Latin America in 2020: Stories to watch

As elections loom and protests rattle the region, here are the stories to look out for this year.

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    Over the last year, mass protests have shaken Latin America, threatening to upend the region's status quo.

    The region's longest-serving leader has gone into exile and the country widely considered to be its most stable is considering scrapping its constitution as it grapples with allegations of human rights abuses by state forces.

    As elections loom and governments face widespread discontent, here are the stories to look out for in 2020.

    1. Bolivian democracy is put to the test

    All eyes will be on Bolivia as voters are expected to head to the polls again following a now-annulled October election that was dogged by allegations of illegitimacy before it even began.

    Longtime leader Evo Morales's controversial candidacy sparked protests that grew in number and intensity as the leftist icon first declared victory, then resigned in the face of pressure from the armed forces.

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    Morales accuses the army and opposition of orchestrating a 'coup' against him [File: Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]

    Morales is now in exile in Argentina, barred from running for office and facing arrest on charges of terrorism and sedition if he returns to Bolivia. 

    The interim government of Jeanine Anez has yet to set a date for the new election, which analysts say Bolivia's right-wing is eyeing as an opportunity to take back power after more than a decade in opposition.

    "They've been like a tiger in a cage for 14 years waiting for somebody to open up the gates and they think the gates just opened," said Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center.

    Jeanine Anez, Bolivia
    Anez has inked plans for a general election but a date is yet to be set [File: David Mercado/Reuters]

    Since assuming office in November, Anez has been criticised for overstepping her mandate by radically altering foreign policy and offering immunity to armed forces personnel amid deadly protests.

    Analysts also warn that resentment against Morales may lead to a backlash against Bolivia's indigenous community, deepening embittered social divides.

    2. Chile's moment of truth - and reconciliation?

    Long considered Latin America's most stable country, Chile has convulsed with mass protests for more than two months.

    President Sebastian Pinera's government has conceded to the key demand of holding a referendum in April 2020 on replacing the country's controversial dictatorship-era constitution, but has failed to quell public outrage over deep-seated inequality.

    The United Nations and two international rights organisations issued damning reports in late 2019 detailing alleged human rights abuses by security forces, including arbitrary detentions of children, use of torture and sexual abuse.

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    Mass arrests and allegations of human rights abuses have tainted the image of the Carabineros [File: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

    At least five people have been killed and more than 2,300 injured at the hands of security forces, according to Chile's National Human Rights Institute. More than 20 others have also died as a result of the unrest. 

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    "In our opinion, these have been generalised attacks against the population that are demonstrating on the streets with the intention to damage [them] and with the intention to punish them," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International told Al Jazeera.

    Pinera has said there will be no impunity for members of the security forces found to have committed rights abuses and rights groups are hopeful Chile's strong institutions will ensure those responsible are punished.

    However, the country will face an uphill battle to restore public trust in the military and the Carabineros - Chile's national police - as well as the media, which protesters accuse of spreading disinformation.

    3. Argentina's new president attempts the impossible

    In December, Alberto Fernandez was sworn in as Argentina's new president, inheriting the unenviable task of taming the country's spiralling economy.

    Top of his agenda will be renegotiating Argentina's mammoth sovereign debt with creditors including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Wrangling an inflation rate hovering around 50 percent and sharply rising poverty will also be priorities.

    Fernandez is eager to avoid imposing unpopular austerity measures and instead plans to solve Argentina's problems through growth. However, this would mean accumulating more debt at a time when creditors are losing faith in the country's ability to repay.

    "There's a credibility gap between what the government plans to do and what it can do," said Nicolas Saldias a senior researcher at US-based The Wilson Center.

    "There are no good options for the country. There's nothing good; you have to choose," Saldias told Al Jazeera. 

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    Fernandez's win sees Peronism return to Argentina's highest office [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

    Aside from the economy, Fernandez's appointment of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as vice president has raised eyebrows. The former president and first lady is currently on trial for corruption, with nine other such cases against her pending.

    A rocky start with neighbour and main trading partner Brazil is also a cause for concern after several strongly worded exchanges with Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro saw the latter opting not to attend Fernandez's inauguration.

    4. Bolsonaro and AMLO head into their second years 

    Ideologically, the leaders of the region's two largest economies may have little in common but they are both entering the second year of their terms with a chequered record. 

    In Brazil, far-right firebrand Bolsonaro gained a major legislative victory in October by pushing through pension reforms with which politicians have grappled for decades, and succeeded in fostering closer diplomatic and economic ties with the United States.

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    However, his efforts to tackle corruption - a key campaign promise - have floundered and crime rates remain steady. 

