Latina View: Buen Viaje, President Obama!

President Obama arrives in Latin America tomorrow—and not everyone thinks he should be there.

The objection is one of priorities: There are a number of global crises to deal with at the moment, like the nuclear situation in Japan and the continuing unrest in the Middle East. And so many pundits are asking, Shouldn’t the President stay home and focus on these matters, instead of heading off to meetings with the leaders of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador?

Well, I, for one, am thrilled to see President Obama showing commitment to our sisters and brothers down south (where I am sure he will remain fully apprised of, and engaged in, important developments happening around the world).  For far too long, American presidents have pushed Latin America to the bottom of their to-do lists, approaching the continent as something they could get to later, deal with after, treat as less than.

The result? Strained relationships with the leaders of many of our closest neighbors—which, to me, represents a huge missed opportunity. After all, given the exploding numbers of Latinos here in the U.S.—and the continued ties many of us have to our home countries—there ought to be a way we can build on this inherent connectedness to everyone’s mutual benefit. Here are some thoughts on how:

1) Open up the U.S.: Like the rest of Latin America, the nations President Obama is visiting want greater access to our markets as well as to our borders. Given the amazing economic growth many Latin American nations—particularly Brazil—have made during the last few years, there has never been a better time for us to rethink how we handle trade relations with our southern neighbors.

2) Promote democracy. To me, one of the most heartening stories to come out of Latin America in the last 30 years has been the shift so many countries have made from dictatorships or military governments to democratic ones. By publicly championing these new leaderships—while also pledging support (financial as well as symbolic) for their efforts at boosting security and promoting education—President Obama has a historic opportunity to help Latin America continue on its path toward stability and prosperity.

3) Cast a positive spotlight. Too often, when Americans hear news of Latin America, it is negative: crime, poverty and desperation. As we Latinos know, these stories make up a very small part of our incredibly complicated and inspiring tale. Given that this will be President Obama’s first time in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, I’m hoping that he will seize the chance to showcase the best those countries have to offer, from natural resources to resilient citizens, cultural wonders to population diversity.

Of course, simply by refusing to cancel his visit, the President is already doing just that: Sending a message not only to Americans, but to the world, that Latin America is an important, vital ally with much to offer. Let’s hope that—before too long—that message gets translated into tangible action.