Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Key Issues for the Latin American Region in 2012

By Ludovico Feoli

At a recent informal workshop, Olivier Dabene, director of political science at Science Po, shared some interesting thoughts about potentially defining issues for Latin American politics in 2012. The following are some reflections that borrow freely from the workshop’s discussion.

The broad sweep of social movements in Chile which coincided with the arrival of the country’s first post-transition government of the right, suggests an important question: what should be expected as the left looses other elections across the region? Social protests have been relatively muted in countries where the left has held power, or at least the government has been seen as representing the interest of the social sectors. Notable examples are Brazil and perhaps also Venezuela. The greater inclusion and subsequent politization of different groups in the past few years has increased the power of movements. As the Bolivian case exemplifies, these movements can and have used their power effectively against unpopular policies, even those promoted by governments they helped rise to power. Would transitions to governments on the right, were they to happen, lead to an increase in political instability?

A closely related question is what should be considered tolerable levels of instability. A rise in the level of contentious political tactics, such as protests and public manifestations, is not something to bemoan, assuming it remains within tolerable bounds. As pointed out by workshop participants, we must broaden our understanding of democracy to include alternatives that privilege active participation in the public sphere over intermediation by representatives. Low levels of trust in traditional political parties and politicians make this an imperative if we are to understand the events in the region adequately. Our evaluations of democracy should be informed by substantive aims. and judgments about procedural failings should be tempered by the ultimate impact on the common good. The key test for leftist regimes will be their respect for the democratic process. Would they cede power if the electoral tide turns against them? Would they call on the military barracks to settle differences if polarization comes to a head? The year 2012 will bring important presidential elections that may bring these issues to the fore, particularly in Venezuela.

In the realm of international relations, Brazil has been the rising regional power, led by its aspiration for a leading role on the broader international stage. The Brazilian model of socially grounded and pragmatic economic development has had greater appeal than the more radical alternatives to its left or right. Would a return to power of the PRI lead Mexico to exercise a more assertive challenge to Brazilian regional leadership. If so, what would be the consequences? How will this affect the main regional integration options—UNASUR and the newly created CELAC?

Latin America is enjoying favorable economic circumstances, largely due to a China-driven resource boom. While a reversion of this boom does not seem imminent, it would be informative to consider the sustainability of generous social policies in the event of an economic deterioration. Some countries in the region, like Argentina or Venezuela, already face inflationary strains. How would an inability to sustain popular policies impinge upon leftist governments? The advances of the region in the reduction of poverty and inequality have been notable. But if the global economy forced a reversion of these gains, what would be the political implications? A particularly ominous prospect would be the unraveling of the Euro zone and the advent of a broader European sovereign debt crisis. While European leaders recently have given assurances that they will not allow this to happen, the likely outcome still remains highly uncertain. At the very least a European recession seems highly likely, and this might also have broader consequences for our region.

In sum, changing electoral and economic contexts may alter the current balance of political and economic affairs in the region during 2012. Intensification of social mobilizations, balancing maneuvers by regional powers, and new challenges for the sustainability of social policies should all be on our radar.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Ludovico Feoli

    Permanent Researcher and CEO, CIAPA, Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University

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