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Standing Up for Rights in the Americas
Thomas F. McLarty, III and Nelson W Cunningham
With President Obama preparing to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, for the 6th Summit of the Americas, we can’t help but reflect on how much has changed since President Clinton hosted the first Summit in Miami, 18 years ago.
At that time, we were celebrating a wave of democracy that had swept over the hemisphere. The 34 openly elected leaders, who gathered in Miami, understood the moment’s historic opportunity to build, in President Clinton’s words, “a community of nations committed to the values of liberty and the promise of prosperity”.
A new generation of leaders was ready to act on issues from economic reform to sustainable development to social justice. Fittingly, the Summit ended on the same day as the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Today, the political and economic landscape of the Americas is transformed. Many of these changes are positive. Since 2000, some 70 million people have joined the ranks of the middle class. Overall, the region’s economies have grown at an average of 3.5 per cent during the past decade, double the US rate and far outstripping traditional powerhouses like Germany and Japan. And in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Peru the reforms of the 90s have been locked in by presidents of different parties and political persuasions. US cooperation with Mexico is deeper and broader than ever before, as are our ties with Colombia, which has become an increasingly active player in support of international peace and security.
Free trade agreements knit us to many of our neighbours. And Brazil has blossomed as a growing global power both politically and economically. Yet, in contrast to these favourable trends is the eroding of democratic institutions in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Leaders in these countries have democracy on the defensive.
They impinge on freedom of speech and the press, harass political opponents, welcome visits from Iranian despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all while threatening to boycott the Cartagena Summit unless Cuba—the worst repressor of all— is invited too. What happened to the republican ideals on which our countries were founded?
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been steadily engaged in the Americas since the administration’s first months. Much of their regional engagement to date has been focused on economic growth, reflecting practical hemispheric ties and the US jobs-creation imperative. But now is also an appropriate moment to stress strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, the critical pillars that support investment, prosperity and progress.
Free expression, self-determination and civil liberties should not be viewed as issues on which countries are “siding with” the United States and “against” others in the hemisphere. Indeed, all of our neighbours in the region should have the courage to stand with those who seek freedom and civil discourse. The goal is not undermining national sovereignty; rather it is to promote the long-term stability and prosperity of the region, to our shared benefit.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff can be an influential ally given her personal history as a political prisoner and opponent of dictatorship. Brazil historically has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to its neighbours’ internal affairs, but Rousseff has felt the heavy hand of repression herself.
At the same time, Brazil’s own example of transformation from military dictatorship to vibrant democracy, middle-class growth and emerging global voice serves as an inspiration for all of the Americas. But as Brazil increasingly asserts influence on the global stage, its regional responsibilities are greater and central to encouraging freedom, stability and prosperity across the continent.
Jobs, economics and trade will play a prominent role in President Obama’s discussions with hemispheric counterparts, bilaterally and at the Cartagena Summit. The Obama administration’s successful passage of the Colombia and Panama trade agreements, engagement in building the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the resolution of US-Mexico trucking disputes have generated promising momentum. As Secretary Clinton has argued, we should turn regional “power of proximity” to our collective advantage.
Energy is also a place for progress and partnership. The United States already receives more than half its imported energy from the Western hemisphere, and the huge energy developments in Brazil could send that even higher. Moreover, the time may be ripe for energy reform in Mexico that would unlock its own substantial reserves. Reducing our oil dependency on the Middle East is clearly in US interests.
But to achieve the true promise of what President Obama has termed a new era of equal partnership, the Americas must be not just an engine of prosperity, but an anchor of democracy as well. For as the president said in Brazil last year, “Wherever the light of freedom is lit, the world becomes a brighter place.”
Courtesy the Miami Herald
Mr McLarty was President Clinton’s special envoy for the Americas and coordinated the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. Mr Cunningham was a special advisor to President Clinton on Western Hemisphere affairs. They are chairman and managing partner, respectively, of the McLarty Associates advisory firm in Washington, DC.
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