Power Shifts, Chile Protests And Peru Election Mark Wild Year In Latin America

Massive protests, economic worries and Mother Nature made 2011 a particularly turbulent year. Latin America was hardly exempt. Hugo Chávez came down with cancer. Dilma Rousseff took on government corruption. And in Mexico, a bloody drug war killed thousan

New Peruvian President Ollanta Humala (left) with Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff
New Peruvian President Ollanta Humala (left) with Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff


SANTIAGOThis was supposed to a be a lucky year, at least according to the Chinese Zodiac. But 2011 – the year of the Rabbit – turned out instead to be one for the dogs as far as the world's politicians, world leaders, bankers and investors were concerned.

For Latin America, 2011 was filled with chaos and uncertainty, leaving many leaders spellbound as to how the economic crisis playing out in Europe and the United States will affect their strapping but still fragile economies.

This past year, the tectonic plates in the Pacific – the so-called Ring of Fire -- once again became unsettled, causing a devastating tsunami that crippled Japan's Fukushima reactors and reminded everyone just how important it is to treat nuclear energy with caution. But despite tsunamis and varying cultures, languages and production systems, the Pacific Rim is the part of the world where free trade has the best chance of prospering over the coming decade.

On this side of the great ocean, Chile and Peru ended the year heading in seemingly opposite directions. The Chilean peso sank while the Peruvian sol increased in value. Chile's conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, saw his once-soaring popularity take a nosedive amidst months of massive student demonstrations. In the meantime, his Peruvian counterpart, the nationalist Ollanta Humala, surpassed all expectations. Humala began his five-year term with the pledge both to maintain the pace of his country's barreling economy and more evenly distribute the country's resources.

In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff is at the helm of a huge vessel filled with frenzied and fearful passengers. The ongoing fight against government corruption and her fiscal and monetary policies have opened the door for an economic slowdown. This change of pace can affect a good part of Latin America, especially Argentina, whose automotive industry is dependant on Brazilian pocketbooks.

For the first time in Venezuela, the future of the Bolivarian Revolution is under threat. Hugo Chávez is seriously ill -- at death's doors, according to his enemies. His illness has turned Venezuela into a tinder box ready to ignite unless a united, moderate and realistic opposition can decipher what Venezuelans really want.

This scenario is already being anticipated with appeasement gestures by the governments of Ecuador and Nicaragua, which are striving to rebuild their relations with Washington. The question now is whether Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has already disappointed his own party base with rising food prices, will do the same.

Will Mexico's PRI strike back?

Even if Chávez's problems with cancer turn out to be exaggerated, there's a chance he will lose the presidency next year to the opposition. There's an even greater possibility of an opposition takeover in Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which had governed for nearly 70 years before it was defeated by Vicente Fox and the current ruling National Action Party (PAN) in 2000 – is making a robust comeback. What's not clear is if a PRI government would fare any better than the current administration of President Felipe Calderón when it comes to Mexico's drug wars, which have already claimed more than 10,000 lives.

In Central America the situation is even worse. The unsuccessful attempt by Guatemala's first lady to win the presidency through a sham divorce from President Álvaro Colom was just a relatively minor example of how the region's governing institutions are challenged. Perhaps the biggest threat comes from the region's epidemic of violent crime and drug trafficking. With little actual help from the United States – the real anti-drug sheriff in the region – the narco bosses have their tentacles extended throughout Central America.

One of the biggest paradoxes of the year has been that, despite the political impasse in Washington, there was a high demand for U.S. Treasury bonds and the dollar rose. Latin America's most important currencies, on the other hand, lost value toward the end of the year. The only exceptions were Paraguay's guaraní and the currencies of the long suffering Central American nations. Perhaps these were just market quirks?

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo – dilmarousseff

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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