The first post – Updates to October 2013

As the first post in this new blog, I thought I’d give a brief overview of some of the bigger stories from Latin America over the past few months, which I consider to be more of interest given the nature of what I’m intending to write about. I recently finished my Masters degree in Globalisation and Latin American Development at the Institute of the Americas at University College London (still awaiting final results, keeping my fingers crossed!), so here I’d like to catch up on what’s been going on before I can launch into more regular and up-to-date coverage of events.

So what’s been happening recently? The main headlines from Latin America over the (northern) summer were initially all about Edward Snowden and the possibility that he might be granted political asylum in any of several Latin American countries (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia were all touted as potential refuges). Things then got more heated after Bolivian president Evo Morales, returning to his country from Russia where he had been attending a summit of gas-exporting countries, found his presidential plane redirected after several European countries denied transit through their airspaces. It is generally suspected that the countries, including Spain, Italy and France, while citing “technical reasons” for refusing transit, were in fact acting under orders of the US government, who suspected that Snowden was on board. However, a subsequent inspection after the plane was forced to land in Vienna proved that this belief was unfounded. The reaction from the rest of Latin America was more or less unanimous: one of outrage, support for Morales, and condemnation of what they saw as “imperialist” behaviour by the governments of the US and its allies.

However, for the purposes of this blog, I would like to concentrate less on the more high-profile stories such as this, and more on those that will most likely have slipped by largely unnoticed by Western audiences. I am also much more concerned about events and developments that are to do with what I see as “green issues”: i.e. topics related to the environment, climate change and sustainable development, but also tied to more general social issues such as inequality, democratisation, and human rights.

Latin America never seems to be far away from the news in terms of environmental issues, seeing as its geographical and climatic variety, as well as vast swathes of virtually untouched rainforest and other sensitive ecosystems, go hand in hand with a general economic model that is largely geared towards exploiting and exporting primary resources, from agricultural products to minerals and petroleum. The presence of such remarkable environments such as the Amazon rainforest, the soaring, glacier-topped peaks of the Andes, and the low-lying coastal areas of Central America and the Caribbean that are also in the line of fire of the Atlantic hurricane season, also mean that the region is of global significance when it comes to climate change, both as an area that can contribute to the acceleration or mitigation of it (e.g. deforestation in the Amazon) and as a canary-in-the-mine region where the symptoms of global climatic change can be most visible (e.g., melting of the Andean tropical glaciers).

The continent’s recent political history, meanwhile, has meant that many Latin American societies remain in a constant state of flux, with the majority of the countries having experienced traumatic dictatorships and processes of democratisation and national reunification during the last 30 or 40 years. With the notable exception of Cuba, all of the region’s countries enjoy at the very least open democratic elections, but there can be significant regional variations in the exact level of democratic procedure found within countries’ political systems. In particular, with the role that the US is now known to have played in supporting some of the continents’ military regimes during the middle of the last century, and the subsequent rise of leaders such as the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez, the shadow of US involvement in the economic and political life of Latin American countries can often influence the terms of political debate, with pro-Western and open-market ideals often having as its natural rival the anti-imperialist and leftist populist discourse that became the hallmark of Chávez and his supporters.

Recent success in terms of economic development, democratisation and reductions in social inequality and extreme poverty have given Latin Americans a stronger voice, not just individually as opportunities and participation open up to those who were previously excluded, but also collectively as the region plays an ever-increasing role on the global stage. Everyone seems to be talking about Brazil as being potentially “the next superpower” – even if the South American giant’s progress may have been tempered somewhat in the last few years – and the death earlier this year of Hugo Chávez, undisputedly the region’s most influential figure in recent times, inevitably generated headlines and insightful obituaries – some positive, some negative, most full of debate – all around the world.

