Why South of the Border Matters North of the Border

Mr. President, you were right to go to Latin America. And your critics on the right, and your supporters on the left, were both wrong for criticizing you and for supporting you for the wrong reasons.

Latin America is used to being short-shrifted by U.S. presidents. Your predecessors, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, did little to change that. And you, Mr. President, bungled the 2009 Honduras coup d’état, which only further exemplified your lack of coherent leadership when it comes to the region. So it was time to give this important region the attention and respect it deserves, to go there and meet with their leaders, and to do right by Latin America.

Speaking of the “right,” some Republicans say you should not have gone to Latin America in the first place because it’s like taking your family on a vacation, a spring break. Some said you “bolted to Brazil.”
Translation: there is nothing substantive in Latin America, just parties and Rio de Janeiro. And there’s certainly nothing significant for an American president to do there.

It’s an insulting insinuation, one that takes aim at one of the world’s most important regions as well as this nation’s fastest-growing minority: Hispanics. It’s no wonder that Hispanic support for Republicans is fading faster than Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s make-up on a hot summer day.

Ostensibly, Republicans say their criticism is based on the fact that there’s just so much other “stuff” right now, most notably Japan and Libya, and that having you travel means you’re not focused on — and can’t be focused on — what’s going on elsewhere. But that’s also a straw man because there’s always other stuff going on.

Lest anyone forget, we live in the 21st century. This isn’t the Kennedy White House with a big red phone on the desk, where we have to stand idly by waiting for it to ring. Today, you can get that 3 am phone call anywhere: we live in an age of remote offices, secure communications — faxes, emails, phone calls, teleconferences — satellites, computers, BlackBerries, iPhones, and Internet access and cable television 24/7.

In fact, Air Force One boasts a mobile Oval Office. The plane is capable of refueling mid-air, has hardened electronics capable of withstanding an electromagnetic pulse, and has advanced secure communications that allow it to serve as a mobile command center in the event of an attack against the U.S. I hear they even have pens and pencils on board.

And you know what? It works. This past weekend, with you in Latin America and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris, you coordinated and ordered military airstrikes against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

You and Secretary Clinton weren’t the only ones working remotely. Joining Secretary Clinton in Paris was British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country also took part in enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya.

The idea that a trip or other important presidential business needs to be put on hold, otherwise everything will come to a screeching halt, is ludicrous. You coordinated with Secretary Clinton in Paris, Ambassador Rice in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, military commanders on the ground in the region, and none of it — not one bit of it — would have been any different if you were sitting at your desk in the White House instead of your desk on Air Force One.

But before we pass judgment on Republicans alone, let us consider what the Democrats are saying — which also minimizes the importance of this trip. Sure, they’re defending your trip to Latin America. But they’re doing so with simple arguments about how this is important “for American jobs.”

Well, they’re just as wrong as their counterparts.

Going to Latin America isn’t a party, it doesn’t interfere with your duties, and it’s not about job creation. It’s about far more than that. Going to Latin America is the work of the president, important and essential work, and it’s in our national and strategic interest.

It’s about treating Latin America as equal partners, something you, President Obama, promised at the Summit of the Americas in 2009. It’s about cultivating a stronger relationship with this part of the world and sending a message to Latin America, as well as Latino-Americans here at home, about their importance in the global economy as well as national and international politics.

Even in the face of a Japan reeling from a series of incomprehensible natural disasters and a Libya in turmoil, our relationship with Latin America needs to be nurtured and strengthened for reasons often ignored by the U.S. news media.

Latin America’s importance to the global economy is immense and growing. Capital investment into the region has increased 405% to $6.6 billion in the last year alone, and Brazil is leading the pack. The country has the fifth largest population in the world and the seventh largest economy in the world. It will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, and more significantly, may be on the verge of tapping significant oil fields. It’s in our national interest for the U.S. to be on the ground floor of Brazil’s growth and to become an important and essential ally to them.

Investment opportunity in the Americas isn’t just a one-way street. 3G Capital, a firm backed by Brazilian investors, recently purchased Burger King for $3.3 billion — the largest restaurant acquisition in a decade. And in 2008, Belgian-Brazilian beer giant InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion. It doesn’t get any more American than hamburgers and beer.

President Obama, you will always be needed both domestically and internationally. But by going to Latin America this past week, you showed the region — and Latinos here at home — that we matter. Thank you for doing the right thing.

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post