Crystal balls never reflect a full picture. But with nothing else to look at, many still gaze at them. In other cases, just as many simply look back – and then ahead, based on the reflections.
The year just ended offered many signposts for Latin America in 2018:
Brazil braced for presidential elections with former president ‘Lula’ De Silva leading the polls; Peru has been divided by the controversial presidential pardon of ex-president Fujimori; Honduras remained in a stalemate over recent presidential elections; Guatemala got ready to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; Venezuela braced for yet another round of Government-opposition dialogue and presidential elections; Mexico continued to see violence and corruption affect all walks of life ahead of presidential elections; Bolivia’s constitutional court did away with presidential term limits; Argentina’s Christina Fernandez returned to parliament with foes conspiring to limit her chances of returning to the presidential palace; Chile returned to conservative rule; Puerto Rico, 100 days after Hurricane Maria, still had over a million people without electricity; and Cuban President Raul Castro’s final term was extended to allow its National Assembly to choose his successor on April 19.
Six South American countries will face crucial national elections this year: Costa Rica in February, Paraguay in April, Colombia in May, Mexico in July, Brazil in October and Venezuela on a date to be announced. In each case, however, it is too early to say how the electoral winds will blow.
Cuba’s national Assembly will elect a new President on April 19th, who will replace outgoing President Raul Castro, who replaced his brother Fidel in 2006 following the latter’s resignation for health reasons.
Over 360 million South Americans will be casting votes this year, with some observers claiming ruling parties will face electorates more interested in ending corruption than bread-and-butter issues, while governments are preparing report cards to show progress in the face of economic difficulties.
Some critics even predict that overarching charges of corruption involving the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht will serve as millstones around the necks of many leaders seeking re-election or ultimately slim their parties’ winning chances.
But neither the crystal ball-gazers nor the rear-view observers are prepared to put their heads on a block -- or even their hands in fire -- to back their claims.
Traditional analysts always tend to only focus on Central and South America when analyzing the wider region of Latin America and the Caribbean and it’s the same regarding elections.
Grenada and Barbados are among Caribbean states also preparing for crucial polls, but none have qualified for equal analysis by the continental observers and pundits.
But this is a long-standing tendency that has almost become habitual and it has to do with more than just linguistic differences or geographical proximity.
It has become usual to expect that whether at the United Nations (UN) or in the Organization of American States (OAS), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 14-member group of mainly English-speaking small-island nations is either disregarded or simply pegged at a lower rung on the ladder of importance -- except where their votes matter.
Even in their words and deeds regarding political, economic, cultural and other forms of practical cooperation, most Central and South American nations tend to work closer together than in mutual levels of coordination with their multilingual Caribbean neighbors (including French-speaking Haiti and Dutch-speaking Surinam).
But that has started to change, even though progress remains slow. The past few years have seen a couple of countries, under progressive leadership, striving to close the gap in real ways.
For example, under Presidents Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, Cuba and Venezuela teamed-up with several other South American states to give birth to the PetroCaribe Agreement, the Bolivarian Alternative for Our Americas (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
The initiatives have resulted in creation of mechanisms such as the ALBA Bank and the People’s Trade Agreement (TCP), as well as PetroCaribe-related economic entities, including designation of Latin America and Caribbean as both a mutual Free Trade Zone and a Zone of Peace.
The Association of Caribbean States (ACS) also came into being towards the end of the 20th Century, while the likes of the Union of South American States (UNASUR) and the trade alliance MERCOSUR have also provided platforms for Caribbean participation.
The nuances of electoral politics have altered the levels of participation of some of the original founding member-states in these regional and hemispheric entities, including ALBA, in some cases lessening the overall intended pace of change and influence at national, regional and hemispheric levels.
But all is definitely not lost, as states untouched by political change have in fact strengthened their efforts to ensure original objectives are pursued with no less intensity.
In the last quarter of 2017, Venezuela and Cuba were the first to respond in kind to the urgent needs of Dominica and Antigua & Barbuda, as well as Puerto Rico and Haiti, following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Though affected by both hurricanes, Cuba provided valuable help in manners consistent with its historical relationship with CARICOM and its other Caribbean neighbors. Likewise Venezuela, which did not wait one moment longer to dispatch aircraft and personnel to build solidarity bridges directly to Antigua and to Dominica from Saint Lucia.
