Latin America: 2020 in Review
The Daily Briefing is on a much-needed break until the first week of January -- I'll be back in full swing then.
It’s been a rough year for many people, and difficult in novel and unexpected ways. Throughout it, the Briefing’s reader community has been a comfort to me. Many of you reached out with tips, corrections, words of support and gratitude for the daily missives. Thank you for that, and thank you all for reading, even when it's a slog. Putting together the report has been a sort of rope through an ongoing snowstorm for me, and on my more optimistic days, I hope it serves a similar purpose for its readers.
I wanted to take the opportunity to take a look back at new from Latin America over 2020, and some key issues for next year.
2020 has been Covid all the time – since March anyway -- but also a lot of other things.
Blazes raged across rainforests and wetlands in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina this year for months this year. In all four countries the fires have been driven by a number of forces, but particularly the extensive deforestation of the past two decades. Experts also cite long-term poor enforcement of environmental rules, which has been made worse by the pandemic crisis which has weakened governments' ability to act. (See Oct. 9’s post.)
In Brazil, Amazon rainforest deforestation hit a 12-year high in 2020: at least 11,088 sq km of rainforest was razed between August 2019 and July this year – the highest figure since 2008. (Guardian) Climate change -- rising temperatures and more extreme droughts -- are combining lethally with fires used to clear land for cattle and agricultural use. As a result, the previously fire-resilient Amazon rainforest is burning, and may be approaching the tipping point when large portions of the forest turn into tropical savannas, wrote Bruno Carvalho and Carlos Nobre in a New York Times op-ed. (See post for Oct. 2.)
In October reports indicated that roughly a quarter of the vast Pantanal wetland in Brazil, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, burned in wildfires worsened by climate changethis year. Fires occur naturally in the Pantanal, and are also used by ranchers to clear land for agriculture -- a drought this year made those fires blaze out of control. NASA analysis found that at least 22 percent of the Pantanal in Brazil burned between January and October, with the worst fires, in August and September, blazing for two months straight. (See Oct. 14’s briefs.)
Argentine lawmakers, moved by intense fires in the country's Paraná delta wetlands this year, passed a bill to protect forested areas against the fires, which have been linked to speculative business interests. As of October hotspots were detected in more than 175,000 hectares in 13 of Argentina’s 23 provinces, according to data from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). These figures surpass records from previous decades, reports Nacla.
The hurricane season in the Caribbean was the worst on record -- 30 named storms, 13 or which developed into hurricanes, six of which became major hurricanes. Weather experts say that global warming has upended old assumptions about Atlantic hurricanes -- storms are more frequent, stronger and later in the season than before. A larger portion of Latin America and the Caribbean may now be vulnerable to them. (See Dec. 9’s Caribbean News Updates)
In November the one-two punch of Eta and Iota devastated parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala –many are comparing the destruction to that caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The devastation compounds preexisting emergencies – including the climate-change induced drought that has made even subsistence agriculture impossible in the Central American “Dry Corridor” – and could add to migration from the region. (See Nov. 25’s post.)
Migration is expected to be a key challenge for the incoming U.S. administration. 70,000 migrants were caught crossing the Southwest border of the U.S. last month — a 64% increase compared to last November that came in spite of the pandemic and strict immigration enforcement policies, reports Axios.
President-elect Joe Biden's promise to reverse many of the current Trump administration's most controversial measures could add to a potential mass migration, according to some experts. "There are very real risks that sudden changes in policy could generate a surge of unauthorized migration," warned Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute in Americas Quarterly in November.
The current Trump administration essentially shifted the U.S. border further south, by pushing Mexico and Guatemala to enact significant migration control policies. “If before Central American walkers dreamed of crossing the U.S. Tijuana wall ... now they will dream of crossing the Mexican wall," wrote Carlos Martínez in El Faro nearly a year ago. "The Border, like that with capital letters, moved south ..." (See post for Jan. 21.)
