Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief, and happy holidays.
The highlights this week: We recap some of the year’s biggest stories, including how Gabriel Boric’s election victory in Chile is emblematic of a year where social inequality drove politics in Latin America.
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In Chile’s presidential runoff election Sunday, leftist candidate Gabriel Boric won a decisive victory against his opponent, far-right José Antonio Kast, whom he defeated by more than 11 percentage points. The contest saw the largest turnout since voting stopped being mandatory in Chile in 2012 and was the most decisive evidence yet of a yearlong trend in Latin America: Across the region, voters are looking to candidates and policies that aim to ease the stark social inequality that preceded, and was only exacerbated by, the coronavirus pandemic.
Colombian street protesters sent this message for several months beginning in April, when they staged nationwide demonstrations against tax reform and police brutality, and Peruvian voters echoed it in July by electing leftist Pedro Castillo, who called for “no more poor people in a rich country.” Even Ecuador’s new conservative president, Guillermo Lasso, committed to pursue a progressive tax overhaul, constrained by a mostly leftist congress.
Boric will be Latin America’s youngest president when he takes office in March 2022 at the age of 36. He is tattooed, bearded, unmarried, agnostic, a Nirvana aficionado, and a feminist. He has also spoken openly about his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Currently a congressman representing the Social Convergence party, Boric gained prominence during Chile’s 2011 student protest movement.
Boric’s platform and the resounding support it drew at the polls suggest bold political change may be afoot in Chile. A group of prominent international economists who endorsed Boric—including Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz—wrote they believe he can usher in a consensus between the public and private sectors that creates wealth by rejecting the idea that “the market alone can overcome the current challenges.” They write this notion “is already being understood in advanced countries.”
That may be an allusion to the fact that the United States, European countries, and others, such as Japan, have devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to their post-pandemic stimulus packages while Latin American countries and their emerging-market peers deployed more moderate recovery programs for shorter periods of time. The International Monetary Fund projects most Latin American countries are on paths to reduce their public spending through at least 2026, reaching levels lower than those prior to the pandemic and clouding prospects for new public investment.
Boric, however, has proposed a green public investment program similar to those underway in Europe, targeting alternative energy, climate adaption, and tourism sectors. He also plans to keep Chile on a path to reducing its deficit by raising taxes on the rich.
Incumbent President Sebastián Piñera and Kast both quickly pledged to collaborate with the new government. They hail from Chile’s business elite and political right, suggesting Boric will not immediately face the kind of obstruction that has beset Castillo in Peru. The Peruvian president survived an impeachment vote in December, only five months after he took office.
Even if Boric’s own plans get bogged down by congressional gridlock, his election injects new political legitimacy into Chile’s ongoing constitutional rewrite, which, once completed, will be subject to a nationwide referendum next year. While Kast openly opposed the redrafting, Boric has long been an advocate for a new constitution that would strengthen social protections for Chileans. He visited the president of the constitutional assembly two days after he was elected.
Taken together, Boric’s presidency and the Chilean constitutional convention appear to be Latin America’s best chance at a new social contract to confront the challenges laid bare by the pandemic.
Those challenges have been the throughline of Latin America’s 2021. While countries’ GDP numbers have swung upward since last year’s slump, growth is slow, and millions of people remain newly poor. Many who regained employment after pandemic-era job losses now work lower-quality jobs, and Latin American children have lost more days of schooling than those of any other world region. Women are lagging behind men in returning to the workforce, and in some countries, drug gangs reportedly increased their recruitment of children. Northward migration, too, is on the rise.
Meanwhile, a lack of regional cooperation on vaccine production and purchasing—in addition to COVID-19 vaccine hoarding by wealthy countries—has exacerbated health and economic stress over the year. And severe droughts across the region have caused water shortages, slowing shipping and lowering crop yields. Inflation is now higher in Latin America than in any other world region.
Here is a look back at some of Latin America’s biggest stories of 2021.
Welcoming Venezuelans. Both Colombia and Ecuador pledged to give some 2.2 million Venezuelan migrants regular status in their countries. More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country to destinations in Latin America since 2015.
Boric suggested he may implement similar regularization measures for Venezuelan migrants in Chile. In Peru, by contrast, Castillo pledged to expel foreigners who have committed crimes.
Bolsonaro deflated. Far-right COVID-19 denialist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro retained his post-inauguration approval levels for the first year of the pandemic. But his ratings crashed in the second half of 2021 as the government withdrew financial assistance to poor families and as federal corruption investigations moved forward against top officials in the Bolsonaro administration.
In April, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became eligible to run in next year’s presidential election after the Supreme Court overturned his corruption charges—making the highly popular candidate the first strong alternative to emerge against Bolsonaro. According to a poll conducted this month by Pesquisa e Consultoria, Lula would easily win an election against Bolsonaro if it were held today.
