At the Summit of the Americas, a political cross-pollination has guided discussion on how a collection of countries shadowed by a history of economic and military meddling by its northern neighbor can work together to build a more potent regional economy.
The issues that President Obama has most emphasized in his reelection effort — creating jobs and helping what he has characterized as an imperiled U.S. middle class — have resonated on a hemispheric scale here, with employment, income inequality and economic potential the dominant themes.
“There is a common denominator among all of us, one that we should keep in our head as we make decisions,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, sitting between Obama and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff at a Saturday forum of business leaders. Surveys would show, Santos said, that unemployment is probably the biggest public concern across the region.
“If we find these policies and work together, it will allow us all to generate more employment, in Colombia, in the U.S., in all of the Americas,” Santos said. “The biggest benefit we can bring to people is jobs.”
He said that last word in Spanish and in English for emphasis.
In making inequality in income and job opportunities in the United States his election-year message, Obama is joining a debate that has defined politics throughout the Americas for much of the past century. And he is doing so on more equal terms, as the U.S. middle class continues to struggle through a weak economy.
The gulf between rich and poor in Latin America has been a historic source of political strife, the stated rationale for armed rebellion in Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and here in Colombia. And for nearly as long, the economic policy promoted by the United States, alone or through multilateral lending institutions it helps to fund, has been blamed for exacerbating the problem.
But in the past decade, many Latin American countries have shrunk the gap and grown their middle classes, as the United States has watched its own division between rich and poor widen throughout the economic downturn.
Latin America’s middle class is a growing market for U.S. goods, its companies are tough competitors for their American counterparts.
When Obama mentioned that a more prosperous Latin America would mean more customers for “iPads and Boeing,” Rousseff quickly interjected, “Embraer,” a reference to Brazil’s aircraft manufacturing giant. The audience applauded.
Obama has identified income disparity as a valuable political target, and he has pledged to close it through changes in the tax code, new government spending and other policies. His Republican rivals have said he is waging class warfare, another echo of the left-right debate that has divided Latin America for decades.