Latin America in 2019: Stories to watch

As controversial new leaders find their feet and crises continue, here are the stories to look out for this year.

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    Upcoming polls:

    • El Salvador presidential election - February 3
    • Cuba constitutional referendum - February 24
    • Argentina presidential election - October 27
    • Bolivia presidential election - October 
    • Uruguay presidential election - October 

    In the last 12 months, Latin America has seen a series of high-stakes elections, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) deliver its biggest-ever bailout package and Venezuela's economic collapse explode into the most severe migration crisis in the region's history.

    As nationalists take the reigns of the region's two largest economies and corruption scandals continue to dog politicians from Mexico City to Montevideo, here are the stories to look out for in 2019.

    1. Brazil's Bolsonaro shakes things up

    January 1 saw Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's first right-wing president since the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, assume office

    The controversial former military captain made a series of disparaging remarks about women, LGBT people and black Brazilians, worrying many that social policies may be rolled back under his presidency. The fears appeared well-founded as Bolsonaro issued a series of executive orders impinging on the rights of minorities as one of his first acts as president.

    Bolsonaro's first week in office has also seen the head of the country's environmental protection agency resign following criticism from the president and troops deployed to stop criminal attacks in the northern city of Fortaleza. 

    Jair Bolsonaro has courted controversy by criticising minorities [File: Silvia Izquierdo/AP Photo]

    His pledge to move Brazil's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has also raised eyebrows in a country which is the world's largest exporter of halal meat. 

    Supporters are hopeful, however, that Bolsonaro can tackle rampant corruption and crack down on crime in Brazil, which saw a record 63,880 homicides in 2017 and Bolsonaro himself stabbed on the campaign trail

    The appointment of a graduate of the University of Chicago - whose alumni reformed Chile's economy under dictator Augusto Pinochet - as economy minister has also raised investor hopes that Bolsonaro's Brazil will be good for business.

    2. A Mexican maverick makes his mark 

    Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist populist, became Mexico's new president in December, but even before entering office, AMLO, as he is known, was making his influence felt and causing a headache for investors.

    In October, the then-president-elect said the future of a multibillion-dollar airport project near Mexico City would be decided in a public referendum. Less than one percent of the electorate took part in the four-day vote, which rejected the continuation of the project.

    Mexico's new leader is seen as a wild card by many [File: Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

    AMLO has vowed to honour the results of the referendum, putting his administration on a collision course with investors and causing the peso to plunge. 

    Tackling the extreme violence that has plagued Mexico for more than a decade is high on AMLO's agenda, with his predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto receiving harsh criticism for his failure to address the gang-and-drugs-related bloodshed. 

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    "Delivering on that front will be pretty hard for AMLO in the coming year because state governments and local governments are in on it with a lot of the cartels and they benefit, so it's going to be pretty hard for him to crack down on that without a complete purge of the political class of Mexico's various levels of government," Max Klaver, senior analyst at Foreign Brief, a geopolitical risk analysis website, told Al Jazeera.

    The new administration will also be judged on how it tackles migration.

    During his campaign, AMLO promised to improve job prospects in Mexico so that migration would be "an option, not a necessity" and, in a move which likely pleased his northern neighbour, the Mexican president made a deal with leaders from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to create a fund to stem the flow of US-bound migrants one of his first acts in office.

    3. Venezuela plunges deeper into crisis

    Hundreds of thousands of people fled Venezuela's deepening economic crisis last year, while widespread shortages of food and medicine made daily life a struggle for those who remained

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    "Venezuelans are losing their purchasing power on a daily basis and the lack of access to food has caused malnutrition," Venezuelan journalist Nayrobis Rodriguez told Al Jazeera.

    With the IMF predicting an inflation rate of 10,000,000 percent in 2019 and President Nicolas Maduro continuing to blame the economic crisis on an "imperialist conspiracy", the situation is likely to deteriorate even further in the next 12 months. 

    Millions have fled Venezuela since the crisis began in 2015 [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

    However, as migrants and refugees stream into neighbouring countries, the regional response is beginning to grow teeth.

    In September, seven countries presented a petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Maduro for crimes against humanity, while Colombia's Ivan Duque, whose country has accepted the most Venezuelans since the crisis began in 2015, continues to butt heads with the Colombian president in an increasingly bitter war of words

    January 10 will see Maduro begin his second six-year term in office despite a dozen Latin American countries and Canada saying they will not recognise Maduro's new mandate, which was won in a vote largely boycotted by the opposition and deemed illegitimate by the international community

    4. Migration strains relations

    The US enters 2019 locked into a government shutdown centred on funding for President Donald Trump's wall on the border with Mexico. 

