What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.


Mexican stand-off


Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.


Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

An Asian situation

It is eyes on Asia and eyes on those who are thinking about Asia

On Sunday 4 September, China will host its first G20 summit of leading nations (and only the second to be held in Asia) and the spotlight will fall across the region.

President Xi Jinping will want to make a good show of it. The worries over China’s volatile markets that sent jitters across the world earlier in the year remain. The fears over slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy have not gone away.

The start of next week will also see legislative elections in Hong Kong amid bubbling unease in the special administrative region over Beijing’s influence and oversight.

There will be lots of Asian leaders at the G20 summit from South Korea’s female president Park Geun-hye to Indonesia’s charismatic Joki Widodo. Someone who has been feeling the pressure is Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose latest economic stimuli are failing to impress the markets.

China has also invited the Thai and Singaporean prime ministers and Bounnhang Vorachith, the Laotian president, who is the current head of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Outgoing US president Barack Obama will be saying his farewells at his last G20 get-together. During his tenure he made much of what he called his “pivot to Asia”. Will this ‘pivot’ survive after the November presidential election in the United States?

If she wins, will Obama’s Democrat colleague Hillary Clinton row back from this position, maintain the policy or enhance it? If Republican challenger Donald Trump takes the White House, how will or should Asian countries react?

When it comes to hardline leaders – and going by much of his recent rhetoric around illegal immigrants, many Americans expect Mr Trump to be exactly that sort of commander-in-chief – the new president of the Philippines appears to be heading up the Asian contenders at the moment.

Rodrigo Duterte revels in the high bombast of fiery speeches – take his threat to pull out of the United Nations, for example – but he is delivering on a promise to crack down on drug gangs. In fact, more than 700 people have died in police operations this summer, and the public are roaring their approval in high ratings for the new leader.

There are also continuing tensions between several countries over who owns which reefs and islets in the South China Sea but Beijing will want to avoid such cartographical arguments as the cream of international leaders touch down on Sunday.

Cartel Land – a review


Silhouette of man with rifle

Still from the film

Opening in a menacing jungle darkness, hissing acid and eyes among the trees, hooded men cook methamphetamine.

The scrubland chemicals fizz as they chew over their occupation: “we know what we do causes harm in the United States”. A thousand miles to the north, peering through night-vision goggles, a weather-bitten man mutters about the influence of the Mexican drug gangs spilling over the border “this is no longer the USA… we are David and they are Goliath”.

These are the opening scenes of Cartel Land, the latest film from American producer and director Matthew Heineman. At its shivering, gristly core, this is a film that tries to put its finger on the pulse of two groups of vigilantes (one in south-west Mexico, one in southern Arizona) who are challenging the bloody philosophy of the gangs.

Both start-up defence movements are led by tall, striking men, who see themselves as proactive spearheads filling a vacuum created by inefficient law enforcement and a terrifying cartel-created chaos. The Knights Templars are the first villains we come across in the lawless Mexican state of Michoacán. There we are among wailing mourners shuffling on grey dirt grave mounds, burying their relatives. A farmer has not coughed up his extortion fee demanded by the Templars. They have punished him by slaughtering all his farm workers and their children, smashing infants on rocks and throwing their bodies in a well.

This sets the stage for the Autodefensas, the Mexican group with whom Heineman embeds himself and his tiny team. He develops a rapport with the vigilantes as they build support, community by community. The men are guided spiritually and physically by a local doctor, José Manuel Mireles. He speaks in town squares as his team fend off the gangsters and replace the army in the forgotten villages of Michoacán.

In Arizona, we meet Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley and his small band of men. Sharp in camouflage, working his weapons, he stares out across the Altar Valley. We come back to the American self-defence team throughout, but Heineman spends more time developing and laying out the Mexican story. That despite the fact that he only originally planned to tell the account of the so-called ‘Arizona Border Recon’ of ‘Nailer’ and his lieutenants. It was when the director came across news of Dr Mireles in Michoacán that he chose to balance the documentary with both sides of the border story.

