Last week, Venezuela’s government threatened that if the U.S. did not withdraw its economic sanctions, it might call off the 2018 presidential election. Although such a grossly unconstitutional act would prolong the suffering of the Venezuelan people, it could ironically help limit a turn to the left in Latin America as the region faces one the largest and most significant series of electoral events in recent years.
During the next 12 months, elections will occur, in which the sitting president will not be one of the options, in Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, and Chile. Brazil, Barbados and Grenada will elect new leaders as well.
As each of these nations chooses their future, the painful daily stories about Venezuelan autocracy, corruption, and mismanagement will be a rallying cry for the right, and a liability for leftist candidates across the region. Ironically, in 2018, the greatest blow to the dreams of Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, to spread socialism across the region, will come from his own legacy of corruption and mismanagement, and the struggle of his successors to cling to power as the resource-rich state that he ran into the ground unravels.
Yet before conservatives in the U.S. become too smug, the U.S. withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), its possible renegotiation of NAFTA, U.S. rhetoric about building a border wall, expanded deportations, and impugning of the character of Mexican immigrants, have more than offset Venezuela’s contribution to giving the Latin American left a bad name.
While it is too early to predict whether negative perceptions of the rhetoric coming out of Washington will outweigh negative perceptions of Venezuelan populist socialism in Latin America’s upcoming "mega-election cycle" the number of elections in the region during the coming year, and their potential to change the region, merits U.S. attention.
In December of 2017, Chile will conduct the second round of its presidential race, deciding between the center-right policies of former President Sebastian Piñera, and Alejandro Guillier, whose election is expected to continue President Michelle Bachelet’s partially stalled movement of the country toward the left.
Chile’s choice will have important repercussions for its approach to building relationships across the Pacific, including its relationship with the People’s Republic of China, the future of the Pacific Alliance (in which it is a member) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Chile’s fledgling defense cooperation relationships with Russia and China will also be in the balance.
One of the most potentially consequential elections will occur in Mexico, where tensions with the U.S. have contributed to the resonance of the message of populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his "National Regeneration" movement (Morena). Against AMLO, Mexico’s governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has fielded Jose Antonio Meade, a highly respected candidate who has served administrations of two different parties in senior positions from Minister of Foreign Relations to Minister of Finance.
Yet record violence and corruption scandals undercut the argument to replace President Enrique Peña Nieto with another PRI candidate; Meade is currently trailing AMLO by 14 points in the polls. Meanwhile, the coalition of Mexico’s other two principal parties, the PAN and PRD, is in crisis, with the withdraw from the PAN of Margarita Zavala, the wife of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and dissatisfaction with Ricardo Anaya, the default candidate of the coalition.
South of Mexico, the February 2018 election in Costa Rica is another wide-open race, with candidates from up to 21 parties possibly competing for the presidency, and with the candidate from the long dominant National Liberation Party, Antonio Alvarez Disanti, not even reaching 15 percent in the polls.
In Honduras, the contestation of Juan Orlando Hernandez’s victory in the November 2017 presidential election by Salvador Nasralla continues without end in sight, with the possibility that the country could be forced to "re-do" part of the vote.
In Cuba, Raul Castro has promised to step down in February 2018, putting an end to almost six decades of rule by he and his older brother Fidel. Castro’s likely successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is believed likely to continue their hard-line posture.
Yet the island’s new leader could make different choices in response to souring relations with the U.S., such as renewing Russia-Cuba military ties or bringing Russian personnel back to the Lourdes intelligence collection facility.
In Colombia, amidst profound controversy over the agreement reached between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation will elect a new Congress in March, and a new president in May.
Former Vice-President German Vargas Lleras, who was expected to represent the legacy of President Santos, has taken an unexpectedly conservative posture, while the right-wing opposition, enshrined by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has yet to coalesce behind a single champion.
Paraguay also faces an election in April 2018. Its current President Horacio Cartes, abandoned aspirations to seek a second term, after an attempt by supporters in Congress to change the constitution led protesters to set fire to the legislature. With no clear front-runner, the next president will make important choices about possibly changing diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the PRC, and how to address nation’s growing role as a regional hub for narcotrafficking.
In October of 2018, Brazil, which comprises half of the land area, economy and population of South America, will also chose its next president. Former left-of-center President Lula da Silva has indicated his intention to run (although facing a pending 10-year prison sentence), as well as the leftist environmentalist Marina Silva. On the right, however, with Brazil’s current president Michael Temer pledging not to seek a new term in 2018, the center and right of the presidential field has not fully defined itself.
In the face of multiple significant sources of political change in Latin America during the coming year, the U.S. needs a more concerted effort to anticipate the direct and indirect implications of electoral outcomes in the region, and work with our partners to ensure transparency, democracy, and respect for the rule of law and constitutional frameworks, whatever the outcome.
Having a fully staffed, funded, and empowered State Department apparatus with the confidence and ear of the president, to include its Policy Planning organization, and a Congressionally confirmed Trump-appointed assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, would be helpful in that regard.
The imperative "not to become another Venezuela" will likely weigh heavily in the electoral contests of the coming year. Yet the appropriate path for development with social justice is one that each country will decide according to its own conditions and experience.
The U.S. must be prepared to work with the region with steady commitment and respect, whatever the range of outcomes.
Dr. Evan Ellis is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at CSIS, and Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. His work focuses on security and defense issues, including transnational organized crime, populism, and the region’s relationships with China and other non-Western Hemisphere actors. Dr. Ellis has published over 180 works, including three books, and has presented his work in 26 countries across four continents. He has testified on multiple occasions regarding Latin America and the Caribbean before the U.S. Congress, and his work regularly appears in the media in both the U.S. and the region. Through his work, Dr. Ellis calls attention to the strategic importance of Latin America and the Caribbean for the United States through bonds of geography, commerce, and family, and how the prosperity and security of the U.S. are tied to that of its partners in the region. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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