reform within Latin America and anti-communist operations on the part of the United States, which together produced military coups and state policies of repression and torture. By the late 1980s, however, dictatorships across Latin America were overthrown by a second wave of commitment to democratic citizenship.

Since then, as democracy has endured and deepened, leftist parties have won elections across the region, taking over from right-wing and centrist governments from Chile to El Salvador. In the process, Latin America’s leftists have reclaimed some of the social visions of the early days of industrialization, when development economists and political reformers alike spoke of humane capitalism, of growth with equity, and of governments as arbiters between capital and labor. Such a balanced approach has been literally unthinkable over the past two decades of free-market ideology, as Washington pressed Latin American governments to leave economic affairs to the market and inequality became yet more entrenched.

Today, once again, the idea of equitable development doesn’t seem radical, but rather makes common sense. And the potential for a hemispheric alliance is stronger than ever. Democracies in Latin America have already produced innovative strategies for tackling tough problems, from racial exclusion to urban poverty to migration, and they have forged progressive coalitions to support these new approaches. In Buenos Aires, factories run cooperatively by workers – factories that were taken over when the owners ran them into bankruptcy – compete efficiently in the market. In Rio de Janeiro, kids in shantytowns join music groups to fight drug trafficking and violence, while in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mayan Indians organize transportation systems and marketing networks in urban neighborhoods where 30 years ago they would have been forbidden to live. And through hometown associations in the United States, Mexican migrants send back money to their communities of origin, where remittances are matched three-for-one by the Mexican government in an investment program overseen by the migrants themselves.

This is the face of democratic innovation in our hemisphere. For the first time ever, the vast majority of key actors in Latin America, from businesspeople to militaries, middle classes to grassroots social movements, play by the democratic rules of the game and respond to disagreement with counterproposals rather than violence. And for the first time ever, a U.S. President speaking a language of cooperation and dialogue could transform a century of distrust into a forward-looking hemispheric alliance.

There’s no better place to begin a broad conversation about economic recovery and social change than at the Summit of the Americas. President Obama and the leaders of Latin America and Canada have different backgrounds and strategies, but they bring many of the same concerns to the table. They all want educated populations, jobs that enable people to support themselves, secular governments, equality for all citizens, and societies free from violence. They also want to support what is perhaps our hemisphere’s greatest resource for the long term: the democracies that exist across North and South America today. To pull this off, they need to start looking simultaneously towards and beyond the economic crisis, within their own countries and across national boundaries.

That means talking about the economic crisis and about violence, women’s rights, hunger, the environment, drug policy, trade and immigration. Rather than silencing protesters, as the London police attempted to do, the heads of state at the Summit of the Americas — many of them former union leaders and community organizers — need to speak loudly and act boldly to address their citizens’ demands.

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