There is no narrator and we are guided through the parallel narrative by events, be that the moralising of the vigilantes or the crackle-moans of men being electrocuted. There are chilling scenes with the Autodefensas, and the director bounces in and out of cars, capturing the vigilantes’ shoot-outs with cartel members. In one scene, as the men close in on two leading gangsters, Heineman is understandably running around corners and in the film he has left in shots where he loses focus on his camera, the lens jolting and whitening in the sun. This means the action is not sanitised; we undergo the visceral shock of being in a gun-fight. The two gangsters are captured, reported to have tortured and dismembered relatives of the vigilantes. Cartel Land is raw, it is unfettered, the viewer is wincingly enmeshed in the violence, as one man punches the gangster known as ‘El Cheneque’, hollering and demanding to know where his uncles’ bodies are buried.

The director himself admits he is not a traditional war reporter; his embedding is of a different sort, with groups operating in a blurry, semi-legal world. They assure the locals that they are the good guys, but where vigilantes build up a following they can take on a cult hero presence and with growing sway they risk challenge and downfall. As the narrative develops, we spend more time south of the border and Dr Mireles begins to lose control. His mutinous understudies join a government-sponsored ‘Rural Defence Force’, he is frozen out and forced to flee, his civic leader status is undercut by an unnerving audio recording of a sexual encounter with a mistress. His life is collapsing and he ends the film behind bars, suspiciously incarcerated amid claims of official silencing.

The Mexican heart of darkness has been documented before. In Cartel Land the audience gets a fresh view of the horribly regular themes of torture and extortion through the two counterpoints to a transnational problem. The drugs and guns come and go on both sides of the border and the director shows the community resistance building in the grassroots in both countries.

This is most stunningly illustrated in the cinematography in the two main theatres of action: the Arizonans patrolling the wild wastes of the Sonoran Desert; or the blood-red sunset scenery over Mexican towns, with the hunched shoulders of some young rifleman silhouetted against a empty dusk. It is at turns a darkly comic and distressingly graphic film, and deservedly took home two awards at the Sundance festival earlier this year.

Heineman was at the same sold-out screening of the film, at the Frontline Club in London, as I was, taking questions afterwards. I asked him about the cyclical role the meth lab scenes play, used at the beginning and the end. He explained the tense relationship-building that went into working with the cooks and debunks the Breaking Bad-style glorification. Heineman said he wanted to present the drug manufacturing process as it was, in the half-light, lost in the backwoods.

The deceitful tendrils of policemen, politicians, gangsters and vigilantes are exposed then by one of the cooks, who we see at the end sporting a ‘Rural Defence Force’ polo shirt. The incorruptibility of the Autodefensas is never certain and the group’s strategies and members change as the movement grows. The corrupt but, ultimately, unsurprising cycle is complete in this final scene, the drug-running phoenix rising from the tarnished flames of a movement that is turning into the very danger it was formed to confront.

Cartel Land is showing at cinemas across the UK. See cartellandmovie.co.uk for more details.

This review first appeared in Sounds and Colours on 7 September

Greece is not alone

A mounting debt crisis. Restructuring and repayment. Calls for concessions from creditors. 

It sounds like Greece but as eyes have been watering over the disintegrating economic crisis there, a similar situation has been developing in Puerto Rico.

The Caribbean island is heading along the same path as the Hellenic Republic, with what legislators see as an unserviceable mountain of debt. Like Greece, it needs extra funds to be able to pay off interest, sort out its wage bills and shore up the banks.

But there is one key difference: Greece has been able to go to international institutions – the so-called ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – for loans. As an unincorporated US territory, Puerto Rico cannot just head off looking for global financial aid. And Washington has also been holding firm over approving a federal bailout.

Something has to give. Will DC relent? Will lenders take a hit on the money they are owed?

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has been in combative mood over the last few months, backed up by steely minsters trying to play hardball against a rising number of missed due dates for debt repayments and increasingly gnarly European and IMF creditors.

Puerto Rico’s governor seems set for a similar face-off as it is unlikely the people who have been lending the US commonwealth money will willingly accept reductions on their repayments. The fight would be over an attempt by Alejandro Garcia Padilla to restructure the island’s $73bn debt that could see creditors ending up repaid less than they are owed.

There are other similarities. The two cases suffer from being out on the fringe, geographically and politically. Greece has been characterised negatively as a work-shy Mediterranean siesta state, that needs a cultural shift to organise its economy, a political shift to end austerity, and pan-European support and agreement to help it remain in the eurozone.

