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Sunday, March 26 2017 @ 01:24 AM EDT

A historic Summit of the Americas - Opinion

Panama NewsBy Isabel Saint Malo - This week, Panama will host the Summit of the Americas, an important gathering of heads of state from throughout the hemisphere, first launched by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1992.

The first-ever presence of both Cuba and the United States, along with every other nation in the region, makes this Summit an historic occasion before it even begins.

But beyond the breathtaking diplomatic opportunity the thaw between Cuba and the U.S. presents, there is much else on our agenda that deserves attention.

The overarching theme of the Summit is "Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas." This could well be the rallying cry of all nations in our region. How do we develop fairly and justly? How do we close the income gap? How do we give everyone a voice in his or her destinies?

There is no doubt that Latin America is on the rise, economically. By 2020, Latin American GDP is expected to reach $10 trillion—double that of 2010—with 640 million active consumers. However, this prosperity has not been sufficiently and broadly shared by our people.

That is where the demand for equality begins. Equality is not just an ethical demand, but also a technical condition for the sustainable growth of our countries and for our future peace and stability.

While the Americas are enjoying a state of peace and--with perhaps one exception--political stability, we know this can be jeopardized if we, as a region, do not attend the most pressing challenges our people face today.

Democracy in our region, for example, is limited by inequality and inequities, and therefore to fight against these challenges is also to fight to strengthen democracy. It is the same for security, immigration, and energy resource scarcity. These in fact comprise the key subthemes of the agenda.

Indeed, the presence of all nations at the table means that we can put all the issues on the table, including sensitive questions like human rights, democracy, and civil liberties. We are a diverse hemisphere, with lots of ideas and many voices on these questions.

In fact, there will be a dedicated platform for civil society organizations at the Summit of the Americas in which citizens from all countries can freely discuss their cares and concerns. Because this forum is being run by a private NGO, not by the Government of Panama, we are all potential subjects of discussion or targets of criticism.

President Obama and President Varela, among other heads of state, are expected to be in the room for that discussion. That's healthy.

The U.S. has much at stake in the discussions in Panama City, which will range from climate change to commerce. Indeed, the U.S.' integration in the hemisphere is growing stronger by the day through our broad economic, security, and political cooperation. Panama, for example, is the fastest growing economy in the region.

Our largest trading partner is the United States -- accounting for approximately 23 percent of all two-way trade. U.S.- Panama trade grew by roughly 20 percent to more than $10 billion in 2012 and has only continued to increase since the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) went into effect in October 2012.

The expansion of the Panama Canal will only enhance the importance of U.S. trade with Panama and throughout Latin America and the jobs it will support in both North and South.

It is truly fitting that this historic Summit be hosted in Panama. The first meeting of Heads of State from the Americas was held in Panama back in 1956, in what is now the headquarters of the Panamanian Foreign Ministry.

And just a year ago, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal. This was of course an important historical event that transformed global commerce, but it also symbolically inaugurated what has become our traditional role in promoting dialogue and consensus between nations.

This is precisely the role we wish to play at the Summit by bringing together a group of nations with far more in common than we are separated by. The participation of Cuba and the U.S. is the most powerful symbol of our need and ability to transcend differences and work towards a positive outcome.

It is undeniable that the time for the Americas has come. Prosperity is on the rise. Dreams are awakened. By breaking down barriers and the old dividing lines, we can at last unlock the potential of our people. We can help lift them up. We can give them a stake in the stability of their countries and their neighbors.

The precondition is equity. Our progress towards equity in the upcoming Summit will be the ultimate measure of its success. (CNN)

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