    Migration has taken centre stage in US politics in recent months as Trump sought to sow fear over the thousands of Central American migrants and refugees who made their way to the border to apply for asylum.

    The question of where the migrants will wait out the asylum process has placed a strain on the US's relationship with Mexico.

    Despite Trump's tough stance on migration, domestic instability and violence in several Central American countries are likely to continue to force people to leave their homes in 2019.

    Political and economic instability are forcing people from their homes in Central America [File: Adrees Latif/Reuters]

    "As the political and economic situations in a lot of Central American countries worsen, and as US policies towards a lot of those countries become a bit more draconian and catalyse the problems that cause migration in the first place, I think it follows that migration will likely increase from those countries," analyst Max Klaver said.

    Regional ties are also set to be increasingly strained by large numbers of people crossing into neighbouring countries to flee the crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua, with public backlash expected to increase as public services in host countries struggle to cope with the influx of new arrivals.

    5. Macri fights to survive Argentina's economic crisis

    The Argentine peso lost a third of its value in 2018, prompting protests against austerity measures and a staggering $57bn bailout package from the IMF - the largest ever given by the international body.

    After such dramatic upheaval, the economy is likely to be on voter's minds as they head to the polls in October's presidential election. 

    Though embroiled in a myriad of ongoing corruption investigations, including one involving billions of dollars in bribes for public works contracts, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner remains popular with voters and is expected to be President Mauricio Macri's main competition come October.

    2018 saw Argentina enter its worst recession in almost a decade [File: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters]

    Nicolas Saldias, a researcher at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center focusing on Argentine politics and economics, said that the benefits of the IMF package might not come quickly enough to convince voters to back Macri.

    "The economy is doing very badly, Macri is dealing with the worst recession since at least 2009 and the country in 2019 will only be recovering, it won't actually be growing," Saldias said.

    "If the economy begins to grow in the second half of the year, that will give Macri some goodwill. If there's a strong enough recovery, it will certainly help President Macri [...] if the economy's doing better, he may be able to pull out a victory in the second round in November," he told Al Jazeera.

    6. Nicaragua's crackdown continues

    Widespread protests rocked the presidency of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in April, quickly turning deadly as the government began a violent crackdown on dissent.

    "Nicaragua is experiencing one of the worst human rights crisis in its recent history," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.

    At least 322 people have been killed since protests began, mostly by agents of the state or pro-government armed groups, and more than 2,000 people have been injured, according to Amnesty. Thousands more have fled, mostly to neighbouring Costa Rica.

    More than 300 people have been killed since protests began in April, according to Amnesty International [File: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters]

    Ortega has said "thieves" and "coup-mongers" are responsible for the unrest, sending journalists and protesters to jail on "terrorism" charges.

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    As the situation on the ground becomes increasingly dangerous, government repression shows no signs of easing.

    "During the last weeks, many well-known human rights organisations have been shut down and their leaders persecuted by the government. Independent media outlets have been closed as well, and journalists have been criminalised or forced to leave the country," Guevara-Rosas said.

    "Given the lack of political will and the negligent denial by the government of the serious human rights violations occurring in the country, it is expected that the situation will worsen.

    "With the suspension of human rights organisations and other civil society groups, there are no monitoring mechanisms and other forms of accountability available to citizens in Nicaragua".

    7. Cuba braces for change

    In April 2018, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez became the first person outside the Castro family to lead Cuba since the country's revolution six decades ago

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    Despite widespread use of the "#Somoscontinuidad" ("We are continuity") hashtag by Diaz-Canel and his ministers, there have been various indications that change may be afoot on the Communist-run island.

    In December alone, the government reversed or delayed three controversial proposals after unprecedented public pushback in a country where, for decades, the government has issued most laws and regulations with little public debate.

    Cubans have been discussing a draft constitution ahead of a referendum in February [File: Tomas Bravo/Reuters]

    Cubans will get their say again in a public referendum on the new constitution, scheduled for February 24.

    Widely seen as a means of invigorating Cuba's crumbling economy, which recorded a meagre 1.2 percent growth in 2018 and has similar projections for next year, the reforms - if passed - would be the most significant political change in Cuba for more than four decades.

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    However, human rights organisations and analysts have raised questions about how much change is possible while the rigid one-party system remains in place and many aspects of life on the island remain under state control.

    "It is similar to passing legislation in the US that everyone will own a house without the government having the financial means to provide it. Without major changes to the system [...] Cuba will remain a country struggling to develop," said Carlos Seigle, a professor of economics at Rutgers University.

