Foreign Ministers of nations of the Lima Group hold a meeting over the Venezuelan crisis, in Santiago, on April 15, 2019. Photo: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images.

Foreign Ministers of nations of the Lima Group hold a meeting over the Venezuelan crisis, in Santiago, on April 15, 2019. Photo: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images.

Latin America 2020


  • In-depth view
  • 19 Dec 2019
  • 19 min read


It has been an eventful year in Latin America and the Caribbean. With presidential elections in Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina and Bolivia, undoubtedly some will try to read into the results some sort of regional trend. Suffice it to say that the results proved that it’s a diverse region. At the same time, the Venezuelan National Assembly’s election of Juan Guiadó as the interim president seemed for a moment to bring the promise a transition in that long-suffering country… until it didn’t.

And in the latter part of the year, the region seemed to erupt in social protests, with demonstrations in Bolivia, Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Like the elections, some tried to read some common rationale behind the protests, but the causes varied - from human rights and democracy concerns in Bolivia, Honduras and Nicaragua to outrage over corruption in Haiti, to eruptions over price increases in Chile and Ecuador that blossomed into larger demonstrations over lack of opportunity and social mobility.

All of this prompted us to ask a range of experts – historians, political scientists, former public officials, journalists and economists – what they interpret the recent events will mean for the next year in Latin America and the Caribbean. Like the elections and the reasons behind the social protests, their answers were varied. We think you’ll find them insightful.   


Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Associate Fellow, US and Americas Programme; Director, Chatham House (2001-06)

Latin America, as a region, does not have a foreign policy. Instead, there are separate foreign policies of different nation-states that are the subject of review whenever a new government is formed.

Given the polarization of the region, this creates the risk of major shifts in foreign policy as the political pendulum swings between right and left. However, there are limits to the swing as a result of the constraints on national sovereignty in each country. This is due both to international treaties that states have signed in the past as well as the need to maintain as much as possible good relations with powerful external actors such as China, the European Union and the United States.

As a result, the fundamental changes in foreign policy after big domestic political shifts – for example, in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico – are not as great as might have been expected if foreign policy were to be judged only by the gesture and virtue-signalling politics in which all new governments engage in order to indicate a change of direction. By contrast, forecasting what will happen to domestic political stability in 2020 – given everything that happened in 2019 – is much harder (and probably foolhardy).

Kenneth Frankel, President, Canadian Council for the Americas

The past year demonstrated that the old strategies aren't working. Deploying the military as a first resort no longer buys governments even short – or medium – term breathing space, quite the opposite.  As events in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Mexico have demonstrated, relying on martial force is counterproductive and leads to tragic results that fewer citizens seem prepared to tolerate.    

Dismissing civil dissent as the dirty errand of outside disruptors has proven equally ineffective and counterproductive. 

We've seen democratic mass protests, and misinformation by anti-democratic actors convened with the push of a finger.   Governments that build credible, transparent track records will be better positioned. 

There’s reason for optimism in 2020 for regional political and economic elites who accept these lessons. Stability will come partially at their expense, not by an unachievable return to status quo.  There are too many historic resentments and current and future concerns and paradigm shifts to allow that in our socially connected world.

Governments across the region, having written off the current US government as a positive force, are now focused on minimizing the negative repercussions of general US policy incoherency and in some cases targeted attacks. Many of them, with Canada significantly engaged, will continue to find common cause on economic and political issues, including Venezuela and even broader issues such as climate change policies—Brazil notwithstanding. 

Miriam Kornblith, Senior Director, Latin America and the Caribbean, National Endowment for Democracy

The impact of mass mobilizations across Latin America in the last quarter of 2019 may (and should) generate incentives to manage polarization in a more constructive manner. The size and violence of the demonstrations have the capacity to alert ordinary citizens, governments, political and civil society leaders, businesses, academics among others about the perils of deep political and social divisions. 

Without a concerted effort to contain polarization, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric with the expression of widespread frustrations of large portions of the population will lead to the destabilization of both well-established and fragile democracies instead of to addressing or solving legitimate demands.

The Venezuela case provides the clearest lessons stemming from long-term artificially induced polarization. The majority of the population is facing a complex humanitarian crisis and the country is undergoing a multifaceted collapse, while the region as whole is suffering the pressures of Venezuela’s massive migration crisis. In 2020, the multiple individual and collective stakeholders of the region need to consciously engage in devising effective, realistic middle-of-the–road non-polarized approaches to address Latin America’s challenges, and turn them into opportunities for sustainable political and economic growth. Otherwise, if polarization continues, the region will become poorer and less democratic. 

