Trends of 2019: Latin America and the Caribbean
LAC Editor Cate Liu contributed to this Trends of 2019 piece.
In the past year, nine Latin American countries hosted elections, setting 2019 up as the year in which these newly-elected administrations will begin enacting policies that mark a departure from the center-right and technocratic wave that had seemed ascendant in the region.
Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, populists from opposite sides of the political spectrum, will begin to implement policies that fulfill the anti-corruption promises that formed the centerpiece of their campaigns. AMLO, the leader of Mexico’s left-wing National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), is proposing a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and a pay-cut for government employees. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is calling for harsher penalties for officials found guilty of corruption, part of his drive to crack down on crime in Brazil.
El Salvador’s recent election, won by the former-mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, marked another win for anti-establishment politicians running on anti-corruption platforms. Bukele defeated candidates from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the two parties that have governed El Salvador since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992. Bukele ran with the right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party but was formerly part of the left-wing FMLN, obscuring his ideological positions beyond his quip-like anti-corruption slogan, “There is enough money if no one steals,” and his skillful use of social media.
The implementation of a new constitution in Cuba could spell significant change for the political system of the country, which is still grappling with the recent presidential transition from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel. The constitution maintains the leading role of the Cuban Communist Party but also enshrines protections for the new private businesses that have been permitted on the island. Importantly, the constitution removes references to communism and instead identifies the country’s goal as the fostering of socialism. It also recognizes the ownership of private property. The Cuban public will vote on the new constitution in a referendum on February 24.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will likely go into effect in 2019, replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), fulfilling a key campaign promise made by President Donald Trump. The deal was signed in November 2018, but no member state has ratified it yet. Key changes from NAFTA include higher country-of-origin requirements for tariff-free goods, new labor protections in Mexico that include expanded unionization rights and anti-discrimination laws, and longer copyright periods to protect intellectual property. The deal also contains a sunset clause of 16 years, after which the terms of the agreement will expire, although it allows for extensions if the members agree to them.
The Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) free trade area, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, is undergoing deeper integration led by Bolsonaro and Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Despite Bolsonaro’s earlier criticism of the trade agreement while campaigning, both right-wing presidents are hoping to expand cooperation on free trade and promote business-friendly reforms within the bloc, which is currently negotiating a cooperation agreement with the European Union. Cooperation between Argentina and Brazil has also deepened through their shared opposition to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela was removed from MERCOSUR in 2016 following alleged human rights violations and disputes over the country’s compliance with MERCOSUR regulations.
The Venezuelan Crisis
The regional response to governments in crisis will be an important issue in 2019. Seven countries submitted a petition to the International Criminal Court to investigate Maduro, who won re-election last year in a vote that the opposition boycotted and other regional governments criticized as illegitimate. As the crisis in Venezuela grows, exacerbated by sanctions from the United States, experts have posited that refugee flows to Colombia and Brazil could motivate those countries to intervene in Venezuela.
Juan Guaidó’s declaration that he is now the interim president of Venezuela complicated the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the country. Guaidó, who led the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim president on January 23. Many countries in the region, including Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina, have recognized him as the legitimate president of Venezuela. At the same time, other Latin American nations are calling for dialogue between Maduro and the opposition. Maduro still enjoys the backing of the country’s military and support from some of the country’s populace but is under increasing international pressure to call for a new round of elections supervised by the international community.
The hyperinflation that plagued Venezuela over recent years has contributed to high prices for staple goods. The country is also experiencing shortages of food and medicine, which the government attributes to U.S. sanctions. Maduro’s government refused to accept humanitarian aid from the United States and has stopped aid shipments at the Colombian border. The government justified the decision based on the belief that aid from the U.S. will serve as the beginning of American intervention in the country.
Meanwhile, in Central America, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is continuing his crackdown on freedom of expression by preventing certain newspapers from printing and arresting journalists on terrorism charges. Nicaraguans who fled the violence in the country are currently in refugee camps in Costa Rica, which asked for support from the international community in providing resources to the refugees.
Argentina will host an election in October. Experts believe that Macri is facing increasingly tough odds to secure re-election. The country is currently in a recession that could benefit the opposition and introduce major economic changes to Argentina. The election of a government led by one of the Peronist factions would result in the reversal of many of the reforms made by Macri’s administration over the past few years. Pundits originally praised Macri’s reforms as business-friendly, but the failure to sustain economic growth has resulted in the Argentine business community losing faith in Macri.
The Panamanian general election is scheduled for May 5. The current favorite is Laurentino Cortizo, a member of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, who previously served as president of the National Assembly. Cortizo’s closest competitor is former-President Ricardo Martinelli, who governed the country until 2014. Martinelli, who is currently in jail awaiting trial for spending government funds to surveil political opponents, is also running for a seat in the National Assembly, the mayorship of Panama City, and possibly running against himself as a vice presidential contender for the Democratic Change party. Martinelli’s sons are also implicated on charges of money laundering in the region-wide scandal surrounding Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.
Many other countries will hold elections this year. Uruguay, which will hold elections in October, appears set to elect a president from the ruling left-wing Broad Front (FA) coalition, although on a narrower margin than before. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, President Evo Morales is running for his fourth term in office, facing his strongest opposition from former-President Carlos Mesa, who is running for the Leftist Revolutionary Front coalition. Guatemala is set to hold elections in May, and incumbent President Jimmy Morales (no relation to Bolivia’s president) is constitutionally prohibited from running for re-election. Despite this, Morales’s government has shown a blatant disregard for democratic institutions, and experts believe that Morales could suspend elections in an attempt to maintain power.
In the next year, Latin America will grapple with the endemic corruption that has plagued the region, the growing crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and the outcomes of transfers of power to newly elected governments.