When you mention "America" in the 50 states, it is immediately assumed that you are talking about the United States. When you say "America" everywhere else in the world, the word makes unequivocal reference to the whole concept: including North, Central, South America, the Caribbean, and the adjacent islands. This weekend President Obama will be reminded of the big picture once again: America is much more than the United States.
As he joins more than 30 heads of state at the astonishing city of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas, President Obama will recall last time they met, in 2009 at Trinidad and Tobago. Back then he was cheerfully welcomed, as he pledged to be a humble, cooperative partner and raised the prospect of change in many aspects. Unfortunately, the consensus among our neighbors is that not enough has been done to fulfill that promise in the past three years.
According to a report released this week by The Inter-American Dialogue - a leading US center for policy analysis on Western Hemisphere affairs- "after a decade of profound change, the United States and Latin America are increasingly going their separate ways". The report contends that without a rethinking of the relationship and resolution of three long-standing problems--immigration, Cuba, and drug policy--the drift and distancing are likely to continue.
Associated Press reports indicate that, in an election year focused largely on domestic issues, the President will try to play down a push by some regional leaders to include Cuba at future summits, as well as discussions led by Colombia and Mexico about decriminalizing drugs as a way of reducing violence. Instead, he will likely focus on boosting trade ties with Latin America to play safe.
If his team chooses to approach the Summit with this short-term approach, a crucial long term opportunity will be missed because it is the right time to re-think "America". For the first time in a generation, the region has shown sustained economic growth, it is steadily reducing poverty and it has demonstrated unparalleled ability to navigate the most recent economic crisis. Brazil's economy is stronger than ours, to the point of surfacing as a viable lifesaver for the US. Latin America is more independent and autonomic than ever, with 11 strong economies attracting China and India to the region.
On the other hand, how much longer can the Cuban people live tortured with an embargo? Can we build together a multilateral plan to deal with immigration? Don't we need a hemispheric approach to energy security? When are we going to effectively deal with Puerto Rico? Criminal violence related to the failed war on drugs is reaching a new critical point, at home and in the region, cadavers are piling in our frontiers. The US has a drug consumption problem that needs serious soul searching and the consideration of new, open minded alternatives. Let's face it: time is of the essence.
Playing smart politics simultaneously in the domestic and foreign arenas is the right thing to do. Underestimating our neighbors once again, like so many times in the past century, is not a smart move right now. After all, a well executed doubled edged approach can prove useful to President Obama, as Hispanic voters have an eye on what is going on in the region. The United States needs "America" more than ever.