Monday, December 23, 2013

VOXXI: Instability in Latin America, the good and the bad for 2014

Instability in Latin America, the Good and the Bad for 2014
W. Alejandro Sanchez
December 23, 2013
Originally published:

Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay are the countries with  ”low risk” probabilities to experience major protests during 2014 in Latin America, according to the magazine The Economist, while Argentina and Venezuela are the nations with “very high risk” for instability.
The nations at lowest risk are, at first glance, self-evident. In spite of corruption allegations and occasional protests, countries like Costa Rica and Chile are not generally known for internal instability.
But wait a minute. Does Costa Rica deserve to have such a prominent position in The Economist’s chart? The Central American state has an ongoing territorial dispute with Nicaragua which has been largely bloodless and violence-free, But this does not mean that Costa Rica has been free of violence in 2013.
For example, there were popular protests in October, when, according to the news site, “hundreds of public employees, teachers, students, taxi drivers and motorcyclists,” protested in San Jose.
The reasons for the discontent varied; teachers, for example, denounced a reduction in extra salary in bonuses, while motorcycle owners protested against recent increases in the price of vehicle circulation permits.
Similarly, there is ongoing dissatisfaction with the administration of Laura Chinchilla. This is a somewhat bizarre development that deserves further mentioning.
According to an index by Transparency International, Costa Rica is the third least corrupt Latin American state. Nevertheless, an October poll by CID/Gallup, for the Spanish-language online Costa Rican newspaper,, asked 1200 Costa Ricans for their opinion regarding their government’s performance.
Surprisingly, an overwhelming 95% of the poll’s respondents believed that some part of President Chinchilla’s administration is “corrupt.”
However, in spite of this high degree of government mistrust, as well as occasional protests, it is true Costa Rica remains stable compared to other Central American states (i.e. Honduras).
Too good to be true?
But it is Chile’s similar perception as a “low risk” nation that deserves greater discussion. Certainly, the country has enjoyed political stability and a vibrant economy over the past two decades.
Moreover, the South American state’s electoral system is generally regarded as transparent and fair, as exemplified by the recent clear victory of former President Michelle Bachelet.
With that said, the assumption that there is a low risk for “rebellion” (in the broad sense of the word) or major protests in Chile in 2014 is questionable.
Specifically, the country has been rocked by major protests by university students over the past couple of years, and it can be safely assumed that if Bachelet does not deliver on her campaign promises regarding educational reform, we will see a new wave of student protests.
As recently as September, between 25 to 80,000 students, depending on whose statistics you believe, protested in Santiago against the Pinochet-era educational system.
Finally, this author would argue that a growing source of instability in Chile is the Mapuches, an indigenous group that have been treated as second class citizens for decades. In August, an estimated 150 Mapuches protested in Santiago to demand an inquiry over the bizarre killing of a young Mapuche, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for arson.
The deceased’s family argues that the Chilean police was involved in his assassination.
But the situation took a turn for the worst in October when, to commemorate Columbus Day, an estimated 15,000 Mapuches marched to Santiago. The goal of the protests was to demand the return of their ancestral land, which has been exploited by the Chilean government and different industries for its natural resources.
During her presidential campaign, Bachelet promised a new kind of treatment with the Mapuches. If she fails to deliver on her promises in 2014, we will see more protests which, while they may not qualify as a “rebellion” (to use The Economist’s terminology,) will be as tragic a development as the Chilean government’s historically unfair treatment of the Mapuches.
Assuming The Worst for Instability?
As for the countries that are most likely to experience major protests in 2014, unfortunately there are valid arguments for choosing Venezuela.
The country has been polarized since the Hugo Chavez presidency, and the new president, Nicolas Maduro,routinely attacks members of the opposition, arguing that there are international conspiracies that are trying to overthrow him.
Drastic government initiatives like November’s takeover of Daka, an electronics chain, and selling TVs and refrigerators at discount prices partially calmed the population. However, issues like the early December blackout that affected several Venezuelan states (like Miranda and Zulia) as well as Caracas, would exacerbate anyone, whether  a government supporter  or not.
This is not to say that we will see a “rebellion” in Venezuela in 2014, but certainly protests are widely expected to continue unless the country’s oil-dependent economy improves.
The Economist gives reason to be optimistic for several Latin American nations while others are predicted to remain unstable in 2014.
With that said, Latin America is a land of  unpredictability (when Argentina’s Kirchner was re-elected in 2011 in what was labeled as an “easy victory”, it was hard to foresee the major protests against her government today), and even nations that appear in good standing on paper can take a sudden turn for the worst.

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