Whilst the UK media has spent the year focusing on a worsening situation in the Middle-East, the NSA crisis and, most importantly, Tom Daley’s sexuality, 2013 has been an important year for Latin America. The year has seen the region forced into the limelight through Papal elections and unsespected interactions with the USA, but domestically there have been significant shifts, both good and bad, which mark clear signals that Latin America is well and truly moving out of its comfort zone from the last decade. Here are seven highlights from this year…
1. Audacity of Pope: Latin American leader for the Catholic Church
One of the biggest international stories of the year, the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the new Pope will have had particular prominence in Latin America. With 40% of global, and some of its most devout, Catholics residing in the region, the move acknowledges a shift away from Europe and the key role Latin America will have in the future of the Church. His first major ‘tour’ was to Brazil in August, where his attitude towards inequality and poverty, both protruding issues in the region, struck a chord with the current, but more importantly younger, generation of Latino Catholics. The humble, proactive Pope Francis was chosen as Time magazine’s person of the year, and with his criticism of financial greed and the dark side of globalisation, there is a real chance the Church could become more Latinocentric rather than Eurocentric.
2. I Predict a Riot: a summer of turmoil on Latin American streets
The year has seen more violent unrest than usual, with large scale protests erupting in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, amongst others for a wide-range of issues. The protests were particularly centered around inequality or financial grievances. In Brazil, the movements exploded after planned rises in transports costs, whilst Chile’s protests – now in their second year – continued to be focused on an outdated, ‘unfair’ education system. Other issues included globalisation in Colombia, energy reform in Mexico and the omnipresent demands for greater indigenous rights in Bolivia and Ecuador. Many of the protests have been calmed via election or temporary measures, but the protests raise questions about the stability of these regimes. Many of the countries were ‘leftist’, so with the loss of popular support some critics are calling it the ‘gradual disenchantment’ with the once lauded ‘pink tide’.
3. You go, Chavez: the death of the Bolivarian leader
In March, after months of fighting cancer, the self-elected leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, passed away. His death left significant questions in his own country, where the uncharismatic Nicolas Maduro won a narrow majority in April’s elections. The victory was a shallow one, based on Chavez’s legacy, and within months hyper-inflation, rolling blackouts and a peculiar toilet-paper shortage reignited concerns about the future of Chavismo. His death also left a power gap in Chavez’s Pan-American revolution, with no obvious leftist leader to continue the regionalisation he had started. The result: further doubts cast on the readiness or plausibility of a regional union based on genuine action, rather than one based purely on ideas.
4. Change in Tune: the slow dismantlement of Cuba’s Revolution
Relatively under-reported were the small, yet significant, changes in the structure of Cuba’s governance. Whilst Raul maintained his strict grip on the political system, he has been responsible for enacting several policies which could, come 2014, signal future changes. The dual-currency has been scrapped, a Special Economic Zone was created in the town of Muriel and Castro has announced plans for a large increase in foreign direct investment. In a recognition of ‘social competition’ as well, Cuban sports stars have been permitted to keep some of their cash from foreign competitions and even immigration laws have been relaxed. Perhaps Obama noticed these changes more than the press when he shook hands with Raul at Mandela’s memorial event in December? Or more likely he was just trying to avoid an awkward situation…
5. Liberal Discourse: a year of social progression
It has been a year of significant legal changes in social attitudes. Whilst the majority of Latin American’s might still be unsure about homosexuals, Brazil, parts of Mexico and Colombia have seen significant changes in their legal status of gays. The high-profile case of Uruguay, where marijuana has been legalised, was also seen as a more ‘liberal’ alternative approach to fighting the drugs war. Whilst machismo is still a grave problem, women have never been more represented in regional politics. More worryingly is the curbing of free speech in Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador, which have raised concerns as to whether liberalism is being employed until it contradicts with the purposes of the leaders, rather than the interest of the public.
6. War, then Peace: the beginning of the end for guerrilla movements
After 50 years of conflict, 2013 saw the first feasible peace talks between Colombia’s government and their deteriorating nemesis the FARC rebels. Some 220,000 have been killed, with millions displaced, but the negotiations aim to appease both sides. There has already been an agreement on land reform, FARC’s primary grievance, but their political status remains a big challenge. With 2014 being an election year, it might encourage President Santos to push for a conclusion in the overwhelmingly backed talks and bring about an end to Latin America’s longest – and perhaps final – civil war, ending an era in the region’s history.
7. Secrets out there: a bad year for US-Latin American relation
America has always seen Latin America as its back yard which it could look out for and protect, even if they didn’t need or want it. But the age of unwanted intervention and economic dominance is slowing down. In August, allegations of the NSA monitoring Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s calls ended in a diplomatic catastrophe. Rousseff cancelled a trip to the United States, putting at risk US plans for the country to have a greater role in regional crises. Within days of the allegation, it was reveled that America’s neighbour, Mexico, had also been a victim of the NSA. But whilst anti-American rhetoric is popular, it is unlikely America, whether directly or indirectly, will loosen its grip on Latin America, despite Obama’s talk of ‘partnerships’.