Uruguay’s flirtations. Uruguay’s ongoing attempts to secure free-trade pacts with China and Turkey have gone against the tenets of South American customs union Mercosur. Although Mercosur members are required to obtain one another’s permission for free-trade agreements with outside parties, the bloc has been plagued by internal disagreements for several years. The European Union, for one, has blocked a treaty with Mercosur from moving forward over concerns about Brazil’s environmental record.
Biden’s border restrictions. After pledging to reform the U.S. immigration system, U.S. President Joe Biden was criticized for keeping a Trump-era pandemic rule known as Title 42, which effectively blocked migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. This month, the United States and Mexico jointly restarted the so-called Remain in Mexico program, though Biden’s administration continues to fight it in court.
Best and worst of Cuba. Cuba is the only Latin American country to have begun vaccinating its population against COVID-19 using homegrown jabs, known as Soberana and Abdala. A three-dose combination of Soberana jabs is over 90 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infection, according to a pre-print study conducted by researchers at the institute that developed the vaccine, and developers of the Abdala vaccine said it was more than 92 percent effective at preventing symptomatic illness.
All is far from well in Cuba, however. In July, authorities responded to the largest nationwide anti-government protests in decades by detaining and surveilling activists. The protests’ instigators had connected on social media, emblematic of how mobile internet access has grown since it was introduced to the island in 2018.
Vaccine diplomacy. Moscow, Beijing, and Washington saw their vaccine donations to Latin American countries spark divergent reactions. An early start for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine eventually segued into shipment delays and diplomatic spats, causing some countries to resort to purchasing different jabs. Meanwhile, Latin Americans reported having improved opinions of China and the United States after taking vaccines made in those countries.
Most countries in the region tried to deepen their ties both with China and with the newly inaugurated Biden administration this year. Latin American leaders participated in a climate meeting facilitated by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in September, and several officials participated in Biden’s Summit for Democracy earlier this month.
In a highly watched decision, however, Brazil decided not to exclude Chinese firm Huawei from its new 5G telecommunications network, despite U.S. pressure.
Writing for Latinoamérica21, Rio de Janeiro State University political scientist Maurício Santoro argued China’s provision of vaccines, ventilators, and other medical supplies during the pandemic helped it consolidate its relations with Latin America. Meanwhile, he wrote, the United States has focused more on hostility toward Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela than on a constructive agenda for major issues, such as trade and migration.
Fintech boom. One of biggest initial public offerings in the United States this year was of the Brazilian financial technology company Nubank, which raised $2.6 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Financial services remain the bedrock of Latin America’s start-up scene, which saw 15 companies reach billion-dollar valuations this year, El País reported. That’s compared to 19 over the three previous years combined.
In Brazil, 38 million people opened their first bank account between January 2020 and June 2021, according to the country’s central bank. That’s in part spurred by the need to receive transfers of pandemic aid but also due to the rise of financial technology and the ubiquity of the Central Bank’s own instant transfer system, Pix. Previously, in October 2020, Mastercard reported 40 million Latin Americans had opened their first bank account during the pandemic.
Venezuelan negotiations. In an attempt to forge a pathway out of Venezuela’s political crisis, the Biden administration initially showed openness to lifting some sanctions on the country if Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro changed his undemocratic behavior. This got Maduro to the negotiating table with his country’s opposition in August, but he broke off talks in October when one of his close allies, businessman Alex Saab, was extradited to the United States on money laundering charges.
After sitting out the last elections, Venezuela’s opposition switched up their strategy to run candidates in local polls in November, which EU election officials observed for the first time in 15 years.
Autocracies harden—mostly. Across Central America, elected leaders have continued their march toward illiberalism. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s party sacked judges on the country’s top court, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega jailed critics and potential electoral adversaries, and Guatemala’s attorney general ousted the country’s top anti-corruption official after one of his investigations drew close to top government officials.
In Honduras, however—which experienced a troubled presidential election in 2017—the political opposition this year united to elect Xiomara Castro in a vote widely considered free and fair. Castro will become the country’s first female president and has pledged to focus on reducing social inequality.
The artists who left us. Latin Americans remembered musicians who passed away in 2021 yet continue to shape the sounds of the region.
Mexico’s Vicente Fernández was the “King” of ranchera music and performed his operatic songs across Latin America and the United States. Argentina’s Jorge Cumbo combined jazz and folklore music on the Andean quena flute. Jamaica’s Bunny Wailer was known as the “spiritual mystic” of the iconic reggae group the Wailers. The Dominican Republic’s Johnny Pacheco marketed salsa records out of the trunk of his car and went on to arrange iconic songs for his label Fania Records, making the genre a global sensation. And Marília Mendonça, a Brazilian sertanejo country singer, empowered women in a highly macho social milieu through her lyrics. Her fans called her songs feminejo.