Puerto Rico is also a margin nation. It is not a sovereign state, but nor does it have full US statehood. On the international scene it sends a team to the Olympic Games but does not send an ambassador to the United Nations.

Greece has been setting unwanted records recently, joining the three dubiously managed countries of Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe in still having outstanding debts to the International Monetary Fund.

Puerto Rico cannot become a member of that particular basement club but it has a pretty parlous economic state of affairs. It seems unlikely to be able to declare bankruptcy or deal with its debts in a way that pleases all sides. San Juan might have to hope for a bailout from above, and if that sounds familiar, it is because that is how the whole Greek crisis began – an island nation seeing the tides of debt lapping at the feet of its people.

‘The Legacy of Hugo Chávez’

On Wednesday 30 April, a conference was held by Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute, to discuss the domestic, regional and international legacies of Hugo Chávez, the former Venezuelan president.

The first thing to say was that I was one of several people who arrived late at the talks because the UK capital was being disrupted that morning as a result of a strike by London Underground workers.

After a prolonged journey to the venue, I crept into the lecture theatre to hear Pedro A. Palma lambasting an economic legacy that he clearly thought was in tatters. Dr Palma, a Venezuelan economist who was a founding partner of consulting firm MetroEconómica, railed against “rampant inflation…an unsustainable situation”, saying that a “180-degree turn” was needed to try to save Venezuela. He referenced several slides showing different economic data and finished by outlining his fears that if action were not taken, there would be what he labelled “the materialisation of an exchange-rate tsunami”.

Someone who disagreed with Dr Palma was the next speaker, Arturo Sarmiento, the president of Telecaribe, a television station. He argued that 13 years of chavismo had led to political stability in Venezuela, and that despite his many critics, ‘El Comandante’ continued to win elections. He admitted that that opposition had been “castrated and suffocated” in many ways but was met by derisive cries from some members of the audience when he called the country’s electoral system “magnificent”. He said that the private sector must start to look at events in Venezuela in a different light and he ended with another statement that drew sarcastic chuckles from a few of those in the room. Mr Sarmiento believed that the arrival of Hugo Chavez into Venezuelan politics “helped avoid what could have been an even bigger social explosion than the French or Russian revolutions”.

Mr Sarmiento was well placed to comment on the media situation, and his response to a question about freedom of the press in Venezuela was firm. He said he had never experienced any censorship regarding any of his media ventures, going on to say that the press had a healthy role to play and that journalists were able to report freely in the country.

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

Julia Buxton, a professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy, had given her introductory speech while I was enjoying the gridlock in Piccadilly Circus but I got a taste of her position on the domestic legacy when she answered a question about the record high levels of crime. She agreed that Venezuela was “unique in its levels of criminal violence” but noted that, although crime had risen, poverty had fallen. Ms Buxton called for a “national dialogue and a consensus” on disarmament, lamenting the high numbers of light weapons and small arms in circuit and what she called “the glorification of violence”.

Next up were Dick Wilkinson, a former UK ambassador to Venezuela and to Cuba, and Alicia Castro, the Argentinian ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela; they discussed Chávez’s regional legacy. For Mr Wilkinson, who met ‘El Comandante’ several times, the ‘participatory, not representative’ idea of democracy that Mr Chávez introduced was a refreshing method of engaging the masses. The Briton argued that there were four main groups into which you could fit Venezuela’s neighbours when it came to how they felt towards the former president:

1) Friends and supporters: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Caribbean nations

2) Who Chávez thought sold themselves to the USA: Colombia and Mexico

3) Suspicious towards his politics: Chile

4) Not hostile but viewed him with a certain condescension: Argentina and Brazil

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

Ms Castro spoke after Mr Wilkinson and she was in a combative mood. She denied that her country was condescending towards Caracas and opened her speech by saying “Venezuela is under an international media attack”. She thought that Chávez “gave Latin Americans hope of a better world”. There had been an enthusiasm across the region regarding the “challenge that Hugo Chávez presented to the neo-liberal agenda”, she stated and she went on to praise the “social revolution through democracy” that the socialist leader promoted.

