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– 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.