Latin America's tumultuous year turns expectations on their head

2020 could bring another year of turmoil for Latin America after the dramatic events of 2019 from the Caribbean to Chile

Celso Amorim joined Brazil’s foreign service nearly six decades ago and rose all the way to its top but even he struggles to recall a Latin American year like 2019.

“Like this? Never before,” Brazil’s former foreign minister said of the tumultuous 12 months that have seen social and political upheaval rattle the region, from Buenos Aires to Bogotá.

The final year of the decade was only 23 days old when the turmoil began with an explosion of dissent on the streets of Venezuela that most observers felt sure would displace its authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.

Mass protests, frantic predictions of Maduro’s imminent downfall, and a botched military uprising followed before Juan Guaidó’s campaign to topple Hugo Chávez’s heir fizzled and an uneasy calm returned.

But elsewhere the action was only just beginning, as a wave of protests and violence swept Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ecuador and Bolivia – where President Evo Morales was forced from office amid a bloody military crackdown – leaving some wondering if a Latin American Spring had arrived.

In Peru the president dissolved congress; in Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner staged a dramatic political comeback; and in Colombia hundreds of thousands flooded the streets in opposition to the rightwing president, Iván Duque.

Even Chile, supposedly a haven of Latin American stability and affluence, was sucked into the mayhem as a hike in subway fares triggered its worst unrest in decades, leaving a trail of destruction and President Sebastián Piñera’s future in doubt.

“Where did that come from?” Ivan Briscoe, the International Crisis Group’s Latin America chief, wondered as he considered that country’s unexpected cameo in the chaos.

As a new year of uncertainty approached, Briscoe said he sensed “an acceleration of time” in the region.

A Bolivian indigenous woman, supporter of Bolivian ex-president Evo Morales, holds a Wiphala flag –representing native peoples – during a protest against the interim government in La Paz on 15 November.
A Bolivian indigenous woman, supporter of Bolivian ex-president Evo Morales, holds a Wiphala flag –representing native peoples – during a protest against the interim government in La Paz on 15 November. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

“Things which have been building up for years and years – whether it’s the social stratification of Chile; Evo Morales’s moves towards eternal power in Bolivia; the deeply hostile standoff in Venezuela – now seem to be breaking the surface in so many different contexts and leading to a situation where we fundamentally don’t know what is going to happen.

“I can tell you where I think the fault lines are going to be for next year,” he added. “But I can’t say exactly what is going to materialize.”

Some on Latin America’s left have sought comfort in the confusion.

Amorim, 77, painted the upheaval as a popular “counter-reaction” to the “onslaught of neoliberalism” besieging countries from Colombia to Chile.

“It is very difficult to say where we’re going,” he said. “But one thing is different: eight months ago, the appearance was that everything was going rightwing – totally rightwing. And now it’s not so clear. So that – in spite of all the problems – is some kind of progress.

“Latin America is in a moment of turbulence. But [for the left] turbulence is better than a death in the cemetery.”

As the year draws to a close, minds are turning to what comes next.

In a new report the Economist Intelligence Unit warned of a high risk of “protest contagion”, noting how Colombia’s protests were inspired by rebellions in neighbouring countries.

“There is a strong chance that 2020 will be another volatile year for Latin America,” the report said, predicting particularly choppy waters in Lenín Moreno’s Ecuador.

“It’s like a powder keg,” Amorim agreed. “At any moment that [country] could explode again.”

Juan Guaido tried and failed to unseat President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
Juan Guaido tried and failed to unseat President Nicolás Maduro but 2020 could see more unrest in Venezuela. Photograph: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters

Briscoe saw three likely 2020 flash points: Venezuela, as it fell deeper into political and humanitarian ruin; Brazil and Argentina, as a diplomatic spat intensified between their ideologically opposed leaders; and Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is struggling to control a historic murder crisis claiming almost 100 lives a day.

Mass demonstrations rocked Mexico in 2014 after the disappearance of 43 students shocked the nation and Briscoe said a repeat was possible if the killing did not slow.

Briscoe also foresaw strife in Bolivia if the ultra-conservative activist Luis Fernando Camacho reached the second-round of fresh presidential elections and faced a candidate from Evo Morales’s leftist Movement Towards Socialism.

“I’d say we will be facing a very tricky period … In Colombia, in Chile, but also Brazil, Mexico and Argentina there is potential for things to go very wrong indeed.

“We are sitting on a minefield of social discontent,” Briscoe added, identifying Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Chile as other potential “danger spots”.

Observers are split on whether Latin America’s biggest economy runs the risk of unrest, with former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recently urging followers to “follow Chile’s example” and rebel against the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

A demonstrator holds a cardboard cutout depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 8 December .
A demonstrator holds a cardboard cutout depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 8 December . Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

Some argue Bolsonaro’s shock 2018 election has helped channel anti-establishment rage away from the streets, for now. But Monica de Bolle, a Latin America expert from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Brazil could easily be next.

“The moment right now – as of this very second – is not one where people are going to go out in the streets and demonstrate. But things are not static – things are dynamic,” she said.

“I think it’s very, very likely that some time soon – and soon could be 2020 or the end of 2020 – people will realize that this is not an economy that is going to grow much because the policies are not there and the agenda doesn’t exist … [and] then Bolsonaro’s support immediately drops.

“That may lead to something like we’ve seen in Brazil in the past few years and it could even be a 2013-type scenario,” she said, referring to the mass demonstrations that paved the way for Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment three years later.

Amorim also predicted his country could face tumult as public anger at Bolsonaro’s failings grew.

“There hasn’t yet been a popular reaction [against Bolsonaro] – but I think it will come. If there’s a small spark it could very easily propagate,” he said.

But perhaps not quite yet.

“Everything here in Brazil is slow,” Amorim admitted. “Except samba.”


Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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