The Trump administration’s controversial efforts to stymie migration, such as forcing asylum seekers to await proceedings in Mexico or deporting asylum seekers to “safe” countries in Central America, were supplanted by international travel restrictions and U.S. pandemic excused efforts to shut-down asylum claims. The Trump administration announced last week that it’s ready to implement an agreement that would permit sending asylum seekers from Central America who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border to El Salvador. (Vox) It is one of three such pacts that the U.S. has made in an effort to discourage regional migration. The other agreements are with Honduras and Guatemala, although only the latter has been implemented so far. The so-called “safe third country” agreements have been strongly criticized by advocates, who say the receiving countries are not able to guarantee basic safety measures for asylum seekers. A report by Refugees International and Human Rights Watch found extensive problems with the implementation of the agreement in Guatemala, where the United States sent nearly 1,000 asylum seekers between November 2019 and March 2020. Just 2 percent of the migrants who were returned to Guatemala applied to seek asylum there, with the rest apparently giving up and going home, according to the report. (Washington Post)
What did continue, and actually exacerbated coronavirus spread in several cases, were deportations from the U.S., often of people who turned out to be infected with Covid-19. This was particularly an issue for Guatemala, which received hundreds of infected deportees, and eventually moved to cap the number it would accept from the U.S. The U.S. failed to consistently test for Covid-19 infections among those it plans to deport and immigration detention centers are hotspots for contagion, reported The Intercept in an in-depth, damning piece in June. The situation is particularly dangerous for Central America's Northern Triangle, which received the vast majority of deportation flights during the pandemic. Guatemala was the top recipient with 100 flights, according to flight data analyzed by CEPR also in June. Haitian officials are also particularly concerned. (See June 25’s post, June 29’s post and Oct. 29’s briefs.)
Protests and Police Violence
Protests were a major theme in 2019 that carried over, though altered by coronavirus restrictions and contagion concerns: it’s not just protests, but their repression. This year protests were highly relevant in Colombia again, but also in Peru where they checked what many people consider a parliamentary coup. In both cases there was severe police repression, that builds on the trend from last year in the cases of Chile and Ecuador’s protest movements. "Police abuses in Latin America tend to be the result of generalized impunity, lack of supervision and an institutional culture of opacity that tolerates, and, on occasion, encourages abuse," wrote Human Rights Watch investigators Juan Pappier and César Muñoz Acebes in a New York Times Español op-ed that reviewed many of last year’s violations. (See Nov. 18’ briefs.)
Peruvian protesters poured out in anger when lawmakers ousted President Martín Vizcarra in November, but the underlying cause was rejection of decades of corruption and authoritarian governance in the country according to some commentators. Many demonstrators were moved by frustration with democracy’s failure to strengthen institutions, social and economic structures, wrote Álvaro Vargas Llosa in the Washington Post. This new generation of protesters sought to break with the past and claimed that the government "messed with the wrong generation,” wrote Ñusta Carranza Ko in the Washington Post. The protests were coordinated by hundreds of small, decentralized organizations formed through social media, reports Nacla. The week-long protests in Peru show new dynamics of social mobilization fostered during the Covid-19 pandemic. (See Nov. 19’s briefs, Nov. 16’s post and Nov. 13’s post.)
In Colombia, protesters were galvanized by the police murder of Javier Ordóñez in September, the resulting heavy handed response to demonstrations, and the faulty implementation of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC. Social concerns that drove protests last year remain on the agenda as well, many made more pressing by coronavirus economic effects. (See Sept. 22’s post and Oct. 22’s among others.) Assassinations of social leaders by diverse armed groups was an issue before, but escalated significantly this year, as armed groups fight to control territories and impose draconian restrictions on local communities. Further, the government has reduced protections for activists, even as it has authorized activities that increase the risk to communities, such as the extraction of natural resources, police operations and the forced eradication of illicit crops, according to Amnesty International. (See Oct. 8’s briefs.) The United Nations has recorded the deaths of 255 people in 66 massacres in Colombia this year, as well as the killing of 120 human rights defenders, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights reported last week. The killers seek to sabotage the country’s 2016 peace agreement and the rural economic reform it promised, according to an October report by the International Crisis Group.
Brazilian protesters have poured out in anger over structural violence against Afro-Brazilians, who are disproportionately killed by police violence. The movement has links to this year’s Black Lives Matter in the U.S., but responds to national dynamics. Perhaps few cases are more heartbreaking than the eight children killed by stray bullets related to police operations over the course of the year in Rio de Janeiro favelas (see Dec. 8’s briefs), or Miguel, the five year old who died due to racist negligence on the part of his mother’s white employer (see June 8’s briefs.) "Yet, protests against police violence are not only about police killings,” wrote Thiago Amparo in Americas Quarterly in June. “Protesters read those killings as part of a necropolitics which aims to destroy black bodies, either by killing them directly or letting them die.”
The San Isidro Movement protests against Cuba’s government – and their quashing, which garnered unusually broad local support and international attention – have some commentators hoping activists on the island will have greater impact next year. (See Nov. 26’s post and Dec. 10’s post) The incoming U.S. government is expected to drastically change current policies towards Cuba, returning to the Obama era détente, to a point.
In late November Guatemalans poured out into the streets and forced the government to walk back on a budget plan that cut social spending but increased lawmakers’ stipends. The indignation harkened back to 2015 protests that toppled then president Otto Pérez Molina, but there was an added component of exhaustion and irritation about the country's trajectory. (See Nov. 23’s post.)