    Bolsonaro's pro-business environmental policies have also angered many, particularly in the wake of the Amazon fires and his approval rating has dipped amid frequent off-colour comments about minorities.

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    Corruption and crime are among the challenges facing Lopez Obrador, left, and Bolsonaro, right, in 2020 [Reuters]

    Meanwhile, in Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known as AMLO, remains popular despite largely failing to deliver on his main pledges of improving the economy and tackling violent crime. 

    Max Klaver, a senior analyst at Foreign Brief, said AMLO's decisions to scrap a new $13bn airport for the capital and renege on former President Enrique Pena Nieto's promise to open up state-owned petroleum company Pemex to private sector collaboration spooked investors as Mexico slid into recession.

    This year was the deadliest in Mexico's history with more homicides recorded than ever before but analysts say it is too soon to judge whether AMLO's "Hugs not Guns" policy has been effective.

    Analysts and others in the region will be keeping an eye on how the two leaders fare in their second years. 

    5. Venezuela's stalemate stretches on

    The beginning of 2019 brought the promise of change to crisis-wracked Venezuela as National Assembly head Juan Guaido declared himself the country's interim president in January.

    Dozens of countries recognised the 35-year-old as Venezuela's legitimate leader, including the US, which turned up the heat by imposing waves of sweeping sanctions on individuals and businesses from Venezuela.

    Almost a year later, however, hopes that a new leader would help to end the humanitarian crisis engulfing the country or stem its haemorrhaging economy have been well and truly dashed.

    Juan Guaido rally Venezuela
    Analysts warn that Guaido could be losing momentum amid corruption scandals and a lack of results [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

    President Nicolas Maduro maintains the support of Russia, China, Cuba and - critically - the Venezuelan armed forces, talks between the government and opposition have petered out and allegations of corruptionhave seriously damaged the opposition's standing.

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    "It's a pretty demoralising time for the Venezuelan opposition, which has become a bit more fragmented over the past few months," Klaver said. "There's a bit more opening questioning of Guaido's effectiveness."

    Guaido will face two key votes in 2020: In January, his term as National Assembly leader ends - and with it, his claim to the interim presidency - and congressional elections are due before the end of 2020, though it remains unclear whether the opposition will participate.

    6. Millions on the move

    The last 12 months have seen a global shift in policy towards migrants and refugees as countries attempt to stem the tide of people crossing borders.

    Following the political uproar caused by "migrant caravans" and under pressure from the US, Mexico and several Central American countries adopted stricter measures to limit migration, which rights groups say is likely to continue into 2020.

    "What these governments and these policies are trying to do is to prevent people from migrating, but they are also creating a situation in the countries of origin that is going to explode," Amnesty's Guevara-Rosas said.

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    Violence and poverty in Central America and Venezuela continue to drive people from their homes [File: Henry Romero/Reuters]

    "People are going to end up being trapped in their countries of origin or in countries where the security situation is very difficult," she said, adding that people more likely to attempt increasingly dangerous routes or place their fates in the hands of people smugglers.

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    Further south, Venezuela's crises will continue to drive people from their homes in numbers comparable to warzones, with the UN estimating that 6.5 million people will have fled by the end of 2020.

    Ill prepared to deal with the massive influx, more Latin American countries are expected to introduce visas and other restrictions on Venezuelans attempting to enter.

    7. Peru's political crisis comes to a head

    Corruption investigations continue to plague Peru's politicians as the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal threatens to overshadow upcoming legislative and presidential elections. 

    Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant, sent ripples across Latin America in 2016 when it confessed to bribing officials in several countries in order to secure lucrative contracts.

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    Recently freed opposition leader Keiko Fujimori remains under investigation for corruption, casting doubt over whether she will be eligible to run in 2021's presidential election and dampening support for her Popular Force party ahead of the January legislative elections.

    "Keiko Fujimori has been the strongest political figure that we've had in the last few years," said Zoila Ponce de Leon, an assistant professor of politics at Washington Lee University.

    The fact that the Popular Force is now struggling to gain even a 10 percent approval rating in recent polls should be a major cause of concern for the opposition and could create a vacuum for a more extreme candidate, Ponce de Leon said.

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    Allegations of corruption have tainted Keiko Fujimori's image and cast doubt over if she can run in the 2021 presidential election [File: Martin Mejia/AP Photo]

    Also hanging in the balance are anti-corruption measures President Martin Vizcarra had attempted to push through Congress before moving to dissolve it in October. Vizcarra will be hoping for a less hostile Congress following the January vote.

    Meanwhile, corruption investigations continue into former presidents Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Ollanta Humala and Alejandro Toledo, as well as those implicated alongside former President Alan Garcia who killed himself to evade arrest in April 2019.

