Why Latin America Is Looking So Grim Again

Scandals and stagnation, crime and curbs on democracy are spreading across the region. Are things about to take a sharp turn back to the bad old days?

In Buenos Aires after the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman
In Buenos Aires after the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman
Daniel Zovatto


BUENOS AIRES — An economic slowdown in Latin America is coinciding with increasing social unease, a spate of corruption scandals, sharp drops in the popularity of several presidents and a more complicated panorama overall for regional governance.

Arguably the most troubled country at the moment is Venezuela, which is witnessing more polarization, more repression and the degradation of its institutions. President Nicolás Maduro has in recent weeks intensified the persecution of political opponents, denouncing (yet) another attempted coup and arresting the mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma.

The Venezuelan leader has wound up in a face-to-face standoff with Washington, and in a bizarre twist, Maduro even decided to compare himself to Joseph Stalin.

In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reacted strongly to the Feb. 18 "march of silence" — a mass homage to the prosecutor and government critic Alberto Nisman, recently found dead in his home. She is denouncing the creation of a "judicial party" she accuses of planning a legal and media attack, intended to undermine her government.

The situation is equally complex in Mexico, where President Enrique Peña Nieto wasted the "Mexican Moment" that followed his coming to office in late 2012 and is now desperately trying to get his reforms agenda back on track. By doing so he hopes to boost his position ahead of mid-term parliamentary elections, set for July 7, that promise to impact, one way or another, the final three years of his presidency.

In Brazil, in the meantime, a stagnant economy combined with corruption scandals involving the partially state-owned energy giant Petrobras are torpedoing the approval numbers of President Dilma Rousseff, who was reelected just five months ago.

Anti-Rousseff protest in Belo Horizonte, Brazil — Photo: Sebastian Freire

On the other side of the continent, in the Andean region, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is struggling with popularity problems as well. He is also being painted into a corner by the legislature, which used the threat of a parliamentary vote of censure to force a major Cabinet shuffle.

There are even problems in Chile, often hailed as the region's "model" country, where President Michelle Bachelet finds herself in a vigorous confrontation with opposition conservatives as she tries to push through an ambitious reforms program amid fallout from various corruption and influence-peddling scandals, including one that involves her own son.

And in Central America, acute poverty, fragile state institutions, high corruption and crime levels and now, penetration by drug cartels, have created a particularly alarming situation, especially in the so-called northern triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras).

Key elections coming up

Latin America is also witnessing a notable rise in public frustration over corruption, nepotism, impunity and bad public services. Scandals are popping up just about everywhere, either involving national leaders or people related to them (Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Peru), former leaders (Panama) or institutions of great importance (Petrobras).

Is what we're seeing here the end of a cycle? Will these happenings prompt a change in the region's political and electoral scenario?

For the Feb. 18 "march of silence" to honor Alberto Nisman — Source: Yo Soy Nisman

In most of the dozen presidential elections that took place in Latin America between 2013 and 2014, incumbent governments managed to retain power even though in a number of cases, especially in South America, changing and less favorable conditions forced them to compete in runoffs.

It is increasingly clear, nevertheless, that a combination of factors (slowed growth, less poverty reduction, more social tensions, anger over increasing corruption and declining support for leaders) will make government much more complicated in several states.

I wonder: Will regional democratic institutions be able to adapt to this new and complex scenario? Do regional democracies have the political leadership and institutional buffers needed to face (with less public revenue due to the end of the commodities boom) more complex governing conditions and situations of greater social conflict?

Of the elections scheduled for this year, two are particularly relevant as indicators of a possible change of cycle. One is the still unscheduled legislative election in Venezuela, where the opposition (assuming it can unite) is in an excellent position to do well in spite of increasing government repression and lack of guarantees that the election will be entirely free and fair.

The other is the presidential election in Argentina, which will not only end the Kirchner era but could also push Peronism — the current government's highly resilient mother ideology — out of power. Will the opposition in both states manage to position themselves as real and credible alternatives to the ruling parties? In coming months, we should keep our eyes on these, the two mothers of all regional elections.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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