The 16th Ibero-American Summit began today in Montevideo, Uruguay with a key element missing—the representation of one of the most important Hispanic communities in the world—the Hispanics of the United States.
There is no question that, statistically speaking, the Latino population of the United States should be represented at a Summit formed by “the countries that speak Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas and in Europe, forming a shared economic, political, social, and cultural space.” Although U.S. Hispanics form an integral part of our national identity, but do not constitute a country of their own, it is important to understand that they also form an essential part of the economic, political, social, and cultural space of Ibero-America.
The void created by the absence of U.S. Latinos at the Ibero-American Summit is more obvious than ever this year. Attempting to discuss the official Summit theme—“Migration and Development”—without representatives of those who have immigrated from Ibero-America to the United States is a little like trying to say a Catholic Mass without making reference to the New Testament. The United States’ debate about immigration reform has been largely carried out without regard to the reality of the other countries that form a crucial component of the migration dynamic. Political reasons or historical ghosts should not prompt the countries of Ibero-America to fall into the same trap of incomplete discussions.
The more than 41 million Hispanics in the United States represent the fourth largest community of Ibero-American heritage in the world behind only Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. The more than 32 million Spanish speakers in United States represent the fifth largest Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking population in the world. The more than 19 million Hispanics in the United States born elsewhere in the Americas represent the eighth largest population of Ibero-American heritage in the world. Although these population figures result from rapid growth during the past decade, it is important to remember that Hispanics have been present in the United States since the 16th Century, giving the U.S. Hispanic population historical roots as deep as almost any other in the Americas.
The importance of U.S. Hispanics in Ibero-America goes well beyond the size of the community or its historic longevity. By the end of this decade, Hispanics in the United States will have $1 trillion in combined purchasing power. If you consider the combined purchasing power of Hispanics in the United States today, which stands at approximately $750 million, the “U.S. Hispanic economy” would constitute the fourth largest economy in Ibero-America behind only Brazil, Spain, and Mexico.
Based on their remittances, Hispanics in the United States are the most important investors in Latin America. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, immigrants from the Americas to the United States will remit $45 million to their countries of origin during 2006. That investment, although almost exclusively directed to family members, is more than the combined foreign assistance given by developed countries to Latin America, and is equal to nearly 50 percent of Foreign Direct Investment in the region.
These financial flows are an indication, among many, of the connections between Hispanics in the United States and the rest of the Americas. They signal that the economic success of Latinos in the United States could create great development possibilities in the Americas. The entrepreneurial experience and success of Latinos in the United States, where Hispanic-owned business are the fastest growing segment of the economy during the past 10 years, can provide important lessons and open key markets for the kind of development that will be discussed in Montevideo.
Proclaiming the need for an expansion of the Ibero-American Summits is one thing, but achieving it is quite another and will require political risk-taking by the governments of Spain, Portugal, and the countries of the Americas, as well as by Hispanics in the United States.
The U.S. government has difficult relationships with many of the countries in Ibero-America, which means that an expansion of the summits will require forward thinking by the governments of Ibero-America. The countries will have to concentrate on long-term relations and set aside current and historical differences with the United States. They must also recognize that the United States is living through an era of profound change that could transform its relations with the Americas.
The political challenge will be even greater for U.S. political leaders and the leadership of Hispanics in the United States. In light of our vitriolic immigration debate in which extremists invoke an imaginary risk of the “reconquest” of the Southwest by Latinos, mere attendance at an Ibero-American Summit would open the door for attacks on the patriotism of attendees. Hispanic leaders would have to recognize that to maximize opportunity, times of historic change demand political courage. They must also have faith that history will judge them more favorably than the extremists of today.
Hispanics in the United States form a mosaic of countries, peoples, and experiences that has a great deal to offer the rest of the Americas, Spain, and Portugal. The time has arrived to recognize that the world changes, and Ibero-America must expand to include the Hispanic communities of the United States in its summits.