The new year opens with jittery uncertainty in Latin America, after a sorely disappointing 2017. The past 12 months brought to the fore concerns about democratic volatility in Venezuela and Honduras, economic stagnation in Brazil and Mexico, and crime, insecurity, and corruption basically everywhere else. Add to this the profoundly destabilizing effects of the Donald Trump presidency, with its ultra-nationalist rhetoric and unwillingness to treat America’s southern neighbors with respect, and it’s easy to see why so many in the region are so apprehensive.
Here are some important political stories regarding Latin America to watch for in 2018:
Elections across the region: As Honduras continues to deal with the aftermath of its disputed presidential election, several of its neighbors are preparing to hold electoral contests of their own, including two giants: Mexico and Brazil. Few observers expect the chaos seen in Honduras will be replicated elsewhere, but it’s safe to say that the traditional political order in all of these countries is seriously disrupted. Mexico seems poised to elect left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which will indubitably increase tensions in the Mexico-U.S. relationship. Brazil seems to be leaning left as well, but anyone who is elected to office will have to deal with distrust and animosity after all of the country’s major political actors came under suspicion of corruption. Other countries, such as Colombia and Costa Rica, will likely see a significant change at the top of their governments.
Economic trouble: Latin American economies grew, barely, in 2017 and are expected to continue that trend in the coming year (the glaring exception is Venezuela, see below). But many observers are concerned about Mexico’s short-term prospects. Because of the terrible relations with the Trump administration, and the stalling of negotiations to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico stands to lose billions in investment from transnational corporations. In addition, Trump’s stance against immigration from Latin America (both legal and illegal), suggests that remittances from Latin workers in the U.S. will decrease, hurting not only the Mexican economy but those of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
The impending collapse in Venezuela: In his end-of-the-year speech to the nation last Sunday, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro seemed to be looking at an alternative reality when he celebrated the “positive year” his country enjoyed. To combat the economy’s runaway inflation, Maduro announced yet another raise to the minimum wage and to pensions for state workers. There’s general agreement among economists that this move will be thoroughly ineffective. Some warn that Venezuela could experience an inflation rate of 2,000 percent in 2018. And that’s assuming that the country’s political and social divisiveness doesn’t degrade into street violence or, worse, civil war.
Crime, violence, and the drug war: again, the actions of the Trump administration will affect the dynamics across Latin America. On the one hand, it appears as if the focus for U.S. health and law enforcement agencies will be the opioid epidemic rather than the contraband of illegal drugs from the southern border. On the other hand, Trump has publically declared war on the Los Angeles-based Salvadoran gang MS-13, which could eventually involve American operations in Central America and beyond. In the meantime, violent crime continues to ravage Latin America. Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador all boast top spots in the global rankings for homicide rates. Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are not far behind.
Corruption: The fallout from the Odebrecht case, one of the largest bribery and corruption schemes ever made public, will continue. This and other instances of widespread corruption continue to show that who is in power, right or left, populist or technocrat matters little as long as the basic institutions of law and order are not respected. Ironically, though, the fact that all of these corruption rinks have been unveiled is good news. It shows that legal authorities, at the national and international levels, are fighting harder for transparency and accountability. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and Latin Americans will have some reasons to cheer during 2018.