    8. Women and the environment to the front

    Women's rights were thrown into the spotlight towards the end of 2019 when a performance by Chilean activists became a global rallying cry against violence against women.

    A Rapist in Your Path went viral online and in the real world, with protesters in more than 200 cities staging performances of the anthem.

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    In a region home to several countries frequently tagged "the worst place in the world to be a woman" activists are becoming increasingly vocal on issues ranging from femicide to restrictive abortion laws.

    The abortion debate has reignited in Argentina, with President Fernandez pledging while on the campaign trail to send a bill to congress to legalise the practice little more than a year after the Senate rejected a similar measure.

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    The anthem A Rapist in Your Path is a rallying cry against victim shaming and abuse of power [File: Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters]

    Environmental issues are also set to have an increasing influence on politics in the coming year with such concerns being included in key trade negotiations including the recently agreed upon US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

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    Following the devastating Amazon fires, Austria blocked the ratification of a trade deal between Mercosur countries and the European Union, throwing decades-long negotiations into disarray. France and Ireland made similar warnings unless Brazil honoured its environmental commitments.

    Analyst Klaver said that politicians in countries such as Brazil where the environment is woven into national identity are more likely to adjust policy to environmental concerns.

    9. Presidents on the brink in Colombia and Haiti

    Colombia has seen unprecedented protests in 2019, mounting pressure on President Ivan Duque - now the least popular president in Colombian history according to opinion polls.

    "He is sandwiched between the more extreme right that wants him to do certain things and the on the other side, there's the left of the centre who want him to push in another direction and he doesn't have his own political capital," said Sandra Botero Cabrera, an assistant professor at the University of Rosario.

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    Analysts say the security situation prior to the peace deal made mass protests impossible [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

    These divisions within Duque's coalition, as well as the difficulty of appeasing protesters from disparate sectors of society with a broad set of demands - including implementing a landmark peace deal - will continue to present a challenge in the months ahead, Botero Cabrera said.

    Meanwhile in Haiti, President Jovenal Moise has been under pressure for more than a year from waves of protests against corruption, rising inflation and poor living conditions in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

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    Haiti has been rocked by waves of deadly protests [File: Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters]

    Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, said a sustainable solution to the unrest will remain out of reach until the "fundamental, structural and systematic problems" fuelling it are addressed.

    January brings a potential flashpoint with the expiration of the terms of Haiti's parliament, which would allow Moise to rule by decree.

    10. Central America rumbles

    There are few signs of calm ahead in the next 12 months for Latin America's most volatile region.

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    Violent state repression in Nicaragua, which has seen 70,000 people flee the country in the last year, according to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, continues apace as President Daniel Ortega refuses to step down despite pressure from the US and rights groups.

    The flow of information out of the country has been disrupted by a crackdown on independent media with Amnesty's Guevara-Rosas saying the situation risks becoming "normalised" as the unrest nears the two-year mark.

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    Corruption and violence continue to plague Central America, Latin America's most volatile region [File: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters]

    The crisis has spilled into neighbouring Costa Rica, where 55,000 Nicaraguans have fled since 2018 and which is feeling the pressure of supporting the new arrivals.

    Meanwhile in El Salvador, new President Nayib Bukelecontinues to find his feet. The 38-year-old - Latin America's youngest leader - enjoys an almost 90 percent approval rating but is yet to make his mark on the country's stagnant economy or eye-watering crime rate.

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    Corruption and violence continue to plague Guatemala and Honduras, despite efforts to investigate officials in 2019. These endemic issues, along with climatic factors such as water scarcity and land degradation are expected to continue to fuel internal and international migration from the region.

    Other stories to watch:

    The role and influence of Latin America's militaries - long associated with the dark days of dictatorships - is once again in the spotlight amid their participation in curtailing violent protests in Chile and Bolivia, attempted regime change in Venezuela and crime in Mexico and Brazil.

    Following weeks of protests that forced the government to temporarily flee the capital, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno is tasked with improving the country's economy without upsetting the populace.

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    Military presence on the streets has been apparent from Santiago to Sao Paulo in 2019 [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

    In Uruguay, the conservative, pro-business president-elect Luis Lacalle Pou, takes office on March 1, bringing the right back to power after more than two decades in opposition. Following a slim victory, Lacalle Pou will have to contend with a powerful opposition and his own loosely-tied coalition.

    Elsewhere, voters in Guyana and Suriname will each head to the polls in 2020 to choose a new president.

    Follow Charlotte Mitchell on Twitter: @charbrowmitch

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News