Next year is going to be a big one for Latin America.
Then again, we always think that. For Latin Americaphiles, hope springs eternal; next year is always our year. But 2015 promises to be particularly interesting and newsworthy, judging by the events set in motion as the curtain drops on ’14.
It will be a year of important geopolitical shifts, as the Venezuelan-led ALBA bloc shrivels on the vine, and Uncle Sam gets his Latin groove-thing back. The Chinese government and private sector are also angling to become increasingly big players in the region — they're eyeing Mexico’s energy sector and endeavoring to carve a massive canal across Nicaragua.
Colombia, meanwhile, will focus on burying the hatchet with FARC guerrillas, as the two sides move into a crucial moment in peace talks that would end four decades of hostilities.
It will be a year of social awakening and economic opening in Mexico, political unraveling and economic chaos in Venezuela, and all breeds of trouble in Central America’s northern triangle (when isn’t that the case?). It'll be a year of #FlashbackFridays from old newsmakers such as the Castro brothers and Daniel Ortega, as well as new political players in Argentina, as that country holds its first election in more than a decade without a Kirchner on the ballot. In the case of Peru, Keiko Fujimori will try to make an old name new again.
Some countries will advance, while others will fall backwards. Many will just spin in circles. And, as is always the case with Latin America, there’ll be plenty of surprises that no one saw coming (until they happen, of course, and then all the pundits will flap their arms and say: “I told you so! I’ve been warning about this for years, but nobody listened!”)
So here’s a peek inside Fusion’s crystal ball at the stories to watch in Latin America in 2015. The stories are ranked in order of imagined importance, until, of course, the news happens and proves us wrong.
Shaking off the Cold War hangover
Not since 1959 have expectations been so high for change in Cuba. The surprise year-end announcement by President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro to thaw diplomatic relations has people on both sides of the Straits of Florida hopeful for change.
But what that change will look like, and its pace of implementation, remains to be seen. All eyes will be on the April Summit of the Americas in Panama City for early clues about the rate of thaw, as Obama and Castro will meet face-to-face for the first time since making their simultaneous announcements on Dec. 17.
What the normalization in relations will mean for ordinary Cubans is still unclear. Cuba’s economy is stalled, and only time will tell if the change will translate into more jobs or economic opportunities for Cubans. Could 2015 be the year Cubans get internet access? Vamos a ver.
While many are expectant of a new era of engagement, change comes slowly in Cuba (and in Washington, for that matter). And there are still plenty of issues keeping the two neighboring countries at a considerable distance.
As Hemingway said, "Brother, don't let anybody tell you there isn't plenty of water between Havana and Key West."
Shortages, inflation and falling oil prices haunt 'Bolivarian Revolution'
If there is one Latin American leader who is taking a long, hard look into the crystal ball, it’s Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. And with good reason.
Maduro is closing out the year with a flurry of bad news. Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, is suffering chronic shortages of basic goods and foods and soaring inflation of over 60 percent. Maduro has watched as global oil prices plummeted in recent weeks, sharply reducing the flow of money into government coffers to fund the “socialist revolution” started by his mentor, former President Hugo Chávez.
With the economy in recession, polls show Maduro is losing support among poor Venezuelans, the backbone of “Chavismo.”
2015 offers some tough choices. How will Maduro beat back fears of a possible debt default (as some economists warn may happen), if Venezuela must meet nearly $20 billion in debt payments over the next two years and holds virtually the same amount in foreign currency reserves? Facing a steep drop in oil-exporting revenue, how will he make up the financial shortfall?
Will the president raise government-subsidized gasoline prices in a country where a full tank of gas costs only a few dollars, and people consider cheap fuel a birthright? It's not an easy decision: the subsidy costs the government some $12 billion a year, but past attempts to increase fuel costs have been disastrous (A 1989 gas-pump spike led to deadly street riots).
As Venezuela limps into the New Year, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: the days of ALBA expansionism and Chávez-era largess appear to be over.
A country divided by a nonexistent canal
After several years of smooth sailing, Nicaragua is changing tack to head back into rough waters.
The country has enjoyed five years of steady economic expansion, fueled by a period of relative social stability and a growing reputation as a world-class tourism destination with pristine natural attractions. It's worked so well that the Sandinista government has decided to scrap that game plan and put all its chips on an ill-conceived $50 billion Chinese canal plan that threatens to disrupt social peace, tear the country in half, and destroy the environment for good measure.
The New Year will start swiftly for Nicaragua. Chinese canal planners have said the "land acquisition" phase will begin in first trimester of 2015. That's when things will get ugly, as campesinos — most of whom are former contras — rally to defend their land from Sino-Sandinista encroachment.
It will also be a key moment for Nicaragua's feckless political opposition, which has spent the better part of the past decade slouched over in a worthless stupor. After failing to provide any meaningful leadership, the political opposition — in a bid to regain some semblance of relevance — will have to learn to become followers of an organic social movement that is organizing against the Chinese canal.
Liberal Party congressman Eliseo Nuñez, a potential presidential candidate in the 2016 elections, says Nicaragua’s opposition political parties need to “humbly join” the street movement started by others to rebuild their credibility.
"This needs to be a year of pressure in the streets,” Nuñez told Fusion during a Managua street protest on Dec. 26. “We only have one year to change this situation [before elections in 2016]. And if we can't do it by then, we'll be facing a popular uprising or a civil war — there are already conditions for it.”
A do or die year for the Aztec Nation
On Jan. 6 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will visit Washington to discuss “economic, security and social issues,” according to the White House. Bilateral cooperation and coordination will be key as Mexico lays out a security reform and starts the bidding process to open its long-nationalized energy sector to private investors in 2015.