Sanitary measures aimed at limiting contagion raised alarm bells in a region where security forces have historically been linked to significant human rights violations under authoritarian and democratic governments. Many of those fears proved relevant, as did vigilance by civil society and activists who denounced excesses.
In El Salvador there have been security force excesses within a broader context of authoritarian slide. The Bukele administration enacted some of the strictest restrictions in the region, ducking attempts by civil society and lawmakers to control measures and spending. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele portrayed his heavy-handed Covid-19 response as one that prioritized human lives over lesser concerns over due process. But critics countered that Bukele's actions have nothing to do with public health, and many moves were, in fact, counter productive towards battling the pandemic. (See May 4’s post and June 15’s.)
It’s worth noting, however, Bukele’s push against institutions began well before the pandemic, and included leaning more on security forces, violating prison inmates' rights, weakening protections for LGBT people, and undermining freedom of expression. In a particularly egregious episode in February, Bukele led a brief military takeover of the National Assembly building. (See June 2’s post, Feb. 10’s, and Feb. 11’s)
El Salvador will hold legislative elections in February 2021 – in which the entire 84 seat National Assembly will be renewed. There are also 262 municipal government’s up for grabs. Bukele was elected two years ago on a third party ticket, but his Nuevas Ideas party is expected to win a majority in congress this time around. Nonetheless the government has also started warning of potential fraud. (EFE)
Venezuela held legislative elections earlier this month that were widely recognized as neither free nor fair. (See Dec. 7’s post.) However, they also mark the end of the mandate for opposition lawmakers who are currently the majority in the National Assembly. They are a turning point for the opposition to Nicolás Maduro, whose government is more consolidated than it has been for two years. As of January, opposition leader Juan Guaidó loses his main claim to the country’s interim-presidency, which is linked to his post as National Assembly president. WOLA experts Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde note that opposition leaders face increasing repression and greater challenges to their mobilizing capacity on the ground. In a new policy memo they recommend the incoming Biden administration change the U.S. approach towards Venezuela – particularly pivoting towards multilateral diplomacy. Negotiations should contemplate partial agreements working towards free and fair elections, they argue, and the U.S. should improve communication with rivals China and Russia on Venezuela issues. They also suggest the new U.S. government “convene an inter-agency task force to review Venezuela sanctions and related indictments, with the goal of reforming policy in ways that alleviate the humanitarian crisis and more effectively contribute to a return to democracy.”
Bolivia, on the other hand, pulled of a startling turn-around, a year after former president Evo Morales was ousted from office due to military pressure and forced into exile. Voters overwhelmingly backed his candidate, Luis Arce in October in an election that was widely perceived as a referendum on Morales’ 14-year government, and a rejection of interim-government that succeeded him. A year of anti-indigenous, theocratic and neoliberal ideology pushed by the interim-government and anti-MAS leadership also helped push voters towards Arce. The incoming president will, however, face significant challenges, particularly a poor economic situation. Human rights activists are watching to see how he addresses violations committed by the interim government, including two massacres of protesters in 2019. (See post for Oct. 20)
It’s been said over and over again this year that Covid-19 demonstrated the region’s pre-existing weaknesses – particularly in regard to social inequality and infrastructure. The gaps between haves and have-nots have never been more evident. Staying home was never an option for a vast majority of the region’s numerous informal workers, who also knew they didn’t have the luxury of adequate health services in the case of infection. Covid-19 has stalled the education of over 137 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean. A November report by UNICEF warned of a "generational catastrophe": 97 percent of the students in the region have missed out on an average of 174 days of learning and are at risk of losing an entire school year. More than 3 million children may never return to school.
The region’s prison populations were evidently a great risk, and the pandemic pushed many countries to carry out releases of non-violent prisoners. Unsanitary conditions pushed other inmates to riot, particularly in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina.
Covid works into another major issue in the region: gender violence and the push for broader women’s rights. Both became even more pressing in the pandemic context, with higher rates of abuse in lockdowns and the spectacular cost of care work increasing and obvious to all. (See Aug. 20’s post.)
Beyond the lockdowns, the feminist year kicked off with a massive demonstration against femicides in Mexico – where AMLO denied the relevance of the phenomenon – (see Feb. 19’s post) and will hopefully close off with landmark abortion in Argentina next week. (See Dec. 11’s post.)
This is by no means comprehensive. There are countries I didn’t mention, and issues I didn’t get to. But I wanted to take a stab at going over some of the relevant themes from the year and what should look out for next year.
I went over these and other topics with Hector Alamo, who kindly invited me to participate on his Remember the Show podcast last week. I recommend listening to it. Hector likened reading the daily every day to a telenovela, or many novelas all at once, which really resonated for me. On that note, I hope you continue to join me next season: 2021. (Cue ominous music.)