04/16/2012 08:23 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

America's Missed Opportunities in Latin America

President Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas in Colombia underlines America's failures to confront global and economic challenges as we focus inwardly on our own political squabbles and endure partisan gridlock. It also demonstrates our blindness toward developments around the world -- particularly in our own hemisphere -- as we squander important opportunities to engage with some of the most dynamic economies and societies.

Most Americans still regard Latin America through the myopic lens of the past -- repressive dictatorships, left-wing ideologues and drug cartels. In reality, Latin America is a diverse, rich and rapidly growing collection of nations and peoples. Once burdened with uncontrollable debt, most of Latin America has emerged from insolvency to impressive economic growth.

Brazil, the leading economic dynamo of Latin America, is now the sixth largest economy in the world and number two in the hemisphere behind the United States. It has taken its place along with China, India and other rapidly growing economies in aggressively diversifying its economy, with global investments across the spectrum of industries and continents. No longer simply a major Latin American power, Brazil is a global economic and political force.

Other Latin American countries, notably Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Peru, are shedding their difficult and often dark pasts to emerge as regional economic powerhouses. A growing middle class throughout Latin America has made it a vital market for a host of goods and services. Brazil, for example, has a GDP of over $2 trillion, with imports of $182 billion annually. Despite difficult visa requirements and long waits, 1.2 million Brazilians visit the U.S. each year, spending on average $5,000 per visit.

The center-left governments of Latin America, which replaced the right-wing (or left-wing) dictatorships of the past, have steered a steady course of economic responsibility and political moderation. These governments have been generally popular and have been able to achieve political and economic reforms that had been impossible in the past. This, in turn, has led to strong economic growth and wider participation in increasingly global markets.

China, Russia and other global economic powers have been aggressively participating in Latin American growth -- investing in everything from factories and coal mines to banks and insurance companies. Meanwhile, the United States remains largely sidelined in the economic and diplomatic arena, even though it maintains strong security relations with Latin American governments. Trade agreements -- like the one recently signed with Colombia -- have been painfully slow to be completed.

One problem -- in addition to the political stalemate in this country -- is most Americans' outdated view of Latin America. Mexico, the one Latin American country which has bucked the trend, slipping into violence, political dissension and economic difficulty, seems to have an undue influence on Americans' perception of the Southern hemisphere countries. In fact, Latin America has much more in common with quickly developing countries in Asia than it does with Mexico.

Certainly, Latin America is plagued with many critical problems including economic inequality, drug trafficking and deficits in education and infrastructure, but it has clearly emerged from a dark and sometimes dismal economic and political past. Latin America presents enormous opportunities for the United States in terms of economic and political cooperation, but we continue to squander these opportunities as we squabble among ourselves over issues like immigration, drug policies and, most importantly, our role in the global economy. As in other areas of the world, it is time for the United States to wake up to reality and take constructive, cooperative action to promote our economic, political and security interests in Latin America.