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  January 2, 2017

Latin America in 2016: The Resurgence of the Right Continues (2/2)


The second part of our look at how governments shifted to the right in Latin America in 2016, imposing neoliberal economics in amidst high dissatisfaction with government
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KIM BROWN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I'm Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Here for part two of our year in review for Latin America -- what political and economic and cultural happenings were most noteworthy, and what are the trends that we need to be looking at in this region? To continue this discussion, we're joined with our Latin American correspondent and producer, Greg Wilpert. He's joining us today from Quito, Ecuador.

Greg, in segment one we were discussing about countries that took a rightward shift in Latin America during 2016, but the left still remains a force to be reckoned with in the region, so let's go ahead and start with what's happening in the country of Venezuela, that has seen a tremendous amount of social and economic upheaval during this past year.

GREGORY WILPERT: Yes. Venezuela has been going through a very difficult situation, and perhaps in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm married to a fairly high level government official of Venezuela, so just should mention that.

But, I still try to be objective about what's happening and the problem is, it's a two-fold crisis in my opinion, in Venezuela. One is that it's been going through a severe economic crisis because of the decline in the price of oil, so that caused the government to severely restrict imports and this has been combined, unfortunately, with a high level of inflation, partly because there has been an attack from the outside on the currency, and also because I think, the government has made it relatively easy to attack the currency because of its exchange rate policy, that maintains several different exchange rates, which allows for arbitration for cheating and for, really, that is where people were importing things at a relatively low price, and then they can sell them again, either outside the country or within the country, at a very high price and make enormous profits. And they've been able to hoard lots of the currency. It's just a very profound economic turmoil that's going on.

For this reason, the opposition in Venezuela has seen this as an excellent opportunity to organize for a recall referendum, which is something that the Venezuelan Constitution allows. Actually, in 2004, President Hugo Chávez at the time was also facing a recall referendum, which he won very easily with 60% of the vote. But now, President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's successor, is hanging on a thread. However, for various reasons in terms of the irregularities in organizing the recall referendum, it hasn't been able to advance, and it's not clear whether it will go through next year. It might still, it might not, and actually I would say there's even a segment of the left that is - people who see themselves as being followers of Chávez who've also been very critical of the government, because of these economic policies, and it's going to be difficult to say whether or not President Maduro will be able to continue through the end of his term.

It's possible that he could face severe difficulties if the economic situation doesn't turn around, and he could face these difficulties from both the left and from the right. So, it remains to be seen, and, like I said, it's a very difficult situation because of the high levels of inflation, and high levels of scarcity in many of the basic goods.

But the government continues to pursue progressive policies, in the sense that relatively high social spending, of guaranteeing health and education to anyone, and so that's maintained a relatively, how should I say? A high level of popularity despite of the difficult situation.

KIM BROWN: And, Greg, you are based in Quito, Ecuador, so you can give us a firsthand accounting as to what has been happening in Ecuador, which again has been dealing with a natural disaster in the form of an earthquake, also economic recession, and the incumbent president has declined to seek re-election.

GREGORY WILPERT: Right. The earthquake that caught worldwide headlines because it was a very significant earthquake, and the reason it's worth mentioning is because it contributed to already a difficult economic situation in Ecuador. Something like 700 people were killed in that earthquake, and it involves redirecting many of the country's scarce resources towards rebuilding and reconstructing. And one of the reasons that the country already was going through an economically difficult time, was because, also the decline in the price of oil and Ecuador is a member of OPEC - is an oil-producing and exporting country, and so it's been very difficult because of that.

However, President Correa, he's very outspoken and he's an economist himself. I think he's done a much better job than, I'd say in Venezuela, in terms of steering through difficult economic situations, and staying on top of them. That's one of the reasons why he remains the country's by far, most popular politician, despite these economic problems.

However, he's already governed for two consecutive terms and technically, the new constitution that was passed a couple of years ago – I think it was 2007 or 2008 – doesn't allow for a third term. He could've reformed the Constitution. He's popular enough. But he declined to do that. So, now there's a presidential campaign underway because there will be elections in February, and it looks like the supporter of the president, that is, of Correa's party, is ahead in the polls right now and looks like he'll probably win and be able to continue the project of President Correa.