In the questions that followed their discourses, the tension rose in the room as Ms Castro blithely swatted away some of the issues raised with short, snappy answers. She replied to a question from a Venezuelan about the issue of Caracas sheltering members of Colombia’s FARC rebels by asking how old the person posing the question was, intimating he was too young to know much about such matters. She was also robust in answering my question about how Hugo Chávez’s legacy could guide and shape the future of Mercosur, (which Venezuela joined in 2012), when set against the rising Pacific Alliance free-trade bloc. Ms Castro responded by focusing more on wanting to know why “British journalists” were fascinated by the issue of the Pacific Alliance, rather than the arguable politicisation of Mercosur and how the former Venezuelan leader’s policies would or would not guide Mercosur.

She closed with the above statement, a stance that provoked a lot of reaction online, with users both supporting her position and criticising her as a “true Peronist”.

(The third panel saw Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000-2008 and Diego Arria, a Venezuelan politician, discuss the international legacy of Hugo Chávez – this blog did not cover this final discussion)

Choose one of us

Saudi Arabia worries over changing US direction in the Middle East

Rapprochement with Iran. Watching Vladimir Putin do his own thing over Ukraine and Crimea. And – as Saudi Arabia sees it – forgetting the rebels in Syria. The US has been pursuing a controversial line of foreign policy over the past few months. Several countries have been glad to see Western noses bloodied but there are others who are getting cross with the American State Department’s actions, or lack of them. One of the angry allies is Saudi Arabia. And it has lambasted the global community’s lethargy over the civil war in Syria. As the major world Sunni Muslim power, a defeat for the Shia-allied government of Bashar al-Assad would suit Saudi Arabia well. One country who would rather see a regime victory is Iran, Riyadh’s foe across the Gulf. And the United States has been getting on pretty well with Tehran so far this year, after a landmark deal in January on Iran’s nuclear activities.

The House of Saud has been getting annoyed with all this cosying up to Shia Muslim actors. Last week, at an Arab League summit in Kuwait, the Crown Prince vocalised Riyadh’s annoyance that the Sunni-majority rebels in Syria and their political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, were being sidelined and forgotten in what has been the longest struggle of the ‘Arab Spring’. The war in Syria has been going on for more than three years, with the number of people killed estimated to be in excess of 100,000. But the war gains are becoming more marginal, and the front lines are remaining largely the same. The rebels still manage to shoot down the odd regime helicopter but with Lebanese Hezbollah man-power and Russian hardware, Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are still strong.

It was timely then that over the weekend US president Barack Obama paid a trip to Saudi Arabia for what was surely a testing head-to-head with King Abdullah. Riyadh was angered by the stalling uncertainty from Washington over the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August last year, when Congress ruled out a bombing raid on Assad regime posts in response to the Sarin nerve agent attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, Russia outflanked the US and brokered a deal with the Syrian president which would see him give up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In this weekend’s meetings in the Saudi desert, Riyadh would have wanted assurances that Washington was not going to give up finding a solution to the conflict.

Barack Obama, with two years left on his contract in the White House, will be focused on finding an issue to work on abroad in order to be able to secure some kind of international legacy. And although American officials in the Holy Land started work again yesterday to try to organise a framework to extend an April deadline for Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, it seems unlikely that the two-state solution will be achieved any time soon. Washington’s point-of-view on the war in Syria seems increasingly to be that the answer to the crisis must come from within the fracturing country. There are many other points of contention in the region (Egypt’s twisting and turning Army-led confusion, Yemen’s instability and Iraq’s continuing sectarian violence) but it appears to be Iran that whets Obama’s appetite the most. The White House sees the nuclear issue in the Middle East as one that it can get its teeth stuck into properly.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this means a focus from its US friends on spending more time in Geneva hotels with Iranian politicians. Yet Saudi Arabia wants a deal as well. A nuclear-armed rival in the region is anathema to Riyadh, who have talked up air strikes from Tel Aviv or Washington on Tehran’s dodgy installations before. But the crux is that in order for the Saudis’ American allies to nullify any nuclear threat from Iran, they have to speak to the Iranians, and spend time with them, and things are getting a bit too friendly for Riyadh’s liking. They don’t want any nuclear bombs being made in Iran, but nor do they want the West’s rapprochement to divert from support for the big Sunni power. It’s a hard choice, but as the US pivots towards Asia, and works on peace deals with Iran, Riyadh does not want to be left out in the cold.

