A Partnership for a New Latin America

02/15/2011 01:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fifty years ago next month, on March 13, 1961, President John F. Kennedy invited the Latin American and Caribbean diplomatic corps to the East Room of the White House to present a bold new agenda for the Western Hemisphere. He unveiled a U.S. vision of economic and social advancement for the region, an Alliance for Progress that emphasized democracy, free markets and new approaches to health and education in the fight against poverty.

Driven by Cold War concerns after decades of U.S. economic and military dominance of the region, Mr. Kennedy called for a "vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose" to build more just societies and bolster collective security. He proposed strengthened regional integration to increase trade, scientific cooperation to foster innovation and new exchanges of knowledge through the Peace Corps and the region's scholars.

A half-century later, President Obama has signaled that he plans to visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March "to forge new alliances for progress." Awaiting him is a vastly different region, with a fundamentally different relationship with the United States, than the continent Mr. Kennedy addressed 50 years ago. This presents an opportunity for both sides to rethink their approaches to each other.

The president will encounter a politically diverse, commercially vibrant, rapidly advancing region that has emerged from the Cold War to embrace democracy as its norm, largely transcending ideology in favor of pragmatism and competence. He will see a more confident, assertive hemisphere that has learned from its past and is reaching out to a globalized world.

Latin America today is a region where economic growth increasingly is driven by new trade and investment ties with Asia, where commercial and political relations with the United States remain vital but where governments, businesses and a burgeoning civil society look elsewhere for partners and opportunities, not waiting for others to lead.

Despite headlines of drug violence and political polarization in some countries, despite a lost decade of economic turmoil and painful transitions from dictatorship and armed conflict, these trend lines underscore a positive new narrative quietly taking shape across the hemisphere.

This emerging new narrative is marked by dramatic improvements in social conditions, maturing political systems and strengthened governance and institutional capacity. We are benefiting from new opportunities for investment, inclusive social policies, expanded export markets, a more welcoming business climate and increasingly solid financial systems.

The average age of the nearly 590 million people in the region is 27 -- younger than Asia, the European Union or the United States. Over the last 10 years, 40 million people have been lifted out of poverty, and nearly two-thirds of the population today considers itself middle class. Life expectancy is 74, literacy is 92 percent and 86 percent of our people have access to potable water, while infant mortality has been reduced by more than half over the last two decades.

The region weathered the worst of the recent global crisis, with its hard-earned macroeconomic stability and timely support from the Inter-American Development Bank and other international lenders helping it post higher rates of growth last year and lower deficits and debt than the world's most developed economies.

As a result, President Obama will find a hemisphere that believes it is poised to enter the decade of Latin America, a period when the region's emerging markets will help lead global growth along with Asia. We have traveled a long way on the road Mr. Kennedy envisioned.

Yet serious challenges remain, led by entrenched income inequality amid uneven growth. The region needs greater economic integration, expanded educational opportunity and improved social and environmental safeguards. Recent capital inflows and high commodity prices pose inflationary risks and potential speculative bubbles. Much work remains to be done and not all of our countries find themselves in the same situation.

For all of these reasons, the time has come to construct a new partnership for a new Latin America, a more horizontal collaboration than Mr. Kennedy envisioned. A modern hemispheric partnership would expand trade ties and strengthen infrastructure and energy integration, while developing joint approaches to mitigate the dangers of global currency imbalances.

A good place to start would be U.S. ratification of free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, along with a similar U.S. accord with South Korea. With a free trade agreement in place with Colombia, for example, U.S. manufacturers would enjoy a 27 percent increase in exports, $3.1 billion a year. This is a win-win, creating jobs for both sides.

Beyond trade, we must work together to bridge the digital divide and finish the eradication of illiteracy as well as the incidence and principle causes of infant mortality. We need to jointly promote science and innovation, help mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the prevention of, and response to, the cycle of natural disasters so common across our region.

An effective hemispheric partnership would establish clear norms for migration, promote alliances between philanthropic organizations and deepen security cooperation in a sustained multilateral effort to fight against organized crime, terrorism and human and narco-trafficking.

Some of these measures are politically difficult, not just in the United States. But they are necessary, and possible. We should begin work now towards charting a new common course that the region's leaders can take up at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, 2012.

The Alliance for Progress began with much fanfare but faded from the scene as the organizing principle of U.S. policy towards the hemisphere by the end of the 1960s.

Nonetheless, despite differences that sometimes divide us, a recent opinion poll shows that Latin Americans see the United States as the most democratic nation in the region and as the country with the greatest positive influence in the hemisphere.

They welcome President Obama's willingness to re-engage with the region and will be watching his trip closely, as well as what comes after.

Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank.