2011 Reflections: the end of a landmark year for Latin America

Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hot spots. In this installment, Sara Miller Llana says Latin America has economically boomed this year as the US and Europe struggle.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, waved to supporters after being sworn in Dec. 10 in Buenos Aires. She was the first female leader in the region to be reelected.

As 2011 comes to a close, Latin America's future looks bright, with poverty at its lowest level in 20 years – 31.4 percent – and economies growing, thanks to earlier market-oriented reforms, the high prices of commodities, and new trading partners, especially China.

In the ultimate role reversal, as Europe and the United States struggle, Latin America has shined.

Even Cuba made major economic progress, albeit out of necessity, granting more licenses for entrepreneurs and allowing for the sale of real estate and cars. But shadows of the past have clouded the region as well, especially in elections.

In Central America, two cold-war-era figures won presidencies, with retired Army Gen. Otto Perez Molina winning Guatemala's runoff, and Sandinista Daniel Ortega winning another term in Nicaragua (unconstitutionally, many argue). Mr. Perez Molina is accused of human rights abuses during the civil war; Mr. Ortega was a US foe as president in the 1980s after Nicaragua's revolution.

And then there is growing discontent with dynastic influences.

In Peru, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of disgraced former dictator Alberto Fujimori, made it to the runoff in June (she lost to Ollanta Humala).

In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner easily won reelection in October, boosted by a solid economy. But by the time she steps down, her family will have ruled for 12 years. That's too long for those who seek more dynamic democracy, replete with a robust opposition.

That is the case in Venezuela, too, where opponents are trying to edge out President Hugo Chávez, who announced this year that he was ill. He has been in office since 1999 and will face probably his fiercest test in 2012, as the opposition seeks to capitalize on high crime rates and inflation.

In Mexico, the 2012 presidential campaign is heating up. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which presided over 71 years of authoritarian rule before being defeated in 2000, has emerged as the front-runner – in part because of public weariness over President Felipe Calderón's strategy against organized crime, which has caused homicides to soar past 40,000 in five years.

There are other hints of the past. Honduras is still reeling from its 2009 coup. The head of Colombia's FARC rebel group was killed in November, but the group still terrorizes. And former dictator Manuel Noriega is back in Panama, where he went straight to prison, having spent 20 years in French and US prisons.

But most of these events are overshadowed by the positive economic news. The year 2011 may be seen as the starting point of a new era for Latin America.

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