KIM BROWN: In Bolivia, we're still dealing with a couple of different issues there, including Evo Morales, the president, who lost re-election and also the issue of mining conflicts and how Bolivians are attempting to assert more control over their natural resources. Bring us up to speed.

GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah, well, the thing that Morales lost was not re-election, but a referendum about whether or not he could face another re-election. So, they held a referendum earlier this year whether or not to change the Constitution, to allow him to run for a third term, and he narrowly lost that election, so that was a blow to Morales because he, in contrast to Correa, he was very interested in running again for president. And now he won't be able to. Now, the presidential election is still another year or two away, but... and he also remains the country's most popular president, most popular politician.

But what happens after that, after Morales, is not clear because, like I said, he and his party remain popular, but there's no clear successor to him right now. At the same time Morales has been facing, and this also is related to what I mentioned earlier, the whole panorama for the region, which is the declining price of commodity prices and Bolivia doesn't depend so much on... actually, it doesn't depend at all on oil, instead it depends on gas, and other minerals that it exports, and the declining price in that has meant less revenue for the miners, and so there've been major mining conflicts. Actually, there was a major conflict back in, I think it was in August or so, or July, where a number of miners faced the police and even ended up killing the police and killing a Vice-Minister. So, it was a major conflict for Bolivia, where the Vice-Minister had come in to negotiate, to mediate, and he ended up being killed by the miners.

Now, finally, that conflict seems to have calmed down and has improved, but it was partly the result of the pursuit of, what I would say, are policies that were basically intended to benefit the cooperative mining sector and, that is, genuine cooperatives, and hurt the interests of some old, established mining interests that are not cooperatively run, and so in that sense, I think Morales was continuing progressive policies in Bolivia, even though he also, of course, faces criticisms and attacks from both the left and the right in Bolivia, but he's also managing to hold on to and remain quite - among the most popular politicians in Latin America.

KIM BROWN: And our last stop on the continent of South America is Chile. Greg, what has been the latest happening politically in Chile, with the current administration also embroiled in a corruption scandal?

GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, that's been the main issue in Chile – well, actually two things. One is this corruption scandal that has engulfed the presidency of President Michelle Bachelet, who is now going through her second term, that is, a second non-consecutive term, and she's become extremely unpopular because her own son and daughter-in-law were involved in this corruption scandal. At the same time, she's also trying to work through a long-term program of reforming the Constitution, which of course is not exactly a great thing to do when you're not very popular politically, because the chances are that the Constitution will not turn out in your favor.

But I think it's still an important effort, because the Chilean Constitution was a very conservative Constitution, is a holdover... it was basically written by the dictator Pinochet, before he was forced, essentially, out of office. And so it's very important for Chile to have a new Constitution that's democratically determined and strengthens democracy and weakens neo-liberalism, that is the Chilean Constitution, because Pinochet was such a neo-liberal, it basically, put on the level of the Constitution many of the policies against social spending and against... in favor of maintaining public services in private hands, and things like that.

So, that's very important, and we'll have to see that perhaps it's a very long term process for the constitutional reform which will last until 2018, and because of Bachelet's unpopularity, it's unclear as to which way that will go.

KIM BROWN: And this year in Cuba, it's seemed that Cuba experienced decades worth of events happening in just a single year, with the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba for the first time in decades, but also most enormously, the passing of Fidel Castro.

GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah. The passing of Fidel Castro is significant in the sense that it really marks the end of an era, and at the same time, like you mentioned, as is happening, as relations with the United States is being normalized.

Now, the embargo still remains in place, so that's still affecting Cuba economically, but it does have more opportunities now with the normalization of relations, particularly in the area of tourism, which has already expanded tremendously. At the same time, though, Raúl Castro, who's the president now, Fidel's brother, has said that Cuba is going to remain committed to socialism, is not going to turn towards dismantling socialism in Cuba. Now, exactly what that means is also not completely clear because it has been said that Raúl Castro favors some kind of Chinese version of socialism, which, in other words, implies to some extent an increase in the power of private companies and so on, and a state-supported kind of capitalism. That's been the rumor, although it's not necessary that it's going to go that direction. It could also go in a more popular, that is, grassroots level, in terms of increasing the strength of cooperatives and of democratic kind of planning instead of centralized planning in Cuba.