In December 2017, Latin American-Caribbean solidarity was again manifested when two related regional entities met to plan for inter and intra-regional cooperation in 2018 and beyond: the 6th CARICOM-Cuba Summit took place in Antigua and Barbuda on December 8th and the 16th Meeting of the ALBA-TCP Political Council took place on December 14th in Cuba.
The CARICOM-Cuba Summit agreed not only to continue the levels of political and social cooperation its 15 member-states have shared in the past 15 years (since its inception), but to also deepen economic and commercial cooperation, work together in tourism and in post-disaster cooperation. Cuba also pledged to continue making education scholarships to CARICOM member-states, which have together benefited to date from 5,432 graduates returning home from successful studies at the University of Havana.
The ALBA-TCP Political Council ALBA-TCP meeting, among other things: committed to strengthening of CELAC, called for compliance with the Final Agreement between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government, rejected the Trump administration’s reversal of advances made between the US and Cuba during the Obama administration, supported Venezuela against all forms of external intervention in its internal affairs, supported Nicaragua’s successes in fighting drug trafficking and organized crime, rejected post-election repression in Honduras, supported the Paris Climate Change accords, condemned the US President’s unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, supported the continuing demand for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict and demanded strict observance of the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter and International Law regarding use and threats of force, respect for sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of states.
With special reference to the smaller Caribbean member-states, the ALBA-TCP meeting also: called for special consideration for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in implementation of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, supported Caribbean countries’ continuing post-hurricane recovery efforts, opposed the so-called ‘graduation’ criteria of extra-regional agencies that deny many small states access to international aid, condemned their punishment by international agencies that declare them ‘non-cooperative jurisdictions’ and joined CARICOM’s ongoing demand for Reparations from Europe for Slavery and Native Genocide.
The CARICOM states again proved their indispensable worthiness (within the Latin America and Caribbean context) in 2017, twice staying Washington’s plans to use the OAS as a launching pad against Venezuela.
Cuba had a similar (but much earlier) profound experience in 1972, when four Caribbean nations (Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago -- before the formal launch of CARICOM) defied US diktat and jointly established diplomatic relations with Havana.
The ‘Trump Doctrine’
Interestingly, the United States is also continuing its historical concentration of paying more attention to the Spanish-speaking continental Central and South American region than to the smaller, mainly island-states of the Caribbean archipelago.
In hot pursuit of the Monroe Doctrine’s designation of the wider region as ‘America’s backyard’, Washington continues the traditional ‘Carrot and Stick’ policy of offering aid and trade to national willing to submit to its dictates while threatening political pressure and military force against those not willing.
For example, the ‘Trump Doctrine’ outlined in the latest US National Security Strategy unveiled on December 18th 2017 specifically targets Cuba and Venezuela for special mention, while mainly ignoring all other Latin American and Caribbean states.
If ever there was need for more mutual cooperation and collaboration between countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is now.
Washington’s traditional ‘Divide and Rule’ strategy is still in full force and in relation to Venezuela in particular, Justin Trudeau’s Canada is playing along with the backing of the likes of Brazil and Colombia, also with backing too from the European Union (EU).
Closing the Gaps
Against that background, member-states of the hemispheric region need to get their acts together in the regional organizations like the OAS and CARICOM, but also need to find ways and means of working closer together in their common interests to accelerate the closing the still-too-wide gaps that divide neighbors.
Central American states like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras need to lessen their historical dependence on Washington for military and financial support to address their problems associated with violence, corruption, drug trade and immigration;
CARICOM states need to find ways and means to play a greater role in addressing the historical factors belying the ongoing Guyana-Venezuela territorial dispute, which is increasingly being exploited by Washington, especially now through intervention by Exxon-Mobil;
Haiti needs to deepen its integration with CARICOM in ways and means that will lesson genuine fears of the English-speaking smaller island regarding size, population and potential economic factors;
The Dominican Republic must realistically address its ongoing conflict with Haiti over handling of Dominicans of Haitian origin in ways that will encourage CARICOM to be more prepared to quicken its integration within the regional entity of mainly island-states; and
Latin American states need to take a page from the ALBA-TCP grouping and be more prepared to recognize and identify with the particular vulnerabilities of the Caribbean Small Island States not only to Climate Change factors such as increasing annual hurricane damage and rising tides, but also their increasing isolation by new rules and other impositions by developed countries, whether in the EU or at the level of the UN.
By no means do these identified factors amount to all that needs to be done, but as of 2018 they can become starting points that can develop in speed accelerating favorable factors over time.