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Latin America in crisis as political turmoil spreads

“Wherever you look, there’s a lot of uncertainty and turmoil,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington.

The crises follow a decade of remarkable success: a sustained burst of growth, the expansion of the middle class (now around one-third of the population), and the consolidation of democracy in a region once known for military dictators and Marxist rebels.

So why the wave of turmoil now?

The crises, while different from country to country, have some common threads. The economy in much of Latin America has slowed. Democratic institutions remain weak. The public is far less tolerant of corruption and poor services. And polarisation is rising.

All of this makes for flammable situations like the one in Ecuador – where President Lenin Moreno’s decision to end fuel subsidies drew so many demonstrators to Quito that he moved his government to the calmer city of Guayaquil.

Here are some of the factors driving the current unrest.

Economies have stalled

“We’re seeing a serious downturn in economic growth just about everywhere” in Latin America, said Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister.

The first decade of this century featured an unusual spurt of growth for the region. Its economies, on average, expanded more than 4 percent per year from 2004 to 2011, driven in part by high commodity prices. But then came the bust. In 2019, growth is expected to be just 0.6 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Anti-government demonstrators commandeer an armored vehicle during a nationwide strike against President Lenin Moreno in Quito, Ecuador.

Anti-government demonstrators commandeer an armored vehicle during a nationwide strike against President Lenin Moreno in Quito, Ecuador.Credit:AP

A decade ago, Ecuador was riding high thanks to a boom in global oil prices. But it was hit hard by the drop in prices starting in 2014. As Moreno has cut spending, groups that led street demonstrations in the 1990s and early 2000s – indigenous peoples and labor unions – have remobilised.

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Ecuador and Argentina show the challenges of stabilising economies after the departure of big-spending populist leaders. Moreno and his Argentine counterpart, Mauricio Macri, imposed tough austerity programs to tackle the countries’ large debts. Now Moreno is facing the greatest threat yet to his presidency, and Macri is expected to lose reelection this month.

By far the biggest disaster in the region is Venezuela. Its economy has shrunk by more than half since 2013, due to plunging oil prices and mismanagement. That’s prompted about 5 million people – more than 10 percent of the population – to flee.

Institutions are weak

The economic slowdown is straining a region where “political institutions are weak, parties are weak, judiciaries are weak,” said Kenneth Roberts, director of the Latin American studies program at Cornell University.

Many countries lack strong, independent regulators and justice systems, allowing corruption to flourish in political campaigns and government contracting. Peru’s last four presidents have all been ordered detained on corruption charges. (Each has denied wrongdoing.)

With weak institutions, George Mason University political scientist Jo-Marie Burt said, it becomes more difficult to address problems. In some countries, “there’s an inability to process social conflict through normal political channels. So you wind up getting street protests” or the dissolution of congress.

A demostrator prepares to hurl a rock at police during a protest in Honduras.

A demostrator prepares to hurl a rock at police during a protest in Honduras.Credit:AP

In Peru, the traditional party system has collapsed. Congress is dominated by a party loyal to former authoritarian ruler Alberto Fujimori and his daughter Keiko, who are detained on corruption charges. President Martin Vizcarra has emerged as an anti-corruption crusader, but he has only a tiny party behind him. His relations with Congress often look more like hand-to-hand combat than parliamentary give-and-take.

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On September 30, Vizcarra dissolved Congress, which responded by attempting to suspend him, creating Peru’s biggest political crisis in decades. So far, he’s prevailed.

Political polarisation is exacerbating the problems in Peru and other countries.

“There is a sense that overwhelming action must be taken to defeat the other side,” said Ivan Briscoe, the program director for Latin America at the International Crisis Group. “What you see, in the case of Peru, is basically a battle between two institutions.”

The people are exhausted by corruption

Latin American citizens have become increasingly frustrated with corruption – taking to the streets in recent years to press for the ouster of governments in Brazil and Guatemala.

Citizens are more aware than ever of government abuse, thanks to more independent judges, a freer press, and the rise of civic groups and social media. And sometimes US prosecutors lend a hand.

In Haiti, the anti-government protests were sparked by government efforts to end fuel subsidies. But they’re increasingly focused on inflation and what demonstrators call corruption involving President Jovenel Moise. He’s denied the accusations. Haiti, perennially the poorest country in the hemisphere, has suffered from chronic instability.

Hundreds of miles to the west, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is also fighting corruption allegations. He has already endured months of protests over proposals that his critics say would privatise health and educational services. Then, last month, his brother Tony went on trial in federal court in New York, accused of shipping cocaine to the United States. (He pleaded not guilty.)

Poverty is fuelling discontent on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Charles Lewis, 25, is pictured here repairing clothes.

Poverty is fuelling discontent on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Charles Lewis, 25, is pictured here repairing clothes.Credit:AP

Witnesses have testified that the president received more than $1 million for his 2013 reelection campaign from drug traffickers in exchange for protecting them from prosecution. Hernandez denies the allegations; he has not been charged. Honduras’ opposition has demanded that he resign.

The vast amounts of drug money washing through Latin America have intensified corruption, fueling violence and political instability in countries from Colombia to Mexico.

“There’s no way you can insulate the political process from those concentrations of criminal wealth,” said Roberts, of Cornell. “It has a highly, highly distortionary and disruptive effect on democratic politics.”

The Washington Post

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