On Saturday, President Obama will meet with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a steel worker and union leader elected in 2002 on a platform of fighting poverty and inequality in one of the world's largest developing economies.
The meeting itself won't be as groundbreaking as Obama's announcement last week of his potential willingness to negotiate with Taliban militants. But if Obama is serious about forging new alliances, Saturday's meeting could pave the way for a new foreign policy in Latin America, starting with an alliance between two presidents who broke centuries-old barriers of race and privilege in their respective countries simply by assuming office.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the US government supported Latin American militaries as they ousted democratic governments and tortured opponents to silence dissent. In the 1980s, as Latin Americans reconstructed fragile democracies, US leaders encouraged the new governments to subscribe to the logic of unregulated markets. The result was that people across the hemisphere were abandoned economically by their governments just as they became citizens.
Today, as Obama works to undo the damage of the Bush era, he should also promote socioeconomic reform in Latin America that brings material well-being and cultural inclusion to poor majorities.
What Obama has said to Americans in the past two months will resonate with Latin Americans: What we want for our country is not dazzling prosperity for some, but a sustainable economy that fosters cohesive communities for all. Latin Americans want floors in their houses, refrigerators, quality education for their children, and secular governments. The biggest need in the region is for decent jobs and effective policymaking, not fundamentalism, terrorism, or genocide. Right now, Latin America stands as the developing world's greatest hope for democratic politics and market economies to provide a basic standard of living for the majority of people.
In perilous times, words and alliances matter. The US needs pragmatic policymaking and strong alliances that won't undercut our antiterrorism commitments, but will strengthen our credibility by providing a model for sustainable development through democratic means.
Brazil is a good place to start. With the world's 11th-largest economy and third-highest level of inequality, Brazil puts to the test the claims of those who champion democracy: that democracy can improve people's lives, that citizenship within democratic political institutions fosters inclusion and well-being, and that democratic nations can be significant forces for self-government and social justice in the globalized world.
In the past 25 years, as Latin America's democracies have grown and deepened, creative individuals and groups have crafted out-of-the box solutions to poverty and exclusion. In the process, grass-roots activists have moved from the streets to the institutions, participating in elections, running local governments, and designing new civil society initiatives. Simultaneously, businesspeople in Latin America have become increasingly concerned about poverty and inequality. Crime and violence threaten their physical safety, and they cannot find enough workers with the skills and education demanded by global competition. For the first time in the trajectory of development since World War II, elites in Latin America realize that they might have to change the way they do business in order to fight the hunger and misery just up the street.
The shared concerns about poverty on the part of US and Brazilian leaders create room for political maneuver and bargaining. And they call for a willingness to rethink key economic relationships, especially at a time when economic assumptions are being questioned across the board. Political openness on the part of the US government to progressive reform in Latin America would go a long way toward making reform seem possible to policymakers and elites. And US willingness to negotiate on debt repayment and trade rules – what Latin Americans have been advocating for years and US leaders are just beginning to see as essential for surmounting the current economic crisis – could provide the economic resources necessary to make change a reality.
Obama and Lula are famous for their skills as organizers and coalition builders. In April, their nations will head to summits that will set the agenda for global response to the economic crisis, first at the G-20 in London and then at the Summit of the Americas. This Saturday, the two leaders – Brazil's first working-class president and the first black president of the US – will lay the groundwork for these events. They can shake hands and take a picture, or they can roll up their sleeves and get down to work.
• Jeffrey W. Rubin is a professor of history and director of the Enduring Reform Project at Boston University. Emma Sokoloff-Rubin is a Yale undergraduate and an associate editor of the Yale Globalist.