Rising dictatorship in Venezuela. Wrenching disaster in Puerto Rico. 2017 was not an especially pleasant year in Latin America and the Caribbean.
To review the top stories – and look at what's ahead for the region in 2018 – WLRN’s Tim Padgett sat down with Frank Mora of Florida International University. Mora heads FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center, and he's a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere.
WLRN: OK, Frank, we both brought our top three Latin American and Caribbean stories. Your No. 3 was the declining support for democracy in the region. Why?
MORA: For one, high abstention rates in recent elections all across the hemisphere, including last month’s presidential election in Chile – even though in many countries voting is required by law.
More important: From Latinobarometer and Vanderbilt University polling on the question: Are you satisfied with democracy in your country?, for the first time in over 10 years we saw those numbers decline from about 58, 59 percent to about 50 or 51 percent. This is a worrisome indication of what people in Latin America think about democracy and democratic institutions.
I would agree. It's of course hard for us here to ignore Cuba in any year – and my No. 3 is the bizarre case of the alleged sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana that left many of them with conditions like hearing loss. Will we ever know what really happened?
I think we will at some point. But I think you're right: I think the lack of transparency, obviously from the Cuban regime but also from our government…
Or if a third party like Russia was involved…
Yes, possibly Russia. But it is very odd. My understanding from the folks at MIT is there's no such technology that can do that kind of damage to an individual. So what could it have been? I really don't know.
Cuba actually brings us to your No. 2 story: President Trump strained at best relations with Latin America. Trump made it harder last summer for Americans to travel to or do business with Cuba. But how has the rest of the region felt Trump's impact?
The Trump administration's approach is one that we haven't seen at least since the Cold War. The administration looks at the region and sees dangers and threats: immigrants, terrorists, drug traffickers. Bad hombres, as the president likes to say. Free trade is also considered a bad thing, in terms of NAFTA.
So we have gone back to a failed policy of mano dura…
The hard hand…
The hard hand – without understanding the deep-seated structural problems that are driving violence and immigration in places like Central America.
KEEP THE STREET
Trump also ramped up targeted economic sanctions on the authoritarian regime in Venezuela. And that's my No. 2 story: the rise of a socialist dictatorship under President Nicolás Maduro. Do you see democracy returning there anytime soon? Or will Venezuela’s collapsing economy take care of regime change?
The future of Venezuela is in the hands of Venezuelans. And I am concerned to hear some in the Venezuelan community expecting the United States and others outside to solve a fundamentally internal problem. And that's simply not going to happen.
That’s a good point, but then why did the massive street protests and the opposition strategy in general ultimately fail this year?
Because they didn't keep the street. If you’re going to engage in that kind of street-demonstration approach you need to maintain the street. You can’t push and then retreat because the state then recaptures it.
The epic embezzlement of Venezuela's oil wealth reflects your No. 1 story: corruption.
There's always been massive corruption in Latin America, but it's now being exposed and people are being held accountable. In Brazil, I mean we can go on and on with examples of very powerful figures in all of these countries going to jail. This is extraordinary for the region.
It is. My No. 1 story was the powerful hurricanes, Irma and Maria, that ravaged so much of the Caribbean this year. Islands like Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands but especially Puerto Rico. Are President Trump and the Republicans going to regret the second-class treatment they gave that U.S. island territory's recovery? And are we going to feel the political fallout here in Florida?
We'll see. But there may be 200,000 Puerto Ricans who have left the island after Maria and now live and work in Florida. And, as you know, because they’re U.S. citizens they get to vote right away.
Right. In 2018 we've got presidential elections in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia – and Cuba. Will Raúl Castro really step down?
Who knows? But I think the fact that Cuba set a date – April 18th – that's really committing themselves to making a change.