A las urnas…

Eight Latin American countries go to the polls next year – what can we expect?

First up across the region are Costa Rica and El Salvador, where there will be legislative and presidential elections on 2 February. The Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla, is constitutionally barred from running for consecutive terms. So although the number of female leaders across the region has risen to four recently with the re-election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, it will soon drop back down to three as Chinchilla leaves office (Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina are the other two women leaders). In fact, although it is unlikely, the number could be down to two by the autumn – as Brazilians go to the polls in October. Back in San José, no one candidate is storming the race, meaning that the country could need a run-off to split the field, an electoral practice that is common in Latin America but that has not taken place in Costa Rica since 2002. Johnny Araya of the National Liberation party and Broad Front’s José Villalta look to be the strongest of the candidates so far.

El Salvador is another country that prohibits presidents running again straightaway and, as such, Mauricio Funes will be stepping down this spring. The leading contenders to take his place go head-to-head on 2 February, with a run-off scheduled for 9 March if needed. It is the smallest country in Latin America and much of the new president’s focus will be on gang violence, which has been increasing recently despite a truce between the criminals in 2012.

Next up is Colombia, which has elections to both houses of parliament on that Sunday 9 March. Nearly three months after that, on 25 May, is the race for the hot-seat as the presidential candidates face the public. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is going once more and it looks as though he will follow his one-time mentor, ex-leader Álvaro Uribe, in securing consecutive terms in office. Peace talks with the Farc rebels are currently taking place and Santos has said that 2014 will be a crucial year for peace – he feels that it is his national duty to see the talks through to ‘the end’. He has so far wavered between moderation and muscle: at once trying to maintain the talks without completing retreating from the hardlines drawn up by Uribe during his two terms in office – ten more militants were killed in a bombing raid just after Christmas.

But in Panama there is no chance of seeing the same face again as Ricardo Martinelli is leaving office. On 4 May the isthmus nation is due to hold legislative ballots to its one National Assembly as well as the ballot for the head of state.

The Dominican Republic has a vote for the chamber of deputies and the senate the week after, on 16 May. Only legislators are on the ballot papers in 2014 because Danilo Medina was voted into the presidency in 2012 for a four-year term.

Evo Morales, the charismatic Bolivian president, is seeking a controversial re-election next year on 5 October. Technically, Evo has served two terms in office – the maximum that a politician can reach in the Andean nation. But because his first term (2006-9) predated the constitution that was re-written in 2009, the courts ruled that his time limit re-started under the new legal framework in 2009, rather than in 2006. As such, he is free to run again next autumn. Another victory and a full term in office would take his reign in the mountains up to 2019, which at 13 years would be almost as long as Hugo Chávez served in Venezuela. Evo’s time in office so far has been celebrated and criticised and has swung from a defence of coca farmers, to facing protests over subsidy cuts and road-building plans, to a cosy familiarity with other leftist countries, such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

Brazilians head to the polls on the same day in October, also for a general election. The country has been a regular in the world news this year, from widespread and – at times – violent protests against poor public services, to the visit of Pope Francis, and the excitement about and criticism of the upcoming World Cup. The festival of football happens thee months before the election and although the soccer-mad nation would love to see a sixth victory for a seleção there have also been the calls for the money to have been spent elsewhere in the economy. Dilma has continued with the Workers’ Party’s statism but has not had quite the popularity that her predecessor Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva enjoyed. That said, her recent poll showings have improved from over the summer of civil discord and should be strong enough to see off her efficient main challengers, Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialists’ Eduardo Campos.

Uruguay is the last of the Latin American countries to vote in 2014, with a general election on 26 October. The little South Atlantic nation has been making headlines of its own this year, with a ground-breaking legalisation of marijuana and same-sex marriage. Its football team stands a good chance of doing well at the World Cup, with several tremendous players blooming right now. Its outgoing leader, José Mújica, has won widespread acclaim for his low-key presidency, as he eschews many of the presidential trimmings and stylings by driving himself in slacks and jackets to work from his small farmstead and flying economy class. And much of this contributed to Uruguay being the inaugural winner of The Economist‘s ‘Country of the Year’ award. Whoever takes up the mantle in Montevideo will certainly have interesting shoes to fill.

Feliz Año!