Over the last week, the extensive media coverage of the fires raging in the Amazon has caught the attention of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries. The G-7 meeting of western nations offered $20 million (U.S.) in aid and urged the Brazilian government of right populist president Jair Bolsonaro to take measures to contain the growing inferno in the Brazilian Amazon. What is happening in the Amazon is a disaster of horrific proportions is beyond doubt; the fires are destroying vegetation and wildlife and threatening the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous peoples who live there.
While some observers, both journalistic and academic, maintain that Latin American politics is either moving to the political right or becoming less polarized, the clearest trend is rising political turmoil with a final destination that is far from clear. Political polarization continues to be an integral part of the Latin American political scene.
During the past two decades, China’s rapid economic growth and pressing need for commodities has resulted in increased trade and investment in Latin America, along with expanded lending operations to fund important infrastructural projects. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has largely neglected the region and at times shown outright disdain. Amid the current Chinese/American trade spat, President Donald Trump is visiting a South American country (Peru) for the first time this week where he is expected to warn Latin Americans against continued close trade ties with China. The question is: what does U.S. Chinese rivalry mean for Latin America? Under the current circumstances: perhaps some short-term gains for some countries, but in the longer-term, Latin America needs to find its own development path, one that is as independent as possible from both the ideologies and interests of these two powers.
On Sunday, February 4th Ecuador held a popular consultation (consulta popular) on seven questions; five of which were binding while the remaining two are to guide the government in developing future policies. There are strongly opposed opinions on the meaning of this public consultation and on its consequences for Ecuadorian politics and for the political left. The case provides us with insights into the Latin American political dilemma.
In Mexico, earthquakes and politics are closely intertwined. The country’s 1985 earthquake (centred in Mexico City with a magnitude of 8.1) left 10,000 dead and 30,000 injured. It proved to be a defining political moment in the country’s politics. The failure of the government of President Miguel Hurtado to respond to the devastation, including his refusal of outside assistance, prompted widespread grassroots social mobilization. Spontaneously, thousands of assistance groups organized themselves to come to the aid of earthquake victims. A great many of these newly formed civil society organizations, and their opposition to the government, has been fueled by its callousness in the face of the earthquake tragedy, and has formed the bases of a new political front (the National Democratic Front) that challenged the ruling party (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, PRI) in the 1988 presidential election. It is widely believed that the PRI presidential candidate lost that election although the party managed to hang onto power. Faced with clear evidence of impending defeat, the government closed down the country’s computerized voting system, rejigged the vote tally, and declared victory. But Mexico’s transition to electoral democracy had begun. The use of electoral fraud gradually diminished as it became important to convince the country’s new NAFTA partners that Mexico was a worthy trade partner. By 1997, the ruling party had lost control of Congress and by 2000 the presidency.
When I teach Latin American politics, I usually begin by counselling my Canadian undergraduates that it is important to resist the natural human inclination to pass judgement. It is tempting to do so because Latin American politics is rife with authoritarian strong men, corruption, and procedural irregularities. However, in the words of Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, “History never really says goodbye. History says, 'See you later.'” This is particularly true when trying to make sense of the current turmoil in Venezuela. The Venezuelan crisis is the culmination of a complex and long historical process. Contrary to much of the mainstream media, it is not a good versus evil struggle between the forces of repression and the forces of democracy.
With the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998, the country became the darling of the intellectual left. Chavez pledged to confront the country’s reactionary oligarchy and redistribute the bounty from the country’s petroleum wealth to eradicate poverty, and deprivation. Until recently, supported by buoyant international petroleum prices, the “socialist” experiment seemed to work fairly well, although with intermittent and growing political tensions and increasing political polarization. Between 1999 and 2011, poverty and infant mortality rates declined. Today, however, the country faces a severe economic and humanitarian crisis involving inflation of over 700 percent, rising poverty, severe shortages in food and medical supplies, and burgeoning crime rates. Venezuela is now one of the world’s most violent countries.
There is now a growing chorus of opinion calling for Global South countries with substantial production in extractive industries (mining, petroleum, gas) to utilize the tax revenue from this production to bring about widespread improvements in living standard. An array of institutions, from the International Monetary Fund, to the World Bank, to a variety of United Nations entities, including the United Nations Development Program have all weighed in on this issue. The substantial rise in commodity prices, between the early 2000s and 2013, generated wealth that (theoretically) could have been used for development programs, especially for social programs (conditional cash transfer programs being one of favorites) and for infrastructural development. There is a consensus that while the commodity boom brought about some improvements in many African countries, for example, the results in terms of improved inclusion could have been considerably better than they were.