Obama might also want to talk human rights and transparency with Peña Nieto, whose embattled administration begins the year facing a crisis sparked by the disappearance of 43 students, a fizzling economy, a failing drug-war policy, and a number of corruption scandals.
One of the biggest stories of 2015 will be the opening of Mexico’s energy sector amid a steep decline in global oil prices. The usual suspects — Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron — are already lined up, but so too are state-owned Chinese companies.
Enrique Dussel Peters, an expert on Mexico-China relations, warns the Asian giant could take advantage of an unequal trade partnership. “In 2013, for every single product Mexico exported to China, our nation imported ten.” In 2015, Peña Nieto will have to impose clear goals and a transparent bidding process or else Mexico could face major ransacking of resources, he said.
Peace deal could be a game-changer for country… and for the regional drug trade
In 2015, the Colombian government will make a final push to sign a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas and try to convince the 9,000-strong rebel army to lay down its weapons. Authorities hope a peace deal would decrease violence in rural Colombia, where the armed conflict has claimed some 20,000 lives over the past four decades.
A negotiated peace would also boost investment in key sectors such as oil and mining, which account for two-thirds of Colombia’s exports. The FARC are known for protecting cocaine labs in Colombia, and taxing cocaine producers to finance their operations.
A peace deal would obligate the guerrillas to leave the cocaine trade and help the Colombian government eradicate the drug. That could shift even more of the regional cocaine production toward Perú and give new criminal groups — including Mexican cartels —an opportunity to increase their stake in the drug trade.
The fire fades on the Kirchner dynasty
For Argentines, the New Year holds a lot of intrigue about two of the country’s biggest obsessions: politics and the economy.
Argentina will hold presidential elections in October and choose a successor to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, marking an end to a 12-year political dynasty begun by her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner.
Political transition years in Argentina can sometimes be bumpy, and Argentines are already fretting over a sputtering economy and grappling with an inflation rate of 40 percent, one of the world’s highest, according to private economists.
Fernandez is prohibited by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term. She enters her last year in power with a myriad of economic challenges, including how to settle a long-running legal battle with several U.S. hedge funds suing for full payment on some of Argentina’s defaulted debt.
After enjoying some economic stability under the Kirchners, many Argentines have again resorted to financial ingenuity to muscle through the country’s deteriorating economy. An example of some of the difficulties they face: there are at least six different exchange rates to buy U.S. dollars, the currency of safe haven for Argentines long accustomed to economic turbulence.
Olympic preparations amid a super scandal
Brazil has always had a penchant for the spectacular, grandiose and all things big. And in 2014 that applied to the country's political scandals as well. A $3.7 billion bribery and kickback deal involving state-owned oil giant Petrobras — once the country's economic crown jewel — has rocked Brazil's political establishment, tumbled the stock market, and hurt its bond rating.
Thirty-six people, including high ranking executives, have been charged so far, but the investigation has only just begun. How it plays out in the New Year could be a defining moment for Brazil's economy and democratic institutions, and could even affect preparations for the 2016 Olympics.
Why the Olympics? Well several of the companies under investigation in the Petrobras scandal are also the principal firms involved in building Olympic arenas. As the Financial Times reported, there are now concerns that these companies will have trouble accessing enough capital to finish the work. This has only added to already existing concerns about construction delays, possible protests (as with the leadup to the World Cup) and even "super" antibiotic resistant bacteria that scientists have discovered in the Rio de Janeiro Bay, which will host the Olympic sailing competition.
But there are reasons for optimism. Brazil fell behind on World Cup construction too, yet managed to finish construction on time. And while the Petrobras scandal appears to the country's biggest corruption scandal of all time, it has also led to a political awakening and proven that Brazilian police are no longer afraid to go after the wealthy and powerful. Prosecutors are flipping witnesses and following the money back to Swiss bank accounts, and everyone in Brazil is looking forward to seeing where the trail leads in 2015.
Fujimori Redux: a former strongman’s daughter eyes the presidency
Peru's economy is one of the strongest in region, but citizen security is a growing concern. Murders and kidnappings in the Andean nation have doubled over the past 10 years, and cocaine production has skyrocketed, turning Perú into the world’s largest producer. The increased violence and corruption of the political class — more than 1,300 candidates who ran in this year's mayoral elections had criminal convictions — has many Peruvians feeling nostalgic for the 1990s, when the iron-fisted Alberto Fujimori ran the country and tamed the Shining Path guerrilla movement.
The former president is currently serving a 25 year sentence for human rights abuses and corruption, but his popular 39-year-old daughter Keiko is eying the presidency after narrowly losing her first bid in the 2011 runoff. Keiko currently leads presidential polls on promises to continue her father's legacy of “mano dura” against crime.
"On the issue of crime, [Peruvians] used to say we need a man with authority, a real man. Indirectly, the message was that just because I’m a woman, I didn’t have what it takes to defeat crime,” Fujimori told Fusion during an interview earlier this year. “But today, everyone in our country knows that’s not true. A man or a woman can fix the problem of crime.”
Fujimori acknowledges that her family name “generates strong passions” in Perú, but she says it’s mostly a positive factor because her father is remembered as the man who “defeated terrorism.”
Fujimori, who visits her father in jail every week and has been fighting tirelessly for his release, won’t announce her candidacy just yet. But most think it’s only a matter of time.
“Perú is ready to have women in high office — and it’s ready for a female president, too,” she told Fusion.
Elections are in the spring of 2016, which means that Fujimori's opponents — including famed and outspoken writer Mario Vargas Llosa — have a busy year ahead of them.
@JaredGoyette is a digital news editor at Fusion.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.
Rafa Fernandez De Castro is a Fusion consultant for Mexico and Latin America. He covers Mexican youth, politics, culture, narcos and funny stuff once in a while.
Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.