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The Latin American Spring

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The pope's visit to Mexico and Cuba beginning Friday will kick off a period of intensive focus on the Western Hemisphere, Facebooking for U.S. policymakers, and the public the dramatic changes underway in Latin America for the past decade. If both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue take a strategic approach to the region, this spring could be an important opportunity to build a forward-looking agenda with willing and capable hemispheric partners. It is also an opportunity for countries in Latin America to show tangible leadership on a number of issues consistent with hemispheric expectations of representative democracy and open market economies.

On March 23 the pope begins travel. On April 2, the leaders of Mexico and Canada will come to Washington for a meeting of North American leaders and trade relations will be at the forefront. On April 9, as Washington focuses on the Easter egg roll, Brazil's president will have an official visit at the White House. President Obama will travel on April 13 to the next Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, and immediately thereafter the Secretary of State will travel onward to Brazil. On May 8, the Conference on the Americas will attract ministers from across the region to Washington. In June, world leaders will gather in Mexico for the next G20 meeting on global financial and economic coordination and in Brazil for the Rio+20 gathering.

Most Americans know little about the region beyond news of drugs, immigration, and exploitation, or the vacation they took to Los Cabos or Machu Picchu. They might be interested to learn that Brazil, which hosts the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, is now the world's sixth largest economy, larger even than the United Kingdom; Mexico is 14th. As regional incomes rise, so does the middle class, and the ability to purchase additional products increases. Brazil, Canada, and Venezuela are global energy super powers, and others including Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago are also significant. The Amazon jungle is hugely important for efforts to combat global climate change.

As these new realities have emerged others, particularly China, have moved in, taking full advantage of the new political and economic stability that has, ironically, been underwritten for many years by the U.S. taxpayer. The United States now finds itself in a position of having to contend for the hemisphere. Competition is good, but we have to put ourselves in a position to succeed. Doing so requires that the United States begin urgently to view the region through the lens of modern international relations rather than development studies and that we put the necessary framework in place to achieve our foreign and economic policy goals.

For starters, the United States should be working collaboratively and intensively with G20 members Brazil, Mexico, and others on global financial issues including China's currency. We should reject the protectionism that is creeping up in some South American countries through local sourcing and trade balancing requirements by promoting trade expansion once again as a strategic priority, using the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a path forward. As part of this, we quickly need to bring hemispheric nations currently outside the TPP -- including Canada and Mexico, and also Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama -- into the talks. And we should also develop hemispheric energy policy as a strategic priority, including ways to intensify the energy relationship with Canada and global climate change issues with Brazil and other Amazon nations.

The region is not waiting around for the United States. Whether it be formal trade discussions with China and each other, or an innovative plan to link stock exchanges to liberalize investment capital, or infrastructure projects that are, for example, expanding the Panama canal or providing Brazil with direct access to the Pacific, Latin America is on the move, pursuing partners in Asia, Europe, and Africa.

With the spotlight amped up, even the most casual observer will have to admit that regional economic prospects have changed for the better. At the same time, as signatories to the Inter-American Democratic Charter all hemispheric nations except Cuba have agreed to support specific democratic behaviors in their own and other countries. The many leaders' meetings in the next few weeks will give them an opportunity to put substance behind the rhetoric. In some cases, press freedoms are under attack. Electoral manipulation is on the rise. Rule of law is uncertain.

The principal threat to democracy now comes from leaders who seek to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening democratic institutions. And these are exactly the nations whose leaders are pressing hardest for Cuba to be welcomed back into the hemispheric community. It's time for the democratic countries in the region to push back. The pope's visit will allow supporters to claim that conditions there including religious freedoms are tolerable under Raul's Cuban version of perestroika. But this line of argument was tried by the left and failed in support of the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the same argument was tried by the right and failed in support of South Africa's F.W. de Klerk. It remains unconvincing today. Until political prisoners are released, Cuban citizens are allowed to leave the island voluntarily, and the practice of religion is truly free, Cuba remains an outlier in the hemispheric community. Colombia's engaging president Juan Manuel Santos has shown real leadership by reaffirming that as host of the Summit of the Americas, but it is unfortunate that he was put in such a position in the first place since the idea violated the most fundamental requirement for Summit participation.

The fight for open market democracy is never finished; there is no "end of history." The temptation to accumulate political power and to manipulate and protect economic markets is ever present. Only institutions that are designed to limit this behavior and strong enough to withstand attempts to undermine them will be effective. As the spotlight shines brightly on the Americas this spring, it will illuminate both the dramatic progress in the region that has been made, as well as the progress that yet remains to be made.