If you're watching the news unfold in Latin America, here are the key stories to keep your eye on.
When Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005, he came into office as an unabashed supporter of Hugo Chavez's vision of a socialist South America. But Morales' policies, including nationalization of the natural gas industry and attempt to rewrite the constitution to allow for his re-election, snowballed into a recall referendum in August 2008, which Morales won by 67 percent. Now Bolivia may be on the brink of civil war: An autonomy movement in the eastern lowlands is afoot in response to Morales' socialist reforms, with referendums in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando provinces leading the way. This, coupled with long-standing divisions, has sparked violent confrontations between Morales supporters and the opposition.
This agreement, touted by both the Bush administration and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, is stalled in Congress as of September 2008, with Bush and Uribe both urging action on the pact. Negotiated in late 2006, the agreement is opposed by the Teamsters and other unions that say it would hurt U.S. jobs. Opponents also bring up violence against unionists in Colombia. Uribe contends that the agreement would stem the flow of economic migrants out of the country, would stem crime at home, and would increase U.S. investment in Colombia. “Investment is the real alternative to illicit crops," Uribe said at the White House on Sept. 28, 2008. "Investment is the real possibility for our people to find high-quality jobs."
After Felipe Calderon took office on Dec. 1, 2006, he sent federal troops to his home state of Michoacan in a declaration of war against Mexico's entrenched drug cartels. Two years later, as violence has risen particularly near the U.S. border, many Mexicans doubt that Calderon is winning that war. More than 2,300 people were killed in drug-fueled violence in the first eight months of 2008 alone. In Tijuana, which counts on U.S. tourism, signs warned police to join the cartels or die. "Recent Mexican army and police force conflicts with heavily-armed narcotics cartels have escalated to levels equivalent to military small-unit combat and have included use of machine guns and fragmentation grenades," warned a State Department Travel Alert.
Fidel may have handed the reins over to his brother, Raul Castro, but Cuba's troubles are far from over. Thousands of Cubans still attempt to flee the island and make it to the United States via any floating contraption possible, escaping from repressive economic conditions and rationing that keep ordinary Cubans at uniformly low levels. Many Cubans hope that the reign of Raul will mean free markets and free speech, but others see more of the same Castro legacy. His reforms have included allowing ordinary citizens to buy DVD players and home computers, but prices for these luxury items still put them out of reach for many Cubans. Will his token gestures win favor with the populace, or will a hunger for freedom mean his ouster?
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wants to shape his country into a socialist model Bolivarian Republic -- and take South America with him -- but his opponents, fearing his authoritarian rule, vow to stop this. Having learned the perils of isolationist communism from his mentor Fidel Castro, Chavez has been forging alliances with nations that share his distaste for the United States and capitalism. His pathway to socialism has included control of the media, power consolidation, nationalization of industry, and formation of citizen militias. His critics contend that Chavez pushes forward with his goals while ignoring national concerns including a rising crime rate (Caracas being South America's most violent city now) and poverty.
Brazil's economy is booming, but the same can't be said for Argentina. About 20 percent of Argentinians live below the poverty line, and conflict with farmers has produced crisis for President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner. A boom in soybean production made the crop one of the country's top exports and stabilized a nosediving peso. Despite the economic boost, Fernandez levied additional export taxes on soybeans in March 2008 in an effort to pressure farmers to concentrate on more products that are consumed domestically. The taxes sparked a crippling nationwide farmers strike, which could reoccur at any time as the government still exerts pressure on growers. On top of it all, the country is weathering the worst drought in 40 years.
This isn't just about Mexican immigrants crossing the U.S. border to look for work; it's about Central American (and even Chinese and Eastern European) migrants, coming from even worse economic conditions, who see the opportunities in Mexico in a shinier light. It's even about Dominican Republic residents who try a treacherous crossing to make it to Puerto Rico. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been pushing the United States to enact humane immigration reform, but illegal immigrants in Mexico face the possibility of being beaten, robbed, or raped by Mexican authorities, according to a 2006 Associated Press investigation. While workers find that the grass is always greener somewhere else, the issue increases government tensions.
Latin American has dealt with its own brand of terrorism long before 9/11, styled as Marxist/Maoist "revolutionaries" in the form of the FARC in Colombia and Shining Path in Peru. But the region has also been no stranger to Islamic-extremist terrorism: In 1994, 85 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires; two years earlier, an attack on the Israeli embassy killed 22. In the wake of 9/11, Latin American authorities became more concerned with foreign nationals slipping across porous borders. Paraguay's border with Brazil and Argentina has long been considered a fundraising spot for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called Hugo Chavez a "brother" in 2008.
Latin American leaders can come and go faster than you can say "ahora!" but the election of former Catholic priest Fernando Lugo to Paraguay's presidency presents a whole new saga to watch. His election marked the first time since the country's independence that there has been a peaceful transition of power from the ruling party to an opposition one. The "bishop of the poor" claims that his leftism won't make him a puppet of Hugo Chavez, but his attempts to stamp out poverty and promises of land reform (which could result in property seizures) and multiple agreements already forged with Venezuela may result in more socialism than expected. Lugo has already followed in Cristina Fernandez's steps by proposing new export taxes on soybeans.
Long the majority religion in Latin America exceeding indigenous faiths, the Roman Catholic Church is finding itself at a transition point. For one, its membership numbers are being threatened by evangelical Protestant groups. But the social and political influence of the church is an integral part of how Latin America functions: think the outcry over the assassination of Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero by right-wing militants, or the opposition of Cardinal Rosalio José Castillo Lara to Hugo Chavez's authoritarianism, and Chavez's declaration that upon his passing Castillo was "in hell." Now there's battle over abortion being allowed in traditional countries such as Mexico, and again the church steps into the role of the resistance.