A Year-End Look at the Americas

By Eric Farnsworth

In an article for The Huffington Post, COA's Eric Farnsworth looks back at some of the most important stories coming out of the Americas in 2010, from Latin America's economic rise to elections that took place in the region.

The pending holidays always bring reflections on the previous year and this time will be no different. Herewith some of the highs (and lows) of the rapidly-concluding year, and issues to consider for 2011:

• Chile, often overlooked in the shadow of larger neighbors, was the star of the South in 2010. All this year: a democratic election which peacefully transferred power to the opposition for the first time since 1989, a serious and effective response to a devastating earthquake which occurred while the new government was yet forming, sound economic management during the global financial crisis and strong growth coming out of it, a leading role in regional and pan-Pacific trade and investment expansion efforts, and a masterful miners rescue that riveted the world -- shown to be all the more extraordinary when compared to similar disasters in New Zealand and the United States. Chile is a nation on the move.

• On the opposite end of the spectrum, the year began with the Haitian earthquake that killed a quarter million people, and thousands more remain in squalid camps despite intensive attention from the international community. Cholera has become a frightening reality years after being eradicated elsewhere on the planet. The elections of November 28 are disputed, and the country remains politically fractured. Prospects remain bleak; a new model for Haiti, perhaps under UN authority, must be found.

• More broadly, growth has returned to the region and Latin America has emerged from the global crisis. Together, Latin America and Asia are two regions pulling the world out of economic crisis. This is a change from the past, when both Latin America and Asia caused global economic crises rather than led recovery. Sluggish growth in the United States and Japan, and an EU bouncing between sequential financial rescues of its weakest members, means that the traditional engines of global growth need help. Still, triumphalism would be imprudent; full recovery is not yet a certainty and economic vigilance will be required to maintain growth with equity.

• Much recent regional growth has come from commodities exports, an over-reliance on which may prove to be a double edged sword. Long-term development should not be sacrificed for short-term gains, which means that nations finding ways to capture the value added from commodities, beyond the sale of raw materials, will be the ones to reap the broadest-based gains.

• China, the primary purchaser of Latin American commodities, has emerged as a significant new regional player. To this point, Chinese business and investment links have been welcomed with open arms, despite that nation's self-evident mercantilistic regional policy. Nonetheless, questions are beginning to be asked as to what kind of economic and political partner the Chinese will ultimately make for Latin America and the Caribbean; at this point, the jury remains out. Not every nation will react to Chinese trade and investment in the same manner, of course. Some will pursue a strong relationship for political and ideological purposes, even when the economics don't necessarily make sense. Others may well take a more pragmatic view, building the relationship so long as it is mutually beneficial over time.

• The same is true in terms of relations with the United States. Most countries will continue to view bilateral relations favorably, if warily in some cases, working to keep them positive and mutually beneficial. Others will continue to go out of their way to vilify the United States and, when they do engage, to be as prickly as possible. Exhibit A: the recent Defense Ministerial of the Americas (DMA) hosted by Bolivia over Thanksgiving week in a transparent attempt to inconvenience attendees from the United States. During the DMA, President Evo Morales reportedly lectured US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the alleged hemispheric and other misdeeds of the United States. It's one thing to disagree, it's quite another, as the host, to give a public dressing down to your official visitors. Doing so, as each of our grandmothers surely reminded us, reflects more on the character of the speaker than on the object of his remarks.

• Citizens from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, the United States, and Venezuela all went to the polls in 2010. (Argentines and Peruvians will vote in 2011.) For the most part, except Haiti, elections were uneventful, as they should have been. Elections are important for democratic health, but true democracy also requires the periodic peaceful transfer of power to different individuals and parties at the national and sub-national levels. Brazil's President Lula, hugely popular, nonetheless decided to step down at the end of his second term, as did Colombia's Alvaro Uribe. The winners were democracy and the Brazilian and Colombian people, respectively. In Venezuela, the opposition made strong gains. In the United States, Republicans won the House of Representatives in November and, perceiving a vacuum in US policy toward the Americas, will likely work to intensify rhetoric and actions toward countries like Cuba and Venezuela they believe have not been pressured sufficiently by the Administration. Expect, therefore, a more partisan focus in regional affairs.

• Finally, crime and criminal activities including cyber-crime are becoming a real menace, particularly for the smaller nations of Central America and the Caribbean that are ill-equipped to fight well-armed and financed criminal gangs operating with virtual impunity. Guatemala is clearly a failing state, with the government unable to control vast swathes of the national territory. Mexico is waging a valiant and courageous effort but the fight is a long way from finished. And crime is not limited to the Caribbean Basin; Brazil has taken a strong stand against criminal and drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere even as the country looks forward to hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. In some ways, hemispheric efforts against crime have just begun. It will take time, immense resources, and a true spirit of cooperation, to get the problems under control.