Richard Lapper, Associate Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House; Latin America Editor, Financial Times (1995-2015)

For the first time since the end of the Cold War geo-political divisions are increasingly evident in Latin America. Recent elections in Mexico (2018) and Argentina (2019) have given new life to nationalist, anti-American and left-wing populism, even though its results have been so disastrous in Venezuela. In the pro-US camp a virulent right-wing populism has emerged with a vengeance in Brazil. At the same time successful pro-western and market friendly democracies such as Colombia and Chile are facing social unrest that could lead to new political challenges from the populist right or left.

Everywhere it seems the political centre—which seemed reasonably solid less than a decade ago—is failing to hold, inevitably raising the prospect of further volatility in 2020.

An explanation for this unexpected turbulence is found partly in the economic failures of the last decade when the region failed to build on the progress between 1990 and 2012, when economies stabilized and poverty rates fell sharply. In most countries savings rates have remained disappointingly low, physical infrastructure deficient and human capital inadequate. With growth rates slowing, much of the region is once again heavily dependent on external powers, whether the US, an increasingly powerful and assertive China or the international capital markets and the Washington-based multilaterals. 

Elena Lazarou, Associate Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House; Policy Analyst, European Parliamentary Research Service

The end of 2019 has been challenging for Latin American governments and societies.  Many have faced domestic turmoil in the form of protests and challenges to the legitimacy of governments, while in others – notably Mexico and Brazil – elected populist leaders are struggling to deliver on their promises, leading to a rise in dissatisfaction.

Inequality, public insecurity and lack of economic growth lie at the source of both these phenomena. They are unlikely to change anytime soon.

In this context, Latin American countries are likely to be more inward than outward looking in 2020. Foreign policy will be driven by the need to attract investment and to grow. With elections coming up in the US, focus on campaigning will overshadow US foreign policy, particularly towards the region which has featured very little in Trump’s agenda apart from issues related to migrants. This environment will create conditions for China to continue its expansion in the region through investments in infrastructure and industry.

Within the region, foreign policy has lacked momentum, with several platforms for cooperation inactive or disbanded. Relations between Brazil and the new Argentinian government may determine the future of the EU-MERCOSUR trade agreement, although climate-related controversies will also need to be resolved before the agreement is ratified.

Melissa MacEwen, Manager, Energy, Environment and Resources Department, Chatham House 

Polarization and instability in the region are already having an effect on environmental issues such as biodiversity and forest conservation and possibly halting progress on climate change mitigation and waste and pollution management.

In Chile social protests forced the cancellation of this year’s COP25 in Santiago. With President Sebastian Piñera acknowledging the need to focus on domestic, socioeconomic demands, the country walked back its plan to announce an enhanced climate target during the COP and delayed the launch of plan to create a circular economy.

In Colombia, the peace process with the FARC left large forested areas open to exploitation, causing a 44% spike in deforestation the year after the deal was signed. While the government reports that this has now slowed, an understandable focus on social integration of the FARC, the current migration crisis from Venezuela, and recent national protests may leave environmental issues down on the list of priorities. The peace deal does include environmental reparations, however there is a wider issue of land rights, zoning and a lack of state capacity to properly enforce regulations.

One of the most pressing environmental issues in Latin America is waste. Only 2% of total waste in the region is recycled, compared to 55% in the EU. The general lack of public waste management has led to an informal sector of approximately four million waste pickers who collect, sort and sell waste to informal buyers. Reform of the system is a huge problem as some cities which have tried to formalize waste pickers have found.

Andres Malamud, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon

In the 19th century, most Latin American countries depended directly or indirectly on European powers. In the 20th, the United States took Europe’s place. In the 21st century, China is stepping in as the US retreats. The structure of the relationship remained unchanged though: Latin America exported primary or assembled goods and imported manufactures, technology and investment.

Will current polarization alter this pattern of peripheral association with the global economy? It is very unlikely. However, it may have two other effects.

The international effect is the splitting of the subcontinent, as the countries geographically closer to the United States remain under its economic orbit while the rest consolidates closer links to China.

The domestic effect regards political stability, which is at stake throughout the region. If both Bolivia and Chile, which held a track record of sound macroeconomic policies and sustained reduction of poverty, fell prey to turmoil, no assurance of calmer periods exists for the remaining countries. As Samuel Huntington diagnosed in the 1960s, changing societies breed political disorder if there are weak institutions – and Latin America has never excelled at deep-rooted institutionalization.

Frank Mora, Director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center; Professor of International Relations, Florida International University

Deeply polarized societies are often plagued by policy paralysis and social protests in their domestic politics, while in foreign policy they tend to seek confrontation and scapegoating as a way offsetting domestic tensions and divisions.  In 2020, Latin America and the Caribbean will continue to suffer from the socio-political instability that began mid-way through 2019 as many of these governments seem unable or unwilling to respond affirmatively to the longstanding political and social grievances that democracies in the region are not able to address. 

