2017 has not been kind to the Western hemisphere. While the ripples emanating from Donald Trump’s institution-trampling antics north of The Wall were felt globally; nowhere did they cause as much of a splash as in Latin America and the Caribbean – the US’ traditional backyard.
The constricting vines of the Odebrecht corruption scandal, involving the alleged payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes by the Brazilian construction giant from 2002 until 2016, have squeezed the life out of governments and individuals across the region and the world. It now stands as perhaps the largest corruption scandal the world has ever seen.
Latin America has been beset by endless setbacks in 2017, mostly with regard to corruption. Now, having endured these various maladies, the region is enjoying its final moments in the tranquility of the waiting room before a pivotal and intense electoral season is upon it.
2018 shall see some of the region’s largest economies in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico elect new presidents – as well as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Paraguay and Venezuela. At the end of 2018 we are certain to have a better idea as to the diagnosis, if not the cure.
Working southwards from President Trump’s fantastic monolith, it has been Mexico that has felt the full force of US economic protectionism in 2017.
With an intriguing presidential election set to take place in July 2018, the issue of the US’ imminent withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – one of the tenets of the Trump presidential campaign – shall take centre stage.
Mexico can ill afford to begin a future without its most prized trade deal, yet this is now virtually unavoidable. In an election that will see the back of the beleaguered and unpopular Enrique Peña Nieto; divisive populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known widely as ‘AMLO’), running for the MORENA party founded in 2014, will be hoping to upset the odds in a country where establishment parties reign supreme.
Following the end of Fidel Castro’s inimitable life, his brother, Raúl, has led the country forward in 2017.
The next year is likely to be pivotal. President Trump has meddled in the communist island’s affairs, backtracking on his predecessor’s efforts to thaw relations and reach valuable détente. Before Barack Obama’s efforts, the clock on US-Cuban relations had stopped during the Cold War – a state of affairs to which many believe Trump may be returning the island.
It is likely that First Vice President Miguel Díaz Canel shall take the reins once Raúl Castro departs, meaning that Cuba’s firebrand rhetoric is unlikely to abate. In response to perceived US pressure on Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro, Díaz Canel remarked:
“Imperialism can never be trusted, not even a tiny bit – never”.
The Odebrecht scandal has put down deep roots in Central America, highlighting the sub-region’s rampant corruption epidemic that has defined 2017.
In Panama, Odebrecht agreed to pay $220 million in fines in August, and prosecutors announced that they were investigating 43 people in the country in relation to the probe. In Nicaragua, where Odebrecht won 17 construction contracts up until 2013, the country’s Minister for Industry and Commerce, Temístocles Montás, was implicated in bribery allegations.
Latterly, Honduras has seen its own tumultuous episode stemming from a battle against corruption. Incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández ran against television star Salvador Nasralla in November, despite his reelection technically being illegal as presidents are constitutionally barred from serving consecutive terms in Honduras.
The results of the vote were hotly disputed, and Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), said that the process was plagued by irregularities, had “very low technical quality”, and lacked integrity. Political violence in the wake of the vote has seen at least 17 people killed in the country.
Panama’s switch in diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing in June in recognition of the One China Policy is likely to be a slow-burner. It does show, however, that China’s ambitions in Latin America are still a significant force, and it will continue to erode Taiwan’s bastion of diplomatic support in Central America in years to come.
The crisis in Venezuela has showed no signs of letting up. In December, the rollercoaster thundered on when the country’s pro-government legislative body ruled that parties who sat out recent local elections had lost legitimacy.
This clears the way for President Nicolas Maduro to run again in 2018 without challenge from the main opposition groups.
US condemns President Maduro’s threat to next year’s presidential elections. The Venezuelan people deserve right to free and fair democratic process that is open to all candidates. https://t.co/HCq1enaBbP
— Department of State (@StateDept) December 12, 2017
The situation in Venezuela is dire. Millions are going hungry, and there is a chronic shortage of medicine and basic amenities. The country has one of the world’s highest inflation rates, and in November defaulted on $US200m in foreign debt.
Opposition cohesion will be the key in 2018 – should they even be allowed to run in the presidential election – and it looks as though things may boil over once and for all, after a year filled with violent protests.
The Odebrecht scandal has hit the Andean region particularly hard. Since Lenín Moreno defeated Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador’s presidential election in April, his government has been rocked by successive scandals, including the dismissal of Vice-President Jorge Glas in August, who faced a number of corruption allegations.
Peru has seen its politics and institutions stretched to the limit by corruption allegations, largely pertaining to the wider Odebrecht case. This has culminated in a dramatic congressional appearance for President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who faces impeachment for his part in the scandal.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has also displayed contempt for his country’s democratic institutions in 2017. Having been elected president in 2006 – although never entirely satisfied with his time in office – Morales has finally seen his way to indefinite reelection cleared.
Despite a referendum rejecting Morales’ bid to allow reelection in February 2016, in early December the country’s supreme court overruled the constitution to scrap term limits for every office. Morales can now run for a fourth term in 2019 – and for every election thereafter.
Corruption is now the number one concern in Colombia, ahead of the faltering peace process. Few remain optimistic over the future of peace with the FARC, and the issue is not likely to be at the centre of the 2018 presidential race, as it is almost too contentious for any candidate to touch.
After a deeply contentious 2016 which saw the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s dismal year was summed up in December, when a professional clown, Tiririca (“Grumpy”), who had been a congressman for seven years, resigned saying that he was one of very few to take his elected role seriously.
“I am embarrassed… We are well paid to work, but only eight of 513 actually show up here often. I am one of those eight and I am a clown.”
About half of Brazil’s congressional representatives are subject to corruption proceedings. Operation Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) began in March 2014, looking into allegations that the country’s biggest construction firms overcharged state-oil company Petrobras for building contracts. Since then, the net of the investigation has widened considerably.
President Michel Temer survived a congressional vote on his impeachment in August, and ex-President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was sentenced to 10 years in jail in connection with the Petrobras scandal.
There was to be no fairy tale revival for Cristina Fernández in Argentina’s midterm elections. A disappointing performance on her part saw President Mauricio Macri solidify his mandate and strengthen his already-sizeable accumulation of political capital.
The scandal involving prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment in suspect circumstances in 2015 just hours before he was due to deliver fresh evidence in the case of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish centre, deepened in 2017. A police report published in November found that he had indeed been murdered.
In Chile, a keenly-contested election saw Sebastián Piñera win his second term in La Moneda courtesy of a second-round victory over Alejandro Guillier. Piñera is a billionaire Catholic conservative whose policies are likely to favour those most like himself.
While abortion was legalised in three specific case in Chile this year, it is likely that – despite a lack of clarity on his exact position during the campaigns – Piñera shall seek to dismantle the hard-earned progress of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.
In Paraguay, protesters stormed and set fire to Paraguay’s Congress in April after the senate secretly passed a constitutional amendment to allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election. Desiree Masi of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party said:
“A coup has been carried out. We will resist and we invite the people to resist with us.”
In Uruguay, cannabis has started to be sold legally at 16 government-approved pharmacies to registered consumers over 18 years of age, limited to 40 grams per month. It is the latest in a series of liberal reforms initiated under the stewardship of ex-President José Mujica.
The year ahead
2018 shall be defined by the electoral supercycle that will take place across Latin America and the Caribbean, with the possibility of great – albeit non-uniform – change across the region.
The greatest foreign policy challenge will concern the international community’s response to the Venezuelan crisis. However, with the hemispheric hegemon, the US, battling its own institution-hammering leader; it may well be up to other countries to resolve the country’s desperate plight.