Top Five Events of 2012

A poll of contributors to AULABLOG identified the following five events (listed below in no particular order) as the most important in Latin America in 2012.  We welcome you to post your own list using the Leave a Comment link below.

By: Matt Westgate "Mettamatt" | Flickr | Creative Commons

By: Matt Westgate “Mettamatt” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s third major cancer surgery signaled that change – probably profound – will come to Venezuela much faster than his presidential campaign let on.  We expect growing tensions among his aides, none of whom has his charisma or base, as they jockey in a succession scenario.  We’ll be watching whether the PSUV can become an institutionalized mechanism for channeling Chavismo’s support into a governing project in the post-Chavez era.

The election and inauguration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signals a natural swing back to PRI leadership after 12 years of PAN governments.  Differences over the approach to counternarcotics might flare up in an overall smooth relationship with the United States, but the new president’s biggest challenge is going to be overcoming the persistent economic backwardness that has kept Mexico from achieving the economic growth of others since the turn of the century.

The ouster of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo last June – as well as the United States and Latin America’s ambivalent reaction to it – was a dramatic illustration that democracy in the region rests on a tenuous foundation of sometimes contradictory constitutions and weak institutions.  The continuing struggle of Honduran President Pepe Lobo, three-plus years after the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya, shows that failure to bring those whose power grabs violate laws and the spirit of law to account sows the seeds of long-term instability and even greater threats to democracy.

The Colombian peace talks, the first serious attempt in 10 years at resolving the decades-old conflict, could lead to a watershed in that country’s development.  President Juan Manuel Santos has shown strong leadership, despite incessant carping from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and has smartly acknowledged that success in the talks is far from certain.  If the talks are successful, 2013 could be a defining moment for a country already experiencing strong economic growth and an important degree of social progress.

Washington continued to sit on the sidelines on most regional issues.  President Obama got a spanking at the Summit of Americas from even perennially friendly governments for Washington’s approach to counternarcotics (overly militarized) and Cuba (stuck in the Cold War).  He was silent on Latin America during the campaign, and his rhetoric of “partnership” and “neighborhood” remained unfulfilled.  Although the President won kudos for implementing elements of the Dream Act by Presidential Directive, the Administration boasted of deporting more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in 2012, the most of any year in the nation’s history.  The region is likely to remain eager for U.S. leadership on issues of mutual interest in 2013, but most countries’ blossoming dealings with Europe, Asia and even Africa suggest they’re not going to sit around waiting for the U.S. to take up the challenge.

Colombia Peace Talks in Havana: Peace on the Horizon?

Photo by: “medea_material” | Flickr | Creatives Commons

The Colombian government and its old adversary, the FARC, are taking tentative steps toward peace.  After a brief delay, the two sides initiated negotiations on a five-point agenda in Havana this week and quickly showed signs of progress.  The FARC declared a unilateral, two-month truce – a step beyond what they granted the last time talks were held from 1999-2001 – without assurance that the Colombian government would reciprocate.  President Juan Manuel Santos, already criticized for the talks, has rejected a cease-fire so far and appears reluctant to double-down on his political bet.  If the truce holds, it would create a much improved environment for the talks.

Most commentators have stressed that the Colombian government is in a much better position now than a decade ago because the FARC has been beaten back militarily.  What has received less attention is how President Santos has put himself in a better position through important non-military reforms.  He has pressed through important measures such as the ley de víctimas, compensating those who have suffered from the conflict; the creation of a more independent judiciary; and agrarian reform measures intended to improve life in the countryside.  Santos is not about to adopt the FARC’s anti-capitalist line, but his policies have addressed some of the problems the guerrillas claim to be fighting to redress.  At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the Colombian people support the talks, according to a Gallup Colombia poll.

Stronger rhetorical support from the Obama Administration – even as it properly remains on the sidelines of the actual talks – would enhance the peace process.  Even an implicit U.S. guarantee of support for implementation of any accord would be a powerful boost to President Santos and help him face down criticism from ex-President Álvaro Uribe and his political allies.  It would also be a clear signal to Latin America that Washington supports social and economic reforms to attain peace and stability, not just military programs.  The Cuban government, accused of fomenting unrest in the past, has shown that it favors peace and undertaken this initiative apparently without expecting any quid pro quo from Colombia’s primary backer, the United States.  Chile and Venezuela have shown support as observers.  For the United States to hesitate, apparently in response to bombastic comments from the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, undermines U.S. influence and leadership on an important issue with hemispheric implications.

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.

Colombia: Giving Peace Talks Another Try

Photo by: ideas4solutions | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” announced this week that they have agreed to hold “direct and uninterrupted” negotiations beginning in Oslo as early as next month to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.”  Press reports suggest popular support for the talks, despite criticism from former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies in Bogotá and Washington.  U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the news “gravely disappointing.”  The role of Cuba and Venezuela in the preliminary talks and Havana’s future hosting of the post-Oslo phase of negotiations have particularly rankled Cuban-American legislators.  State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “would, of course, welcome any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia.”

Santos has stated that the time is right to start talks, although he has emphasized that the government “will not make any concessions on the military side” and that military operations “will continue with the same intensity.”  Observers note the conditions are indeed different from when previous efforts foundered.  The FARC leadership has been weakened considerably, and the group’s ideological grounding and foreign support have evaporated.  The FARC apparently feels that the security of demobilized combatants – a longtime concern – will not be compromised even though demobilized paramilitaries could very well try to hunt them down.  Timochenko said the FARC “come[s] to the table without grudges or arrogance,” and the group issued a “Video for Peace” with a rap song urging support for talks – signs of confidence in the process not seen previously.

The State Department’s statement welcoming the talks was positive but general.  Santos’s decision puts Washington on the spot – of which the sniping reflected in Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks is just one part.  Sitting on a massive U.S. investment in the military option and espousing similar programs against narcotics traffickers in Central America, the Obama Administration may be reluctant to go significantly beyond rhetorical support for the talks.  Cuba and Venezuela, whose influence over the independent-minded FARC has often been tenuous, are a moderating force, but Washington may be loath to acknowledge their value in a peace process.  Santos has little choice but to take the FARC’s sincerity at face value for now, but he surrenders little leverage in the current configuration.  The FARC may be cynically calculating that it can benefit from the sort of demobilization that the rightwing paramilitaries had – reaping benefits for commanders and troops, and then re-mobilizing as a newly configured force.  After all, the bandas criminales – BACRIMs – marauding through parts of rural Colombia today are essentially paramilitaries without the ideological and political overlay of the past.  Whereas the truce between former President Uribe and the paramilitaries had support from the Bush administration, it will be telling to see whether the Obama administration accepts what’s needed for a serious peace effort with the FARC, such as an expensive demobilization plan, launched by a Colombian president with stronger democratic credentials.

NOTE:  This is a corrected version of an article originally posted on September 7, which incorrectly characterized the State Department’s position on the talks.  We regret any confusion the inaccuracy may have caused.