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!

Not just a canal, but a keystone

The bridge nation speaks up

Earlier in the month the Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli, gave a talk at Canning House (canninghouse.org, @Canning_House) in London called ‘Panama and Central America: Challenges and Opportunities’.

ECONOMY

Mr Martinelli spoke at length and was questioned afterwards on the more difficult topics. The president has Italian roots and he was keen to point to them in the talk, spending nearly half his speech praising immigration to the country and the economic benefits of foreign fingers in the Panama City pie. He told us that 7% of the population was from the US but he also stressed that his nation must not to be seen as a tax-sanctuary and that overseas citizens had pay their homeland due as well as the Panamanian ones.

Martinelli eulogised about his 2% budget deficit and national high standard of living and claimed the only rival to his country in Latin America for economic competition was Chile. He boasted of the 12% growth forecast for next year. He assured the collected that he would try hard to save Panama from becoming embroiled in the financial crisis: “we are almost immune, through being so far away and not relying on one commodity or product.”

INFRASTRUCTURE

Panama is famous for its canal but Mr Martinelli admitted that widening and modernising works were behind schedule. He confirmed the companies involved would lose their cash incentive if they miss the July deadline, (which he confessed was likely), saying “the impact on the economy would be great.” He wanted to show us that there was more to the country’s infrastructure than the inter-oceanic waterway and highlighted the investment in rapid building of cruise-liner ports and the improvements to the capital’s public transport system he had approved.

RE-ELECTION

After his talk, the president was pressed on slightly less comfortable issues than easy national promotion and talk of bilateral trade deals. I wanted to steer him towards talking about his neighbours and pointed out that Nicaragua had recently re-elected Daniel Ortega after the president’s party had secured a modification to the constitution. When Manuel Zelaya, the former Honduran leader, had tried that in his country in 2009 the army flew in during the night and carted him off to Costa Rica. And the intentions of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan head-of-state, are clear: he would like to stay in power until 2031.

The response of Mr Martinelli was also simple: he is not in favour of re-election – “you should go home after one term”. He was at pains to point out that he was not describing the situation in Nicaragua, but he saw being voted back into office and changing constitutions to allow re-votes as undemocratic moves in a (largely) growing region of democracies. Re-election is outlawed in Panama and Martinelli confirmed it would remain so.

SECURITY

He was also pushed on tax treaties, eco-tourism (a field in which Costa Rica has done particularly well) and security, the most worrying topic in the region. Panama is the link between the north of South America, where the internal problems with criminal gangs are largely subsiding (although international cocaine production continues) and Central America. Here the murders, extortions and abductions are worsening, especially in the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Panama is a transit country, with gangsters flying over it to land in jungle airstrips or sailing along its mosquito-riddled coasts, bubbling through the mangrove swamps in mini-submarines or speedy launches on their way to Mexico. Martinelli was adamant that his country would not be put at risk by encroaching gangs and outlined the security measures – namely the training of more police and the expansion of surveillance procedures – he was taking to ensure his people (and the foreigners and their multi-billion-dollar businesses in Panama City) were safe.

Mr Martinelli’s country is going places but it needs to shout its little voice louder on the regional stage to confront this problematic issue of criminal violence with its Latin partners. The rising violence is a disease that is borderless that requires international treatment. That Panama is comparatively successful is good for the region but Mr Martinelli must not solely focus economic efforts on the foreign-dominated capital. He must remember the villages and small-holders of the countryside. But he is not doing badly.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.

The politics of the presidenta

On Sunday 31 October, Dilma Rousseff became the president-elect of Brazil, replacing her mentor and supporter, the outgoing Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Modernists hailed the election of the first female Brazilian premier, and Rousseff became the ninth Latin American presidenta. But do female politicians in the Latin America have to rely on the support of men to get into power?

Machismo prevails across the Latin world but although men have dominated the political sphere, women have been increasing their presence over the last 40 years, since Argentine Isabel Martinez de Peron rose to prominence as the first elected female head of state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also vice-president during her husband’s third stint in the Casa Rosa. Argentina is no stranger to matrimonial politics and the current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, took over the presidency from her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

But on 27 October he died suddenly of a heart-attack, leaving Cristina on her own, both maritally, and politically, for although he had stepped down from the presidency, Mr Kirchner still had a major seat at the top table, running the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party) behind the scenes while his wife shook hands with other world leaders.

Such was the force and influence of Kirchner that commentators rushed to point out that ‘Kirchnerismo’ passed with the death of Nestor and that the key aim for Cristina now would be to try to see out the rest of her term in office and reaffirm her political principles, goals and direction, all of which were thrown into disarray by her husband’s death.

Indeed, some critics argue that all the objectives she has outlined so far have been her husband’s policies, and that her challenge now is to show that she is not just a puppet and demonstrate that she can lead her nation without the support of her husband.

In the case of Brazil, a different sort of wedding has been the main reason for the success of Dilma Rousseff. The marriage is purely political but it has been a conjugal arrangement which Rousseff has flouted to the maximum, using her proximity to Lula (and his fanatical popularity) to carry her to victory in last Sunday’s electoral run-off.

Once again, just like Mrs Kirchner 3,000 km to the south, the case arises of a female president facing the challenge of defining herself to the nation and displaying distinct political objectives. Brazilians have been extremely pleased with the direction in which Lula has been taking Brazil and they have chosen a politican built in very much the same vein as the outgoing premier.

Moreover, the fact that the new incumbent of the Palacio da Alvorada is a woman means that she has an extra responsibility to use her new position to show to the world that Brazil can be as successful under uma presidente as it was under Lula. To her credit, Rousseff has already made it clear that social and sexual equality will be a flagship policy of her period in office. She is caught between maintaining the popularity of Lula and not being seen as purely an inexperienced pawn of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party).

She has acknowledged the rise in status of the Green Party, whose presidential candidate in the first round was also a woman – Marina Silva. Indeed, the fact that many first-round votes which Rousseff had expected to go to her in fact went to Silva necessitated a run-off a month later. Rousseff has accepted the need to follow a green agenda in power, a possible policy declaration which shows that she has already recognised the challenges which a popular Green Party, led by another popular female politican, could create for her in office.

But these two Latin giants have not been the only countries where females have flexed their political muscles and over the years Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all elected female heads of state. From 1999-2004 Panama was led by Mireya Moscoso although her waning popularity towards the end of her term affected her chosen successor, Jose Miguel Aleman, and he failed to follow her into office, showing that the ‘Lula’ affect has not always been the case. In addition, Michelle Bachelet was in power in Chile until earlier this year when she was defeated by Sebastian Pinera. And the current president of Costa Rica is Laura Chinchilla.

The majority of these women have run on centre-left manifestoes and have been leading campaigners of social reform. But often the closeness of ties to men means that there are inevitable restrictions to navigate. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lost a pillar of political support when her husband died and Dilma Rousseff cannot spend her whole presidency invoking her mentor; she has to continue Lula’s popularity while carving out her own policies to carry out which can define her as a separate success in her own right, not just one who basked in the glow of a former, male president.