The South American continent is made up of 12 states. In reality it is not officially a continent, in fact, it is considered a sub-continent or a macro region within the immense American continent. When it comes to Latin America, on the other hand, we must be careful to differentiate the two. In fact, this term was used for the first time in the mid-19th century and indicates the area that includes all the countries, South American but also Central America, which were conquered and colonized by populations from Latin nations, such as Spain, Portugal and France. There are 22 states that are generally recognized as components of Latin America. Basically, if you are in front of a geographical map, you can easily identify the Latin nations, starting from Mexico and going south, with some small exceptions.
Since the Second World War, and especially in the years of the Cold War, Latin America has been at the centre of the world spotlight in various periods for various events or reasons: among all the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and the missile crisis, always in Cuba in the early 1960s, between the United States and the Soviet Union; we must not forget, however, also the War of the Falkland Islands between Argentina and Great Britain in the spring of 1982, or even the problem of drug trafficking managed by the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels which, from the 1980s onwards, had a prominent place in chronicles of all the continents.
From the 90s onwards, on the other hand, due to the development of various conflicts or crises in other areas and regions of the world such as the Middle East or Asia, Central and South America have slipped into oblivion, almost ignored. In the last few years, however, the sub-continent has risen to the fore due to the economic crisis that many of its states are going through and also due to some political crises, including the recent one in Maduro’s Venezuela.
The countries of Latin America have always suffered from strong US influence; over the years, the United States has cultivated its interests in the southern areas of the continent, both to defend itself against threatening Soviet presences during the Cold War, but also to ensure, in a more unscrupulous way, various economic advantages. In recent years, especially with the Obama administration, the US has loosened its grip on Latin American countries, also thanks to the same nations that have been able to achieve greater independence and autonomy.
This autonomy is often derived from the political leadership of these countries: leaders of socialist, centre-left forces, who had exploited the wave of the economic boom, and had made the whole region speak as the new homeland of socialism. Lula in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela were just some of the incumbent presidents carrying this policy. For some years, however, the conservative and right-wing forces have been taking the place of the left-wing forces: Panama, Guatemala, Argentina, Haiti, Honduras, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Brazil.
In this respect, 2018 was a crucial year for many Latin American countries, a year of elections (especially presidential) and referendums. The populations of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Cuba, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Venezuela itself, went to the polls to decide their leaders and thus establish a political line. Also, in 2019 there will be several presidential elections, in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, which will affect the political map of the region.
A particular reference and study belong to Brazil, the largest and most populous state in South America. At the end of 2018, conservative Jair Bolsonaro was elected as president, who defeated Fernando Haddad, the dolphin of former president Lula. Bolsonaro immediately started a policy of rapprochement with Trump’s US, arguing that the country had changed with his election and that the United States, with him in power, had found a trusted friend. Trump even promised his administration’s support for Brazil’s request to join the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and said he was looking with particular attention to a possible entry of Brazil into NATO’s strategic military allies. This US-Brazil axis will certainly be important for the future of the entire American continent.
Another fundamental step in a turning point that is taking place within the South American chessboard took place in February 2019. In fact, in Santiago de Chile, seven presidents of the region, of Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru (together with the representative of Guyana) have created a new regional organization, of conservative orientation, called Prosur, “Foro para el progreso de America del Sur”. This body effectively formalized the demise of Unasur, the multilateral organization promoted by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez more than ten years ago. The new presidents have abandoned the old Unasur because it is oppressed by the leftist ideology that has now given way to the conservative counterpart in almost the entire peninsula. Even if the founding presidents themselves have promised that it will be an instrument of cooperation and dialogue without any underlying ideology.
What interrupted this policy of distancing the United States from Latin America, in addition to Bolsonaro’s rapprochement with Brazil, was especially the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. The socio-economic crisis began around 2010, when the past President Chavez was in office, the most serious and recent political crisis was unleashed after the presidential election in May 2018. This electoral round saw Maduro triumph for his second term, but the results were strongly contested by both the opposition and various international bodies, which called the elections a farce. At that point, the president of the country’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidò, proclaimed himself interim president, arguing that Maduro had not been democratically elected. The US immediately recognized President Guaidò siding against Maduro, who, as easily predictable, was promptly supported by Russia and China. The risk of a civil war in the country between the supporters of Maduro and those of Guaidò, with various foreign interference, is high. To aggravate this situation, there are also critical economic conditions across the country. Almost four million people have fled Venezuela since 2014, fleeing hunger, violence and crowding the borders, especially with Colombia and Ecuador. The Venezuelan crisis is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the whole region, and which does not see an easy resolution in the immediate future.
To further complicate the picture, and to increase strategic interests in the Latin American area, China has set itself with its global economic expansion. In fact, several Caribbean countries have joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative project: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and lastly Jamaica. A clear sign of how China wants to strengthen its presence in Central America and beyond. In fact, in South America the countries that have joined the “New Silk Road” are Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Panama. It is clear that China is interested in Latin America for its great natural, agricultural and energy resources: Venezuelan oil, Argentine and Brazilian soybeans. China also uses the now customary infrastructure investments to “settle” in a region. The acquisition, much discussed in Europe, of some ports, took place and is also taking place in South America, as evidenced by the cases of Chancay in Peru and Paranagua in Brazil. Furthermore, the relations and agreements that Beijing has bilaterally signed with Panama, also regarding the well-known canal, are particularly relevant for the Chinese project. In short, China is pushing its horizons, made up of investments and acquisitions, arriving in an area like the Latin American one, where until some time ago the presence and control of the USA was all-encompassing.
Another necessary element to mention when it comes to Latin America is, unfortunately, drug trafficking. The production of drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine, is a well-established activity in many South American countries. The particular climate and geographical conditions make South America the most favourable area in the world for the production of drugs. Drug trafficking is also managed by more or less large criminal organizations which in certain areas hold real power over the populations. It is certainly one of the biggest problems tearing apart Latin America. Suffice it to say that cocaine trafficking generates about $ 500 billion in profits annually. To date, Mexico has become the epicentre of drug dealing in all of America, also due to its geographical position as a “neighbour” of the United States, that is, the main drug user in the world. The gangs, groups and criminal cartels in Mexico are among the bloodiest ever, and become the protagonists of murders and violence that are unfortunately now commonplace. Even Colombia, which until the early 1990s was the home of the sadly legendary Pablo Escobar cartel, today has an important part of all the country’s wealth that comes from the production of cocaine on its territory. The United States has declared war on drug trafficking several times over the years, but the various drug cartels, even if they have suffered some severe blows, are more active than ever.
Across Latin America there are various situations that will see a development in the near future. First the crisis in Venezuela, with Maduro currently anchored in power thanks also to the support of Russia and China, and with the United States ready for any kind of intervention. The general shift in favour of a conservative line in the last rounds of elections throughout the South American region will certainly characterize a political change, of which the birth of the “Prosur” represents only one factor. The United States will certainly have to react in some way to China’s expansionism, more or less aggressive, throughout Latin America; Trump, but also his successor, will have to keep an eye on the politics of Xi Jinping unless they want to have the so-called “backyard parade”.
In all likelihood, from now on, Latin America will no longer be the sub-continent forgotten by world public attention, but will again be, hopefully in a positive way, a region of great geopolitical importance.