Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Will Next Year Bring in Latin America’s Politics?

Among the elections in Latin America in 2022 is Brazil’s October presidential vote, in which President Jair Bolsonaro is facing a tough fight for re-election against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. // File Photo: Brazilian Government. Among the elections in Latin America in 2022 is Brazil’s October presidential vote, in which President Jair Bolsonaro is facing a tough fight for re-election against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. // File Photo: Brazilian Government.

Over the past year, internationally criticized actions by some Western Hemisphere presidents, such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Donald Trump in the United States, have raised fears of growing authoritarianism, weakening institutions and a crumbling of democratic norms. Meanwhile, presidential candidates on extreme ends of the political spectrum have captured support in places such as Peru and Chile. And in Haiti, a sitting president was assassinated. With elections coming up in 2022 in Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica, which countries in Latin America and the Caribbean will be the political hot spots to watch next year? What political trends will be the strongest in the coming year, and what traits will countries’ political trajectories have in common? Is authoritarianism and polarization likely to worsen in the region in 2022, and what factors would influence that?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Two years of battering by the pandemic, which hit Latin America at a time of widespread political turmoil and sharp economic decline, has left the region deeply troubled and insecure about its future. Democracy is severely challenged in many nations and unraveling in some. In country after country, prospects for recovery and growth are uncertain, while indices of poverty, unemployment and inequality are at toxic levels. Within this generally bleak outlook, Brazil’s election next October stands out as a particularly critical event for Latin America. Although he trails former President Lula da Silva by some 20 points in recent polls, the re-election of President Bolsonaro, an ardent fan of Brazil’s 21 years of military rule who has packed his government with senior officers, is still possible. And so are a fraudulent vote count or an outright coup d’état. Any of these outcomes will put Brazil’s democracy in mortal danger, upend its already badly damaged international image and quash any prospect of Latin America rebuilding regional cooperation. And Brazil will not be the only country where recent or upcoming elections are expected to install leaders with questionable commitments to democratic governance, human rights and greater equity. Another critical uncertainty is whether the Biden administration will turn any significant attention to Latin America in the coming year. So far, the White House has focused narrowly on two issues that powerfully affect U.S. domestic politics—migration and China’s spreading influence in the region. But other crucial issues have been ignored. Can we now expect greater U.S. attention to protecting democracy in countries such as Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti, where democratic practices still hold, but are steadily being undermined? Will Biden take steps to rebuild cooperation in hemispheric affairs and press harder on Latin American nations to seriously address climate change? Is there any prospect that the United States will seek opportunities to promote inclusive and equitable economic growth to help the region get back on its feet?”

Katya Rimkunas, regional deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute: “According to Latinobarómetro, only 25 percent of Latin Americans are satisfied with democracy. This is unsurprising as the pandemic has increased poverty, exacerbated poor service delivery and entrenched corruption. Additionally, the region is experiencing higher inflation, which will lead to greater economic pressure and overshadow the modest economic growth seen this year. These factors have resulted in voters decidedly selecting the anti-incumbent, a trend likely to continue next year. With citizens increasingly turning away from traditional political parties and candidates, polarizing figures with grand, but unrealistic, promises and sometimes authoritarian leanings have gained support. Crucial elections for the region will take place in 2022 against this backdrop. Colombia will elect a new president in May. An Ipsos poll found that 89 percent of Colombians believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. Highly dissatisfied, pessimistic Colombians could push voters to choose a more radical candidate. In Brazil, there are concerns that with a potential recession, low economic growth and decreasing support, President Bolsonaro could feel threatened enough to discredit the October 2022 elections, leading to social unrest. Citizen discontent across the region has also increasingly led to calls for constitutional rewrites. Presidents in Peru, El Salvador and now Honduras are pushing for constitutional reforms. And while Chile’s process could be the blueprint for other countries, if not managed well, transparently and with ample civil society participation, constitutional reforms could be used to further consolidate power by the executive or set the country in a path that further erodes democracy.” 

R. Evan Ellis, Latin America research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute: “The region is undergoing a strategic shift with worrisome implications for democracy, development and the United States, involving three interrelated axes: movements toward the left, toward authoritarian populism and toward China and other extra-hemispheric actors. This combination portends a region that is less democratic, less cooperative with the United States, more tied to its strategic rivals, as well as shifting its multilateral dynamics. The drivers include frustration with endemic corruption and the persistent failure of democratic governments to show meaningful progress against their nation’s challenges, with frustration compounded by the socioeconomic and fiscal strains of Covid-19. Chinese investments, loans and commodity purchases, given without regard to populist abuses of their own laws or established investments, help those regimes consolidate power. While Chinese resources also enable non-left populists like Bukele in El Salvador, the leftist variant is particularly virulent, informed by the Chavista model of transforming institutions and eliminating competing government, media and economic bases of resistance. Key tipping points include whether Chile’s fear of the left leads voters to choose the social conservative Kast over Gabriel Boric on Dec. 19; whether disparate conservative forces in Peru block the agenda of Vladimir Cerrón in Peru; whether Costa Rica elects a leftist president in February 2022 and defaults on its IMF commitments; whether Colombia’s fear of the left overcomes its fatigue with the nation’s grave situation to sink leftist Gustavo Petro’s presidential candidacy in May 2022; and whether a viable centrist emerges in Brazil to prevent a likely Workers’ Party victory in Brazil in October.”

Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group: “From my perspective as a human rights advocate, a deeply concerning trend in the region is the closing space for civil society. Governments of the left and right have enacted restrictions on civil society, persecuted human rights defenders and committed grave abuses against protesters. We see this trend in the NGO laws in Guatemala and Nicaragua and the draft foreign agent bill in El Salvador. Criminalization of activists reached new lows in Honduras with the Guapinol River defenders, who were forced to wait more than two years in pretrial detention while two men arrested during post-electoral protests spent 18 months in maximum security prison before being finally ruled innocent. In Mexico and Colombia, to just mention two cases, human rights defenders and journalists have been subjected to surveillance. We have seen brutal crackdowns on protesters, notably the paro nacional in Colombia this year in which 87 people were killed, the estallido social in Chile in 2019-20, the killings of students in Nicaragua in 2018, and the killings of protesters in Honduras following the 2017 elections, while in Cuba state repression continues to quell protests. Across the Americas, environmental and land rights defenders—often Indigenous, Afro-descendant or poor campesinos—face threats and assassinations for protecting their communities and the planet. In all these actions, people are trying to defend their basic rights to access jobs, education and social services, as well as their rights to self-expression and to choose their governments. In 2022, will governments of the right and left continue to seek to control social movements, persecute activists and crush protests? Can civil society movements begin to make headway against these authoritarian trends? Will the U.S. government begin to weigh in on these disturbing trends in a more principled way, willing to criticize close allies as well as other governments? Those are some of the questions I have as I look ahead to 2022.”

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