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Stuff to watch in Latin America in 2012

December 31, 2011

(Courtesy of Liam McDaid and the Sacramento City College Department of Physics, Astronomy & Geology.)

Analysts throughout the world are making predictions about what will happen in 2012. Most analyses deal with the various upcoming elections (for instance, Fareed Zakaria points out that four out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council could see major changes in government this year), which dictator will fall next, and which failed state will be the next to devolve into a civil war.

There really is so much going on between the Euro crisis, the Arab Spring, and the death of Kim Jong-il. I’m not about to try to make any predictions, but there are several situations developing within the Western Hemisphere that we should be aware of going into 2012.

Here are some of the issues I plan on watching as we enter the new year: first a look at hemispheric issues, and then some more specific issues broken down by sub-region.


1. In what U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has dubbed the Tour of Tyrants, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be visiting Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador in January. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen released a statement, asserting, in part: “Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere threatens regional security and stability. It is important that we join forces with other democracies in the region to counter and prevent further Iranian inroads in the Hemisphere and root out the threat posed by Iran, its proxies, and others who seek to do our nation harm.”

2. In April, OAS members, partner institutions, and social actors from throughout the Hemisphere will convene in Cartagena, Colombia for the VI Summit of the Americas. This will be the first meeting of a (Western Hemisphere) regional body since the founding of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). With the theme of “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity”, President Obama will need to present some strong ideas if he wants the US to regain influence within the region–as will Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, if the OAS is to do the same.

3. Under the troika system of governance, President Sebastián Piñera of Chile will take on leadership of the CELAC. James Bosworth has identified one of the main challenges of the CELAC as a question of substance vs. style. While it seems probable that the CELAC will still struggle to accomplish much due to its structure (or lack thereof), it is possible that the influence of Chilean leadership will bring at least some moderation to the rhetoric of the first meeting. This could help answer the question as to whether the CELAC will become a non-US organization or an anti-US organization.

North America

1. As the Euro–and perhaps the EU itself–struggles to stay afloat, some analysts are advocating for Britain to join NAFTA. This would be a shift from hemispheric-regional cooperation (North “American” Free Trade Agreement) to trans-regional cooperation (North “Atlantic” Free Trade Agreement). This is still just an idea, at this point, with no official diplomatic discussions. But if the UK does end up leaving the EU, trans-Atlantic trade might be a logical next step.

2. Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s Ambassador to the US, shared some slightly awkward wisdom recently: “As in all good families, there will be looniness and stupidity and flatulence on both sides of the border.” The Ambassador was speaking at a luncheon as he explained that both Mexico and the US will need to “Teflon-coat” their bilateral relations leading up to their respective election campaigns. He’s definitely right in that a lot of wild statements often pop up like flowers–or Venus Flytraps–along the campaign trail. Immigration will likely be a huge campaign issue in the US, while trade and policy related to the US-backed drug war might be more paramount in the upcoming Mexican elections. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see either or both campaigns address the issue of Operation Fast and Furious. Hopefully there won’t be too many casualties–political, diplomatic, or otherwise–along the way.

Central America

1. Nick Miroff reports for the Washington Post that the drug war is proving to be a test for Costa Rica. While other countries consider militarizing efforts to beat the cartels, this is not an option for the land of Pura Vida–the pure life. On Dec. 1st, Costa Ricans celebrated el Día de la Abolición del Ejército, the 62nd anniversary of the abolition of the military. While Costa Rica maintains small forces for law enforcement and foreign peacekeeping missions, establishing a permanent standing army has been unconstitional since 1949. The government has poured whatever funding it would use on military forces into education and social services. “But now,” according to Miroff, “with Mexican drug cartels moving in, Costa Rican exceptionalism is being challenged by the same criminal forces dragging down the rest of Central America.”

2. As violence continues to ravage the heart of Central America, the Peace Corps is drawing down its volunteer forces in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. All 158 Volunteers in Honduras will be coming home early in 2012. While the 113 Volunteers assigned to El Salvador and the 222 Volunteers currently serving in Guatemala will stay put, the Peace Corps will not be sending any more Volunteers to those countries until they have a chance to analyze and modify safety precautions, as needed.


1. Central America is not the only sub-region suffering under narcotraffickers. Puerto Rico has evolved from a transit location to a consumer location, complete with increases in drug cash seizures and drug-related homicide. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi recently proposed a Caribbean Border Initiative. His idea has been received by the resounding support of both Attorney General Eric Holder and ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske.

2. In Cuba, Raúl Castro is continuing the effort to modernize la Revolución. In a regime run by old revolutionaries who are in there 70’s and 80’s, Raúl seems to be concerned with the sustainability of la Revolución post-Fidel, post-Raúl. Oddly enough, some of these reforms seem almost frighteningly democratic.

Andean Region

1. Social politics in Venezuela are always worth watching. In fact, Venezuela was the only Latin American country to make Foreign Policy’s list of “Next Year’s Wars: Ten conflicts to watch in 2012”. While I’m still surprised that the list did not include Mexico, Haiti, or some of the other drug trade-ridden Central American countries, it’s not surprising that Venezuela would make the list, given that the article states that the murder rates in Venezuela are “twice those of Colombia and three times those of Mexico.”

2. In 1879, Chile began a nationalistic fervor-based campaign to expand her territory. La Guerra del Pacífico, or the War of the Pactific, ended in 1883. The chilenos successfully defeated both Peru and Bolivia. The resulting land loss has affected Bolivia far more than it has Peru. While Peru still has plenty of coastline, Bolivia is landlocked as a result of the war. With no access to a port, geography has contributed to the widespread poverty in Bolivia. Now, both Peru and Bolivia are taking Chile to court over the disputed territory. If the international courts rule in favor of Peru and Bolivia, it could potentially set a judicial precedent for every other post-war land grab in world history.

Southern Cone

1. Brazil, the only BRIC country in the Western Hemisphere, is continuing to grow. The London-based Center for Economics and Business Research recently announced that Brazil has passed the UK as the sixth largest economy in the world. Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega predicts that they will overtake France for the #5 spot by 2015.

2. As I’ve written about here and here, Argentina is working hard to make the Falklands/Malvinas dispute an international issue, instead of a bilateral one. While I don’t foresee another armed conflict any time soon, Argentina will probably continue increasing international pressure through MERCOSUR, UNASUR, and the UN, if they can. By “increasing pressure”, I mean that I think they’ll eventually begin encouraging other nations to step up their game and actually declare a national policy of supporting the Argentine claim to sovereignty over the Islands, instead of just saying, “Well, if that ship really is a British possession, she needs to hoist the Union Jack” (which actually kind of makes sense, at face value).

3. In an effort to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, the Chilean government is investing in a program called Start-Up Chile (SUP). The goal is to turn Santiago, Chile into a Latin American Silicon Valley. Check out Steve Blank’s blog post “Creating the Next Silicon Valley – The Chilean Experiment” for a great piece from an outsider’s perspective.

Of course, there are tons of other major developing stories within the Hemisphere, to include the imminent end of the world as we know it in 2012. But that’s only if we know the world by the Mayan calendar.

And even if you do buy into all that 2012 hype (see my post here), you still have to pay attention to the world around you until Dec. 21st.

On that note: Prospero Año Nuevo, y’all!

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