US should embrace a changing Latin America

Protesters fill the streets in Venezuela
Protesters fill the streets in Venezuela

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Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Latin America's revolutionary movements are receding
  • The next US president will be dealing with increasingly strong, independent countries, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Events in Latin America typically garner little attention in the United States. But from Brazil to Venezuela, from Colombia to Cuba, an avalanche of important stories has helped the region pierce the shield of indifference to find a place in the headlines.

Some stories, like Donald Trump's quick trip to Mexico, have obvious and immediate relevance to the US news cycle. But don't be fooled by the largely domestic nature of some of the other stories coming from south of the border. The reality is that we will be hearing more and more about the transformation taking place in the region, and why that will matter for the agenda of the next US president.
    Consider what has occurred in Latin America just this past week.
    Frida Ghitis
    Monday, Colombians woke up for the first time in most people's lives to a "permanent ceasefire," part of a peace plan between the government and Marxist rebels that could put an end to a conflict that has lingered for more than five decades.
    Meanwhile, legislators in Brazil lined up on the Senate floor to condemn President Dilma Rousseff, after she took the stand Monday in her own defense during impeachment proceedings against her. Senators voted 61-20 to remove her from office, finding her guilty of breaking budget laws to conceal the size of the national deficit.
    Wednesday, US news outlets took a break from their relentless coverage of Trump's trip to meet Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cover the story of the first US commercial flight in more than 50 years touching down in Cuba.
    And Thursday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Caracas to demand a prompt referendum that could mark the end of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's time in office.
    All this is part of the historic transformation going on in Latin America. And while that transformation didn't start this week, it has become increasingly clear how the people of the region (with the notable exception of Cuba) have been taking charge of their respective countries in new ways.
    Latin America's revolutionary movements, a feature of the Cold War in the continent's jungles and universities, are receding. And while guerrilla armies live on in Colombia, even there they long ago shifted from saviors of the masses to narco-capitalists and kidnapping entrepreneurs, now hated even by the peasants on whose behalf they claimed to struggle.
    True, the 1990s had already brought the process of democratization, with elected governments -- and idealistic leftists -- eventually rising to power across the region. But voters also discovered that simply electing left-of-center governments brought no guarantees of prosperity for the poor. The left, once entrenched, proved just as prone to corruption as the right. And those who took power seemed concerned more than anything with keeping it.
    In some countries, governments hollowed out democratic institutions to cement their grip, while vows to end poverty started crumbling when the price of oil and other export commodities collapsed. In Venezuela, for example, the government introduced spectacularly incompetent economic policies, turning a functioning economy into a wasteland of shortages and despair. Fast forward to this week, and the country's people are raising the pressure and demanding accountability.
    In Brazil, too, the collapse of the Rousseff government can be viewed as part of a larger movement. For all its flaws, the impeachment process in that country has underscored the public's exasperation with widespread corruption -- an insidious, demoralizing and destructive enemy of prosperity and justice. Rousseff claimed she was the victim of a coup. But she was, for the most part, removed by constitutional means. That in itself marks progress.
    The fact is, voters are fed up with the country's economic tailspin and endemic corruption and the multi-billion dollar scandal that has entangled politicians of all stripes. Incoming President Michel Temer, sworn in just after Rousseff was voted out, will finish her term. And like hundreds of other politicians and prominent figures, he has also been linked to a corruption probe. Corruption will not, of course, disappear overnight, but the dramatic events of this week could mark a significant turning point, and they have at the very least put everyone on notice that the rules are changing.
    This is important because if corruption can be sharply curtailed, the continent will almost inevitably change for the better. Democratic norms will improve, business practices will become cleaner, investors will then feel safer and governments will feel under increasing pressure to act more ethically. This virtuous cycle will help further improve Latin America's standing on the international stage as each country finds its own path. And while eradicating poverty and fueling prosperity are still the top priorities for all, the lessons of the past decade or two are that the job takes genuine skill and effective policies, not just a social conscience.
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    Once upon a time, not very long ago, many Latin American countries were ruled by governments beholden to Washington or to its rivals. Democracy, where it existed, was dominated by small groups that looked after their own interests. But even as the United States has been distracted by developments in the Middle East and Asia, as well as the war on terror, the region has been changing, and the condescending description of many nations as "Banana Republics" no longer applies. (And that's a particular irony considering the way the United States is dabbling with some "Banana Republicanism" of its own, namely authoritarianism, demagoguery and histrionic politicians).
    Ultimately, as the changes in the region solidify, Latin America will become more prosperous, more independent, and more important. The next president of the United States will find that he or she is dealing with increasingly strong, independent countries -- and will need to see them as far more than an opportunity to score political points at home.