Of all the regions in a dangerous and intractable world, forgotten Latin America might paradoxically offer Barack Obama the best opportunity to influence events so that the "hope for the future" embodied in his recent Nobel Peace Prize, becomes a reality.
Building upon his creative engagement with the continent after the Bush years of blindness and neglect, there is much the President can accomplish immediately. Lifting the senseless blockade against Cuba, followed by full diplomatic relations, would be a good beginning. Another sore spot is Honduras, where the United States has not done enough to isolate and punish the de facto government, which stubbornly clings to power after having ousted the legally elected Manuel Zelaya. And Obama should rethink his approach to continental security (canceling, for instance, Plan Colombia), as a way of defusing tensions in a Latin America threatened by a new arms race.
The United States, one of the largest Spanish-speaking countries in the world, could also send a signal of friendship to Latin America by legalizing the situation of millions of undocumented Latino workers, tearing down walls instead of erecting them.
On another front, Presidents Uribe and Calderón, seconded by Brazil's Lula, have valiantly opened up a tentative conversation about the failed "War" on Drugs. If Barack Obama were to encourage, and perhaps imitate, their efforts to decriminalize the use of marijuana it would help alter an irrational policy that has generated a mafia of narcotraficantes across the Americas, filling jails and devastating the young. And, of course, there are the real wars to win in Latin America. Against poverty and tyranny, against ecological depredation and the marginalization of the indigenous peoples and their wisdom. The President, with his immense heart and his inspirational words, could be a fundamental partner in our quest for a better future.
Incredibly, the continent where I was born has only received five Nobel Peace Prizes in the 108 years since the award was instituted. If Obama were to carry out a truly enlightened policy towards the countries south of the border, I can envision how the citizens of Latin America might someday claim that in 2009 that prize was really, all appearances to the contrary once again offered to one of our own, maybe some day history will declare that the mestizo Barack Obama was, at least in spirit, the sixth Latin American to be given this honor.
This is an expanded version of an opinion published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday October 18th, 2009