Moving on to some of the bigger developments in these areas over the last couple of months, for me the most significant was the cancelling of the landmark Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador by president Rafael Correa. I will write another post shortly that covers the ill-fated life of the initiative, and where things stand at present as far as extraction of the oil is concerned. The government’s U-turn over Yasuní has been accompanied by a stepping up in its campaign to bring the US oil giant Chevron to justice, over what it sees as compelling evidence of environmental destruction and social neglect caused by years of dumping toxic waste around oil extraction sites. Correa has launched a campaign, ‘la mano sucia de Chevron’ (the dirty hand of Chevron) to try and give more publicity to the case, in the hopes that this will sway the long-standing legal dispute in Ecuador’s favour and force Chevron to pay up for the damages it allegedly caused. The move can also be seen as an attempt by Correa to reassure and win back the support of those who are against the drilling for oil in Yasuní, namely environmentalists, indigenous groups and supporters, and young people.

In Chile, meanwhile, the focus has been on the upcoming general elections in November, and in particular the presidential contest. Again, I will post an article on this very shortly, and will hopefully continue to give updates on how the election campaign is panning out. Not only is Chile a significant player in Latin American politics and international relations due to its economic success, political stability and claims to be the “most developed” country in the region, it is also one of my main interests – I lived there for five months a few years back. I will also hope to write plenty about environmental and energy issues in Chile, as not only is this one of my specialised areas, but it is also a very interesting case in point: some claim Chile is facing a looming energy crisis as its rapid economic growth leads to ballooning demand for energy. However, Chile has to import virtually all of its fossil fuels, so the answer may well lie in non-conventional renewable energy (it relies heavily on more conventional hydroelectric power generation, but as I will explain another time, this strategy is fraught with environmental and, increasingly, electoral dangers). The extensive Atacama desert in the north of the country could hold the key to the development of solar power, while Chile’s geography also gives it massive potential for geothermal (Chile is one of the most seismically active countries in the world) and tidal (its coastline stretches over 3,000km) energy.

In Colombia, protests held by campesino (peasant) communities grew in size and publicity, even leading to demonstrations in the major cities of the country. The protests began as a response to rising fuel prices and a sense that Colombia’s free trade agreements with other countries (such as the US, Canada and the EU) have led to foreign competition undercutting and wiping out local produce, and came to incorporate miners, truckers, and then students and other citizens as the protests reached urban centres. Meanwhile, the government has been engaged in discussions with the left-wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in an attempt to negotiate a peace deal that would bring to an end half a century of civil war that has resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and the internal displacement of millions of people from rural communities. The violence, often fuelled by the illegal drug trade, was once synonymous with Colombia, but progress over the past 10-15 years has been significant and the country’s transformation could be sealed by a successful conclusion to peace talks, which have already been going on for almost a year.

Elsewhere, Mexico’s government, led by Enrique Peña Nieto, enacted a heavily-debated reform to the country’s energy laws, allowing for private investment to try and help boost efficiency and productivity in the state-owned hydrocarbons sector, but while keeping intact the sanctity of public ownership of the country’s energy resources. The key will be to see how these changes will affect Mexico’s promise to voluntarily (i.e. outside of internationally binding norms) reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and increase the proportion of its energy coming from clean renewable energy sources.

In Brazil, what began as relatively minor protests over a hike in public transport fares, mushroomed into a wave of mass demonstrations, with one night of action involving over a million citizens, with attention turned to a range of issues from corruption in government, to the country’s security problems, the quality of public services, and all set against the amount of money being poured into next year’s Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games being held in Rio de Janeiro. The protests themselves, of course, made it into headlines worldwide, but lesser known outside of Latin America or indeed even Brazil will be the longer-lasting effect on political debate in the country, in particular with regard to next year’s elections and the legacy of a Workers’ Party government which has been in power since 2003, and which had remained largely popular up until the beginning of the unrest in June.

There are also, outside of Chile, upcoming elections all across the region over the next few months: Honduras will hold general elections the week after Chile, while there will be legislative elections later this month in Argentina, and in December in Venezuela. Looking slightly further afield into the new year, we will see elections in Costa Rica (February), Panama and Colombia (May), Brazil and Uruguay (October), and finally Bolivia (December).

These are some of the recent events from Latin America over the past few months, and will provide a background of sorts for me to post updates and reports on more current goings-on from here on in. I will try and mix some reporting on actual news, with more general feature writing about overall trends – especially when it comes to writing about news related to climate change, which tends to be all about slightly longer-term developments rather than one instantaneous news event. In any case, here’s hoping I can keep things moving and up to date!

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