2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

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