AmericasBarometer found that in 2019 only 38 per cent of Latin Americans were satisfied with democratic performance, compared to 56% in 2014.  Economic stagnation will only deepen these fissures in 2020.

This domestic political context does not lend itself to greater levels of regional cooperation as governments focus on domestic concerns.  It is very unlikely that external scapegoating and confrontation will emerge, but the complexity of challenges and threats to globalization require a degree of regional integration and cooperation that until now, even during periods of economic growth and political stability, countries have not truly engaged in (despite high minded rhetoric of regional solidarity).  In 2020 governments will be more inwardly-focused, less inclined to understand that their domestic challenges cannot be separated from opportunities offered by remaining globally engaged.

Andrés Rozental, Founding President, Mexican Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Adviser, Chatham House

The region’s polarization doesn’t bode well for a harmonious relationship among the various governments currently in power. With a Trump administration that has little or no interest in Latin America beyond the intermestic agenda with Mexico and the tragic situation in Venezuela–as well as the historical enmity towards Cuba—the geometries of current leadership in the region, together with societies that are increasingly polarized—socially, economically and politically—will severely challenge the various multilateral relationships that have been built up over the past several decades.

Beginning with the OAS, where efforts to discredit election observation, a deep split with regard to how to deal with the Maduro regime and its humanitarian crisis, and a highly visible and opinionated Secretary-General, there will be few if any incentives for countries in the region to act together to solve the many problems facing Latin America.  Meanwhile, Mercosur, CELAC, the Pacific Alliance and the various other groupings existing today are hardly equipped to manage these issues either.

Any theoretical left-right governmental alliances in the region that some analysts see as a new reality do not really exist. Although there may be coalitions of convenience for specific policies among shifting countries, these do not represent a significant change to the traditional divisions that have characterized Latin America for years. The domestic malaise that led to the elections of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Alberto Fernández (Argentina), together with the social unrest in Chile, Colombia, Bolivia and others, demonstrate the instability that has and will continue to characterize the region.

Christopher Sabatini, Senior Research Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House

The Western Hemisphere is deeply divided.  On the US side, the Trump administration’s immigration policies, invocation of the Monroe Doctrine and rolling back of Barack Obama’s efforts to open Cuba have placed it out of step with much of the region and deeply damaged how the US is seen in the region. 

But the White House does have allies.  President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has hitched his foreign policy to the Trump administration, but been burnt by President Trump’s capriciousness on trade and membership in the OECD.  El Salvador’s young, outsider president Nayib Bukele, has attempted to curry favour with the White House, and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador has remained quietly cooperative before the US president’s demands on Mexico’s retaining asylum seekers at its border and in renegotiating trade terms under the new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

In the meantime, though, socio-political protests have torn through the region.  Democratic protests in Nicaragua and Venezuela have run up against the brutal reality of the autocratic regimes in those countries.  In Bolivia, similar protests in the wake of a stolen election produced an interim government that has responded with an iron fist.  And protestors in Chile and Colombia have challenged pro-market governments.

With allegations of outside intervention coming from both sides, one is left wondering, are we witnessing a new proxy battle with Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and maybe China on one side and the US the other playing out on Latin American streets?  There is a risk that risk that legitimate democratic, human rights and socioeconomic demands will be lost in a broader geopolitical battle.

Arturo Sarukhan, Founder and President, Sarukhan + Associates; Nonresident Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

With momentary lapses over the past decade, the largest democracies in Latin America have persistently punched below their weight in the international arena. A combination of navel-gazing, a lack of purpose and interest by parochial political and business elites, and of ambition, budget and overarching grand strategies, and the mummification of principles like non-intervention have all meant that the region’s diplomatic profile was woefully underfunded and puny.

As a rules-based international system predicated on the global commons and open societies slowly emerged as a key paradigm for 21st century international affairs, Latin America as a whole clung to the hoary tenets of Westphalian sovereignty. And it does not seem prepared for the geopolitical disruption that technology and social media platforms have recently spawned.

Now, with the on-going social and political maelstrom affecting several nations and the resulting ‘best foreign policy is domestic policy’ default position and mantra – whether by design or lack of political or budgetary bandwidth – 2020 could generate even more significant diplomatic vacuums for Latin America, globally and in multilateral fora. Major diplomatic powerhouses in the region, and even some of the more modest ones, should never forget that in global affairs, nations have one of two options: you either sit at the table or you’re on the menu!