Observations of an expat: Latin Fandango

South America is in a mess. The problems stretch from Patagonia to Cartagena and further north into Central America and Mexico.

Almost everywhere there is violence, political instability and economic problems.

The main spotlight has been shone on Brazil. The Portuguese-speaking nation is the economic giant of South America. Its GDP is four times the next largest Latin economy and the eighth largest in the world. Brazil has tremendous potential and political problems.

It is deeply divided after left-winger Luiz Inacio da Silva (aka Lula) narrowly defeated right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in October elections.

Bolsonaro and his supporters has claimed the elections were rigged and demanded a re-run. Thousands of Bolsonaristas (as they are called) stormed government offices in the capital Brasilia including Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. 1,200 have been arrested.

But the real problem is not the validity of the elections but the deep divide between Brazil’s political left and right. Conservatives, which include the military, police, middle classes and growing Christian evangelical movement, view Lula as a crypto-communist set on destroying Brazilian democracy and taking their country down the path of Cuba or Venezuela. Bolsonaro’s opponents worry that he will return Brazil to a military dictatorship.

To the south, Argentina is suffering another bout of Peronism and a division at the top of the country’s political structure. President Alberto Fernandez and Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner simply don’t speak to each other. On top of that, Ms Kirchner has been convicted of fraud totalling $1 billion.

The resultant political vacuum and distractions at the top of the Argentine political tree, coupled with Peronism’s irresponsible spending has left the country with a crippling debt and 100 percent inflation rate. Thirty-seven percent of the country live below the poverty line.

Then there is Peru. In one week in 2020 Peru had three presidents in only five days. Exactly who is the current president is open for debate. Left-wing ex-school teacher President Pedro Castillo was arguing with his right-wing Congress. So he dissolved it and declared a state of emergency.

A raft of ministers resigned and Congress impeached President Castillo, threw him into jail and swore in Vice-President Dina Boularte as his replacement. From his jail cell, Castillo maintains he is the rightful president, as did the scores of rioters who died in the past month demanding Castillo’s release.

The war in the Ukraine has provided a reprieve of sorts for Venezuela’s beleaguered Nicholas Maduro. It has pushed up the price of the country’s only major export – oil, and forced Washington to improve relations. Inflation is dropping but is still at 156 percent a year. In 2021 it averaged 686.41 percent.

In neighbouring Colombia, former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro faces challenges from the left and right. He switched from the armed struggle to peaceful politics when FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016. But other guerrilla groups have remained in the field under the banner of the National Liberation Army. The government has been holding talks with the rebels in Mexico, but so far the results are disappointing.

At the same time, President Petro has angered the Colombian right by increasing welfare spending and raising taxes for the wealthy. Recently there was an attempted assassination of Vice-President Francia Marquez, Colombia’s first Black woman vice-president. It is not clear whether the bomb was planted by extremists on the right or the left, but she rose to prominence as an environmental activist fighting illegal mining activities.

Forthcoming elections in Paraguay have a surprising international dimension. Paraguay is the only South American country to have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Its recognition of the island country has been a long-standing policy of the country’s dominant right-wing Colorado Party. But Paraguay’s beef and soya farmers want access to the Chinese market so opposition Liberal Party candidate Efrain Alegre has promised to break with Taipei and forge links with Beijing.

Both Taiwan and Mainland China are pouring money into the campaigns of the opposing parties and elections will be held on 30 October.

A bit further north in Central America there are endemic problems of civil war, gang warfare and drug-related political corruption in Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. The stand-out island of stability and prosperity is Costa Rica.

Political instability anywhere provides opportunities for exploitation by outside powers. In the case of South America, there is talk of Chinese naval facilities in Tierra del Fuego and Panama. Both Russia, Iran and China have close ties with Nicholas Maduro.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Peter Hirst 18th Jan '23 - 4:22pm

    You do paint a dismal picture of present politics in Latin America. I suppose you could argue it mirrors its cultural image. If you take a peaceful transition of power as the fundamental basis for a democracy at least we don’t have any active civil wars on that continent.

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