On 17 June, Colombia elected 41-year old Ivan Duque of the Centro Democratico (CD) as president by 53.98 percent to left-wing challenger Gustavo Petro’s 41.81 percent. Duque starts with a relatively clean sheet, though he is rumoured to be under the shadow of former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) who founded the CD in 2013. Initially patron, then the implacable political adversary of the outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe and his political following have been critical of the peace accord signed with the FARC, ratified by Congress in 2016 after a narrow defeat in a referendum. The CD won big, gaining 24 regions (departments) and 19 capitals. CD counts on 19 Senate seats and 32 in the lower house of Congress. When counted with the seats occupied by other like-minded parties, the right will control a formidable block in Congress. On the other hand, with over 8 million votes, Gustavo Petro became the highest-voted left-wing presidential candidate in Colombia. The election, in which 53 percent of the electorate participated, was largely peaceful.
On 25 May, two days before the first round of presidential elections in Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that Colombia was joining the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), the only LAC country to do so. The NATO website earlier carried news of the fait accompli: ‘a partnership agreement with a view to strengthening dialogue and cooperation to address shared security challenges.’ Colombia’s relations with NATO go back to 2013, when a dialogue began on including Colombia as one of the ‘partners across the globe’ (outside the Euro-Atlantic area). This was refined in 2016, resulting in an Agreement of the Security of Information, and later in 2017 as an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme. This has involved interoperability exercises, institutional collaboration, defence education and training, etc. As expected, the left in Latin America reacted strongly, accusing Colombia of being a NATO – and US – Trojan horse. The Venezuelan foreign office accused Colombia of introducing ‘a foreign military alliance with nuclear capacity’ into the region.
Venezuela held presidential elections on 20 May, 7 months before they were due and with record abstention of 54 percent. By nightfall President Nicolas Maduro was declared re-elected with 68 percent of the vote and a wide margin over his nearest rival and main challenger, Henri Falcon, a former Chavista. He can remain president till 2025. The principal opposition block, MUD refused to contest and legitimize the regime. Maduro was not sworn in by the National Assembly – dominated by the opposition since late 2015 - but by the Constituent Assembly, full of government nominees sworn in on 27 August 2017 to sideline the former. Russia, China and the LAC left congratulated Maduro, the US condemned the election as a sham and imposed further sanctions. The Charge d'Affaires (the US Embassy has not had an Ambassador for the last 8 years) and the head of the political section in the US Embassy in Caracas were expelled for ‘conspiracy…violation of international law’. The Lima Group - Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Guyana and Saint Lucia – did ‘‘not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral process on May 20, for not complying with the international standards of a democratic, free, fair and transparent process,” and recalled their Ambassadors for consultations. President Santos in Colombia accused Maduro of bribing Colombians resident in Venezuela to vote in the election.
In late April six countries—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru—announced they were leaving the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, a regional body created in 2008 – until they see “concrete results that guarantee its operation.” The split was triggered by a failure to agree on a secretary general after almost a year and a half, with proposed candidate José Octavio Bordón of Argentina opposed by Venezuela and Bolivia. UNASUR was the most serious attempt at regional integration, given the coincidence of interests between the right, centrist and left-wing regimes of the 12-nation body, spearheaded by a dynamic Brazil under President Lula. It managed to mediate, or at least lower tensions, in some political conflicts, but never really achieved critical mass. Initiatives such as the Pacific Alliance – an economic grouping espoused by Mexico, deliberately left out of UNASUR – have proved successful. The increasing rift between countries on the left and the right leaves little room for agreement, above all on the major political problem of Venezuela.
Dominican Republic (DR) became the latest to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China on 1 May. By end June, only 18 counties recognised Taiwan, 10 in LAC. China has been aggressively pressurizing LAC countries to shift recognition after an understanding between China and Taiwan from 2008 broke down. From 2012 to 2016, DR total exports to PRC - $1.3 billion - were eclipsed by imports from China of $6.54 billion. DR hopes diplomatic recognition of the PRC will help expand the country’s traditional agricultural exports to and investment from, continental China. Taiwan alleges PRC has bribed the DR with $ 3 billion in loans.
Guatemala and Paraguay shifted their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, shortly after the US. Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes was present for the inauguration.
July 9, 2018