So, we still have to wait and see how things are going to turn out, and Cuba is also difficult to say, but, like you said, it was a time of major changes for the country in this past year.

KIM BROWN: And rounding up this recap of the year in politics in Latin America, let's finish up in Central America, in Nicaragua, which saw the re-election of Daniel Ortega.

GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah. I think that... I mean, the main thing there to be noted is that Daniel Ortega, just like Evo Morales, remains an immensely popular politician. He won the re-election in November, with something like 61% of the vote, one of the highest percentages ever, and I think it might be attributable to a variety of things. The economy has been doing relatively well, even though Nicaragua remains one of Latin America's poorest countries. But it's been booming thanks to some extent to support from Venezuela, but also because Ortega has implemented, kind of a mix of conservative and progressive policies. Socially, he's considered to be very conservative now, because he's opposed to abortion, but on other things, he's been relatively progressive, in terms of the social policies and social programs for the country and keeping inequality relatively low.

I think that accounts to some extent for his landslide victory. Of course, people - he also faces a very strong opposition from the left, which has been accusing him of reducing the space for popular discussion and participation. So, that's made it a relatively, I should say, kind of a lopsided victory in that sense, that is the opposition to him has been weakened by some of the policies that he's pursued, it seems.

KIM BROWN: So, Greg, taking all of these events throughout the year into account and knowing what's upcoming for 2017, what are some of the things that you say that we should be looking ahead for, and what should we be expecting from Latin America as we head into the New Year?

GREGORY WILPERT: One of the things, I mean, I think this whole rightward trend could very likely continue. This is particularly the case, I would say, perhaps in Venezuela with - perhaps the situation is most difficult right now. There's a possibility that that rightward trend could continue, and certainly will be solidified and that also means, like I said earlier in the beginning, that social movements will protest more, will be more involved, and they will be repressed more. So, in other words, the whole conflictivity(?) or the level of conflict in Latin America is likely to increase in the coming year.

Looking at a larger level in terms of what's happening to the continent as a whole, I just want to focus a little bit on the whole process of regional integration. When Chávez was first elected in 1998 and then in the years following, he pushed, especially as more and more government towards the left, he pushed for regional integration and created many new bodies, regional bodies, such as UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, and CELAC, which is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, and ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. So, he created a whole bunch of regional integration, he joined Venezuela, joined America de Sud(?) and tried to strengthen... All of that, is kind of in the process of stagnation right now because of this rightward shift, and because the right wing governments are not so interested in regional integration.

One of the main ideas of Hugo Chávez was that Latin America needs to integrate in order to become economically successful and politically successful and to create a multi-polar world in which not only the United States dominates, but the right wing governments don't believe in that. They don't care. They orient themselves towards the United States, and so we could see a return to that, which before the 19... that is, during the 1980s and 1990s, that was their modus operandi, was this orientation towards the United States. Now, that's coming back basically, and that's going to be a problem because it's going to mean problems for the economic development of Latin America I think, and it means a continued dependency, really, on these commodities.

Now, the left wing governments were not very good actually, at diversifying the economies, and I think Bolivia and Ecuador perhaps have been the most successful in terms of diversifying their economies, but the others haven't moved in that direction that strongly. So, we'll have to see. But the ones that, like I said, have always been right wing, that especially Colombia and Mexico, which are two of the largest countries in Latin America, we might be in for a surprise in the coming years.

KIM BROWN: We've been speaking with Greg Wilpert. He is The Real News correspondent in Latin America, and we've been discussing the political happenings in Latin America throughout the year of 2016, and what we can look forward to in 2017. We definitely encourage you to search our website at Therealnews.com, and check out some of Greg's reporting on issues and events throughout Latin America that happened throughout the year.

Greg, we appreciate your time today. Thank you.

GREGORY WILPERT: It was my pleasure.

KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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END



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