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Latin America’s Top 5 News Stories of 2012

By Robert Valencia

This year’s foreign affairs spotlight shone brightly on the uprisings in Syria and Libya, the Israeli-Hamas conflict, the Euro crisis, and the U.S. presidential elections, but once again left developments in Latin America in the shadows. The region experienced several momentous events in 2012 that the world should have paid more attention to, from key presidential elections to territorial disputes. Here are the top stories from 2012 that will have an impact in 2013 and beyond.   

The War on Drugs (and the Elections of Barack Obama, and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico)

The War on Drugs is the single most important issue facing the region. Although the Obama administration victoriously claimed in August that Colombia is no longer the world’s top cocaine producer, neither the illicit drug trade nor cartel-related deaths have subsided. Most recently, former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—alongside Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, and twelve Nobel laureates—signed a letter to upend the current approach to the drug war.

The success of this petition will depend on the actions taken by Obama and Peña Nieto, because the War on Drugs is concentrated on the U.S./Mexico border. Because Peña Nieto inherited a seemingly futile battle against the Mexican cartels from Felipe Calderón, he has pledged a different approach to security. 2013 will show how this new approach plays out. 

Hugo Chávez’s Reelection and the Bolivarian Revolution’s Future  

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez emerged victorious for the fourth consecutive time in October, yet his administration will still face challenges this year. The opposition, led by Henrique Capriles Radonski, narrowed the electoral votes considerably, setting a precedent in Venezuelan politics that may help them clinch several Congressional seats in the next election. On top of this, Chávez also has to cope with high inflation rates and a weak economy. 

After Chávez’s election, many insisted that the Bolivarian Revolution and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas would live on, but on December 9 Chávez announced that he would undergo yet another surgery in Cuba for his abdominal cancer. His health condition could threaten his ability to complete his term, and he has made some declarations that may indicate  a possible transition of power. He recommended that current vice president Nicolás Maduro, for example, take the presidential seat should something happen to him. This uncertainty begs the question: can the Revolution survive without Chávez?

The Colombia-Nicaragua Dispute over the San Andres Archipelago

On November 19, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Colombia will maintain its sovereignty over the San Andres archipelago. The Court also granted more maritime territories to Nicaragua, though, decimating Colombia’s control over its share of the Caribbean Sea. The decision sparked outrage among the raizales (native archipelago inhabitants), whose local economy relies heavily on fishing and tourism. With the withdrawal of maritime territories from Colombia, Nicaragua may begin exploring for oil beneath the Caribbean mantle; according to inhabitants  of San Andres, this would threaten pristine coral reefs. Colombia, for its part, has said it won’t obey the ICJ decision, and will seek a diplomatic exit with Nicaragua in the next few months.

The ICJ decision will create a ripple effect in the way territorial disputes are handled across Latin America: Panama may enter into the Colombia-Nicaragua dispute decision if its maritime interests are jeopardized; Costa Rica has also expressed support of Colombia’s decision to not abide by the ruling; Colombia may revise another maritime dispute with Venezuela over the Los Monjes Archipelago; and Peru and Chile will find out how the ICJ will rule on their dispute over 38,000 square kilometers of maritime territory. 

The Colombian Peace Process

The Santos administration and the guerrillas began a new round of peace talks on October 17 to end Latin America’s oldest armed conflict. The first round began in Oslo, and dialogue continued in Havana starting on November 19. Despite offering a glimpse of hope, these talks have exposed stark differences between the guerrillas and the Colombian government: the guerrillas want Simón Trinidad, a former FARC rank-and-file who is imprisoned in the United States, to be part of negotiations. The Colombian government rejected the petition to include him. 

Both sides, however, agree that peace must be reached at all costs. Both the guerrilleros and the government agreed to a cease-fire, and President Juan Manuel Santos is hopeful that, after many attempts to reach peace over the last 30 years, it may now be a feasible outcome. Santos hopes the conflict can be solved by the end of 2013.

Brazil as the World’s Sixth Largest Economy

In the last Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, an unprecedented scenario took place: A Brazilian chief of staff shared the stage with a U.S. President, an omen that Brazil must be taken seriously when it comes to western hemispheric affairs. In that event, Moderator Chris Matthews congratulated Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on displacing the United Kingdom as the world’s sixth largest economy.

Booming as it may be, Brazil’s economy still faces the challenges that come with rapid development. Though the Brazilian middle-class is growing, its per capita income still lags behind the world’s largest economies (it remains at $11,000), and security issues in large urban sprawls remain a threat to Brazilians’ prosperity. Nevertheless, this country seems to be bound to experience a larger economic bonanza with the discovery of new oil fields and with its growing agriculture industry. Finally, Brazil has expressed interest in adding more country members to MERCOSUR, the wealthiest economic bloc in South America. This year, we’ll see whether the MERCOSUR family will grow under Brazil's ever-expanding continental hegemony.

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Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

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