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  • Writer's pictureJuan Francisco Muñoz Gómez

Something is Happening in Latin America

Sometimes, even for us, students and practitioners of International Relations, the world is so big that certain events fall outside of our observation range. Today, if you live in Europe or its surroundings, there are certain situations that, even if you do not want them to, require much of your attention: the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent escalation in the arms race and nuclear war threats; price rises in energy, particularly, with the shadow of a cold winter staring at us; supply chain problems aggravated by several months of lockdowns, sanctions and even a ship blocking the Suez Canal; lack of wheat or sunflower oil; Russia, the US, NATO, China…

That is why, sometimes, I deem it necessary to get out of this part of the world, to learn and observe other dynamics that are taking place elsewhere. I would like to recommend you take a look at America, but don’t let yourselves be confused by the name. America is more than the USA, and it is in the midst of change or maybe not. In any case, let's shift our focus to the global south for a minute, because in Latin America something is happening.

And what is taking place? Two latest events.

Colombia held presidential elections last May and June, giving a narrow victory to the leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla fighter converted to a politician, and Vice President Francia Márquez, the first black person to hold such a position in the Colombian government. This victory was historical. A leftist candidate had never been in government in Colombia since its independence 200 years ago. Indeed, there was a constant ban on leftist parties from attending elections, leading them to be relegated to guerilla warfare, with subsequent involvement in the drug trade. Such a situation developed to extreme levels of violence and only started seeing some closure in 2016-17, when FARC, the largest guerilla group, signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government that is still to be developed and implemented fully.

For a country that has been the backbone of the US and liberal policies on the continent, having a leftist president and a black vice president- that has made her life a fight for black and indigenous rights- we are witnessing a historic milestone.

On the southern tip of the continent, but still sharing an ocean, Chile held elections in 2021, giving the presidency to the leftist leader Gabriel Boric. After massive protests all over the country in 2019 and 2020, the youngest-ever president of the country surrounded himself with a parity-composed government, with a massive objective ahead-writing a new constitution that would free Chile from its previous one, written during Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1980. Since the beginning, President Boric has made calls for all political forces to participate in making a constitution that would be for all the Chilean people, not just for some. In the 70s, Chilean President Salvador Allende was killed in a US-backed coup, and the country became the testing ground for the Neo-Liberal policies of the “Chicago Boys” during the 70s, something that made it at the same time one of the richest countries in Latin America, and one of the most privatized and unequal.

These two are the latest examples of what we could consider a leftist rebirth in Latin America. The continent had been largely controlled by US interests during the Cold War, promoting dictators and funding coups all over in order to maintain its sphere of influence, especially after Castro’s revolution in Cuba and later embargo. In a time of great power competition, the US could not allow its backyard to be infiltrated by Soviet allies, and it was arguably successful in avoiding it. However, during the first decade of this century, several leftist governments arose on the continent with strong leaders (an important characteristic of Latin American rule) that sought to get away from the US influence and unite in a Latin American feeling. Prominent examples of those are Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Cristina Fernández in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

During this time, loads of money were fueled to the lower classes of the countries, curving down inequality, while boosting indigenous rights. Nevertheless, corruption (which is a major problem in most if not all countries in the region) and general mismanagement of resources, as well as the 2008 financial crisis, among other particular issues, led to a wave of conservatism in the following elections all over the continent. A reinforcement of neoliberal policies followed, and several governments sided with the US in many of its foreign policy objectives, which, in my opinion, reached its peak with the support of the US sanctions towards Venezuela in the late 10s. Once again, what we are seeing all over the continent is a reaction to those liberal governments. All of the big states in Latin America, except for Brazil, have had elections lately, and they have all shifted towards the left. Even though this situation has similarities with the leftist rising in the first years of the century, and it seemed that it was just a “wave'', something seems to be there.

Photo by <a href="">Ross Sokolovski</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

The leftist victories in Colombia and Chile are not looking for a confrontation, they are clearly looking for consensus. Colombia still has to go through an internal peace process that comes across as tough and long, but with hopes for a better future for the country. Going as far as to incorporate other countries as guarantors. Chile is going through a historical moment that will require all its goodwill and hard work to bring a fruitful future to the country. Both states are examples of a progressive left that looks for consensus, peace, and a more cohesive Latin America. The challenge ahead is not easy, not even among the leftist governments. There is ideological unity since, for example, Pedro Castillo in Peru has the leftist approach but nothing progressive.

Still, keeping in mind that there are presidential elections in Brazil this October and the leftist candidate Lula da Silva seems to be winning in the polls, maybe, and just maybe, Latin America will see a real change.

It is left to see what position the US is in the region given the turbulent times all around the globe if the current Latin American governments will be able to deal with the multitude of endemic problems they face; violence, corruption, inequality, environmental degradation... But as I said in the beginning, sometimes we need to get out of our part of the world, and look elsewhere, so hear me out, because something is happening in Latin America.

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Rodrigo Muñoz Pérez
Rodrigo Muñoz Pérez
23. Aug. 2022

Muy buen artículo.

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