As the new year commences, there are several developments taking place in Latin America and the Caribbean that will likely make international headlines in 2020. In this commentary, we will briefly discuss some issues to keep in mind:
1. An Ongoing Lack of a Comprehensive US Foreign Policy: Needless to say, the Trump administration never had a grand strategy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.
The administration’s highlights so far are renegotiating NAFTA, cracking down on Central American migrants, increasing pressure on Venezuela, and attempting to strengthen ties with Brazil. Nevertheless, Washington never had a blueprint for what it wanted to achieve in the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Given the US is in an election year and the tensions with Iran are rising, it is highly unlikely that there will be any new initiatives toward the region, apart from maybe something regarding Venezuela, depending on the situation there.
While not much is coming out of the White House, other US agencies, like US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), continue to have an active presence in the region. For example, a meeting between Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, commander of US Naval Forces Southern Command and the Fourth Fleet, and “senior leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru” took place in December in Florida. These are important meetings that help reassure Latin American armed forces that the US military continues to be their partner.
2. China’s Growing Role in the Western Hemisphere: Washington’s lack of interest is Beijing’s gain. In recent years, China has obtained the recognition of countries like Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador (a big hit for Washington), and Beijing could very well take more of Taiwan’s remaining allies in the Western Hemisphere. China has also increased its presence in the region via investment agreements, particularly the construction and control of critical infrastructure like ports, which SOUTHCOM commander Admiral Craig Faller has warned Washington about on numerous occasions.
If Washington does not present a viable alternative for partnerships and investments, Latin American and Caribbean governments will continue to look to extra-regional states, even some of Washington’s foes, for assistance and cooperation.
Brazil is a textbook example of this state of affairs. President Jair Bolsonaro worked hard to create a “special relationship” with the Trump administration, but in spite of some interesting agreements, no alliance was created. Even more, Washington has recently threatened to impose tariffs on metals from Argentina and Brazil. It is not surprising, thus, that Bolsonaro has turned to China to cement and foment trade relations. A November trip to Brasilia by President Xi Jinping is a clear example of this new rapprochement.
3. Venezuela’s Two Presidents: President Nicolás Maduro continues to be in control of Venezuela. Expectations that interim President Juan Guaidó’s rise to power in early 2019 would signal the Maduro regime’s fall remain unfulfilled. On the contrary, Maduro has increased his reliance on a few foreign partners, like China and Russia, and he continues to carry out repressive tactics to remain in control. Sadly, the country’s economic situation will not get better in 2020, so we can expect an ongoing exodus of Venezuelan citizens, which as a consequence will worsen the region’s socio-economic situation.
On January 2, Maduro provocatively tweeted, “I’m a man of dialogue! With Donald Trump or whoever governs the US: whenever, wherever and however they want, we’re ready for dialogue.” This demonstrates he is not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, Guaidó was re-elected as president of the Venezuelan National Assembly (not to be confused with the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly) on January 5. While dozens of governments around the world recognize Guaidó as the country’s interim head of state, he continues to be a leader without control over Venezuela’s territory and government institutions. We can expect him to continue leading massive popular protests in 2020; however, they will most likely be ineffective when it comes to removing Maduro from power.
There are constant rumors and conspiracy theories that the US may lead a military intervention against Venezuela to remove Maduro from power; however, this will not occur, given Washington’s current focus on Iran, not to mention the upcoming US elections in November.
4. Bolivia in the Post-Morales Era: The fall of President Evo Morales from power in late 2019 was very unexpected, as it was generally believed he would win the country’s controversial October 2019 elections and remain in power. The interim government led by President Jeanine Áñez has called for new general elections on May 3.
Morales is currently in Argentina, so it will be important to monitor his role and the role of his powerful political party in Bolivia, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) in the upcoming elections. Moreover, La Paz has issued an arrest warrant for Morales. But will any Latin American or Caribbean governments arrest the controversial former head of state? Expect him to hop between friendly countries in the region for the immediate future.
5. Argentina under Kirchner (Again): While Alberto Fernández is now Argentina’s new president, the former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–15), is his vice president. The obvious question is who will be the true decision-maker in the Argentine government in the coming years.
The country is facing (another) very problematic economic crisis; hence it will be important to monitor how Buenos Aires deals with it. Moreover, and more importantly for Washington, the new administration is pro-Venezuela, as exemplified one of Maduro’s aides, Jorge Rodríguez, attending the presidential inauguration in December. Will the Latin American anti-Maduro coalition (the Grupo de Lima) fracture under Argentina’s new foreign policy?