    8. A test for Bolivia's Morales

    Evo Morales has led Bolivia since 2006. As its first indigenous president, he is a political icon in the Andean country, celebrated for extending the enfranchisement of the majority-indigenous population and improving the economy through partial nationalisation of the oil and gas sector.

    However, Morales's reputation has taken a beating in recent years after he asked the Supreme Court to nullify the results of a 2016 referendum, which rejected his bid to run for a fourth term. The institution, which is tightly bound to the presidency, went a step further and scrapped term limits altogether for every political office in the country.

    Protests against Evo Morales have grown ahead of October's presidential elections [File: David Mercado/Reuters]

    Morales is now up for re-election in October, but the road ahead looks rocky as opposition is growing, including among some of his supporters. 

    Journalist and political analyst Raul Penaranda told Al Jazeera that by ignoring the referendum result and running again, Morales is undermining the democracy he championed during his early administrations and the constitution that he himself created.

    "What he has shown is that he does not believe in democracy and he does not believe in the popular vote," Penaranda said. 

    9. International scandals

    Corruption is never far from the headlines in Latin America, but 2018 was notable for the number of prominent figures who came under investigation as far-reaching corruption probes around the region widened their nets.

    More of the same is anticipated in the next 12 months as both Bolsonaro and AMLO dig in on campaign promises to quash corruption in their countries and ongoing investigations in Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia are expected to reach their conclusions.

    Prominent figures in Brazil, Argentina and Peru headed to court in 2018 over corruption charges [File: Mariana Bazo/Reuters]

    Guatemala has already made headlines for expelling a UN-backed anti-corruption commission - which has been investigating President Jimmy Morales - from the country in January.

    "If we're looking for silver linings, I think it's been nice to see that there has been a very solid and inspiring mobilisation of citizen activism demanding justice and demanding accountability on behalf of their elected officials," said analyst Max Klaver.

    "I expect that that's what we'll continue to see, but these are issues that are really woven into the political fabric of a lot of these countries. I think in the next year and beyond there will probably be more things will be uncovered and this likely goes deeper than it already is ... and it's pretty deep already," he told Al Jazeera.

    Meanwhile, in Chile, an unprecedented investigation into historic sexual abuse by the country's Catholic Church - now the largest clerical sex abuse and cover up probe in Latin American history - will be turning up the heat leading up to the Vatican's anti-abuse summit scheduled for February.

    10. China extends its influence

    Chinese investment in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased exponentially in the last decade or so, with direct investment surging from less than $50bn in 2006 to almost $250bn in 2017, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. 

    US disengagement with the region, including its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has made space for a new global power to invest in much-needed infrastructure projects and China has stepped up to the plate, offering the region a place in President Xi Jinping's trademark One Belt, One Road initiative.

    "Trump's continued and/or increased antagonism towards Latin American countries could push key economies, especially Mexico and Colombia, to seek stronger relations with China," Max Nathanson, global business manager for the governor of Colorado and a former research fellow at American University's China-Latin America Sustainable Investments Initiative told Al Jazeera.

    President Xi Jinping made an historic trip to Panama in December after the countries established diplomatic ties a year earlier [File: Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

    China is now a leading commercial partner for several Latin American countries including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, but concerns are mounting over the possible diplomatic effect of increasing Sino-Latin American relations.

    In 2018, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic cut ties with Taiwan and established full relations with China. The majority of Taiwan's 17 remaining diplomatic allies are small cash-strapped countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, all of whom could come under increasing Chinese influence in the year ahead.

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    Beijing also plays a key role in propping up Maduro's government in Venezuela through investment in its oil sector, but as prices fluctuate and the country becomes more unstable, this may change.

    "It appears that its commercial relationship with Caracas has thus far been prioritised over human rights concerns, but if the Venezuelan oil ceases to be profitable, China may change course," Nathanson said.

    Other stories to watch:

    Women around Latin America having been protesting against violence and restrictive abortion laws as part of the #NiUnaMenos movement [File: Tomas F Cuesta/AP Photo]

    Throughout the region, the #NiUnaMenos (Not One Woman Less) movement shows no signs of slowing down as women's rights activists push back against widespread violence against women and restrictive abortion laws in several countries. 

    In Colombia, Ivan Duque will continue struggling to unite a country still divided over a peace deal with FARC rebels, while also battling the country's remaining armed groups and trying to put a lid on drug trafficking. 

    Along with Bolivia and Argentina, El Salvador and Uruguay will also head to the polls to choose new presidents in 2019. 

    Follow Charlotte Mitchell on Twitter: @charbrowmitch

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News