There was a time long ago when American foreign policymakers instituted draconian measures to prevent what was referred to as “the domino effect” in Latin America. This was in reference to the real possibility that the dictators that our government propped up with cash and weapons would topple one after another and the sub-region would witness the ascendancy of regimes hostile to our national security interests.

That policy led to the Central Intelligence Agency’s meddling in the affairs of one country after another, to remove elected leaders and replace them with individuals who were “our SOBs.” The case of Chile comes easily to mind. We destabilized that country to the point where the democratically elected President Salvador Allende was assassinated, leading to a long reign of terror under General Augusto Pinochet.

Did it work? Yes. For many more years, the peoples of Latin America suffered at the hands of brutal dictators whom we sponsored with the sole purpose of suppressing the legitimate aspirations of their citizens. But it was clear that when we spoke of having friends in Latin America we were speaking of the tyrants whom we bought and not the people.

The world has changed since 1973 when President Allende was killed by his military in his presidential palace. The superpower rivalry that powered such bloody coups has ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union. Dictatorship in Latin America is now scorned and the formerly much maligned yearning for democracy among ordinary people has been restored to its rightful place as a noble virtue, not a capital offense.

And, with the exception probably of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the still enduring Marxist Castro regime in Cuba, Latin America is now full of our friends – genuine friends. The transformation came about because democracy was allowed to prevail.

Is the Latin American experience relevant to what is happening today in Egypt and the Middle East? Indeed, there are significant differences in the make-up of the two areas but the similarities from a political point of view are compelling.

We have been propping up with a whole lot of cash and a whole lot of very destructive weapons most of the regimes that hold sway over nations in the Middle East. And, as we have had in Cuba, so too we have Iran, a regime that is manifestly anti-American. And, indeed, with the impending collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Cairo, coming so soon after the ouster of the Zine El Adidine Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, it is inevitable that others will tumble. The time when they can continue to maintain power with an iron fist is past. The delayed impact of the disappearance of the superpower imperative and the pervasiveness of social networking took care of that.

The question, then, is whether, once again, and in a different part of the world this time, we want to snuff out the aspirations of peoples to be free, whether we fear that a Middle East that has been democratized will yield governments that are hostile to us. In other words, whether governments elected to office will be aligned with the few remaining foes of America and perhaps spread the terrorism that is fueled by Islamic extremism.

There is no doubt that it can happen, that the anti-American elements in that part of the world are influential enough to further entrench whatever anti-American sentiments exist and galvanize their newly liberated peoples in a sort of reverse crusade against us.

It is highly unlikely but it is a risk that we have to take. There is simply no other choice. It is an untenable position today – as it was in the past — to argue that our vital interests dictate that we continue to back, with our treasure and our arsenal, unelected cadres of well-connected individuals as our sole means of securing our national interests in that part of the world.

There are indeed people who do not look kindly on us and probably never will. But the vast majority of the billions of human beings with whom we share this planet are not hostile to us. Most of them are too busy trying to keep the proverbial body and soul together. Indeed, for most of them, their first priority after getting rid of their oppressors will be not to want to harm us but to start the long journey along the road of national reconstruction and equitable sharing of resources and trying to play catch-up by moving as fast as they can into the 21st century.

The choice before us is simply this: Are we prepared to make it possible for them to do so and stake our interests on the democratization process that we so zealously guard for ourselves? Or are we to continue to be part of the yoke of oppression for peoples yearning to be free and longing for friends?