Given the change of government in Buenos Aires, another issue to keep in mind is the future of Argentina in the South American trade bloc MERCOSUR, which in 2019 signed a very significant trade deal with the European Union.
6. United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA): The House of Representatives passed the trade deal in December on a vote of 385-41, and the Senate will vote on it in early 2020, according to the Washington Examiner. Meanwhile, the Mexican Senate ratified the deal in July, while there have been delays in Canada.
Certainly NAFTA was in dire need of an update, as it was created a quarter of a century ago, before the Internet and e-commerce became part of daily life. We will have to wait and see if this new agreement is beneficial to the populations of all three countries.
7. Drugs and More Drugs: Cocaine production has continued to grow in South America, particularly in Colombia. Regional defense and security forces—in addition to the US Coast Guard, which actively operates in the Caribbean and Western Pacific—regularly report the seizure of drugs, which gives us an idea of the amounts of narcotics that are being produced and trafficked. For example, in May Peru destroyed more than 15 tons of cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and other drugs that had been seized in various operations. Months later in October, the US Coast Guard unloaded “more than $92 million worth of seized cocaine … off the coasts of Mexico, Central and South America between late July and early October.” These two examples demonstrate that drug production and trafficking have not stopped.
8. The Future of South America’s Social Uprisings: The latter half of 2019 was significant as massive protests erupted in countries like Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. The protests’ catalyst has been previously analyzed in another commentary for Providence (see my November 20 article, “South America’s Protests: Why Blame Yourself When You Can Blame Someone Else?”). What is important to keep in mind are the results: the protests brought about the fall of the Morales regime in Bolivia, while other governments annulled unpopular laws and projects. In fact, Chile will hold a referendum on April 26 in which citizens will be asked whether they want a new constitution.
Alas, while some protests have been successful in bringing about change, many others have not. Case in point, popular unrest has not removed President Maduro from power, and even Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega remains firmly in power after massive protests in 2018—which resulted in a violent government crackdown that killed more than 300 people. Protests are set to resume in 2020 to force Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to resign. “Riots [in Haiti] began last July after the government announced plans to hike gas prices. It didn’t follow through, but the protests have continued, with the last few months being some of the most violent. At least 55 people have died and more than 100 injured, according to the U.N.,” explains NPR.
Which other countries will experience massive popular upheavals in the Western Hemisphere, and what will be the outcome?
9. Latin America and the Environment: Last year was a bad year for Latin America’s environment, with massive fires in countries like Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. President Bolsonaro was particularly criticized for his slow response to wildfires that destroyed vast areas of the Brazilian Amazon.
On the other hand, there are some promising signs that regional governments regard the protection of the ecosystem as a priority. For example, Peru has taken measures to crack down on illegal mining and illegal logging in the Amazon, particularly in the Madre de Dios region. Similarly, regional navies have deployed vessels and aircraft to monitor their territorial waters to crack down on maritime crimes like illegal fishing. Moreover, the Brazilian navy in the past months has similarly focused on trying to find the culprit behind a massive oil spill in the country’s northeast regions. Finally, the Colombian and Dominican armed forces, just to name two examples, have similarly advertised the release of turtles and other animals that poachers had stolen.
Hopefully the momentum toward protecting the Latin American environment will continue in 2020 and beyond.
10. A Plethora of Other Issues: The aforementioned list gives an example of the varied types of issues affecting Latin America and the Caribbean. Due to space considerations, there are plenty of other issues we cannot discuss in-depth, such as the ongoing violence in Mexico, the success of President Nayib Bukele’s new internal security plan in El Salvador, or the recent decision of Curacao’s government to name Klesch Group as the new operator of the island’s Isla Refinery—this will have important repercussions for Venezuela’s state-run PDVSA, which controlled the facilities to process its oil.
There is also the question of how Brexit will affect Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly since many Caribbean states are members of the British Commonwealth (e.g., Barbados, Belize, and Dominica).
Latin America and the Caribbean constitute 33 countries; it is self-evident that each nation has its own interests, priorities, and challenges. In this commentary, we analyzed some of the major issues Washington should monitor regarding the rest of the Western Hemisphere as the new decade begins.
It is difficult to decide whether to be hopeful or not when it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean, as for every positive development in country X, there are negative events in countries Y and Z. Sadly, the old adage “one step forward, two steps back” is very fitting to Latin America and the Caribbean.