This year is already proving that it will be an exciting one for news. Take the U.S. elections, for starters. The presidential election, as it's been said by at least one GOP nominee, represents a battle for nothing less than America’s soul.
As for Latin America, what should we expect to make headlines?
Before ticking off possible headlines, it’s important to note the substantial—and frustrating—distinction between what should be covered and what will likely be covered. There are so many issues that never make it to (online) print or broadcast, given the tough competition for airtime and eyeballs.
Here are my top-10 most anticipated stories:
10) Health of Hugo Chávez: There will be many reports well-timed with Venezuela’s election cycle—Venezuelans go to the polls in October—that cite “well-placed, unnamed” sources claiming President Hugo Chávez is healthier than ever after his surgery last summer in Cuba to remove a cancerous abscess. These reports will appear within days of other stories that cite other unnamed sources professing to know the awful truth of just how horribly sick Chávez is and how he is trying to hide his fatal illness. Both stories will include hypotheticals (and wishful thinking) on the future direction of chavismo and bolivarianismo when Chávez ultimately leaves power, one way or another.
9) Fidel “Is He Dead Yet” Castro: News organizations have had Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro’s obituary ready to print for years now.
8) Summit of the Americas…Again: This year the summit is in Cartagena, Colombia, in April. Like last time, it is likely to generate broad, searching headlines coupled with fantastic photos. If it wasn’t a great occasion for photos, there wouldn’t be much reason to cover it. (At the 2009 summit, the iconic photo was the handshake of Chávez and U.S. President Barack Obama.)
These summits rarely close with anything more than vague statements and lofty promises. Despite the lack of real news, the summit does provide an excuse for big picture analysis and hand-wringing assessments of the waning influence of the United States in the region. “Has the US lost its regional swagger, and how do we get our groove back?” In this election year, such exercises are sure to include analysis of the Obama administration’s initiatives, or lack thereof, in the region. But, the region need not worry if the U.S. has been otherwise distracted: China and Iran have been taking up our slack.
7) Latin America Avoids Global Economic Meltdown: At least, let’s hope that will be the headline this year. We can expect numerous stories about the region’s economies, and whether various Latin American countries can avoid getting struck by financial crisis. Chile, Peru and Colombia are expected to attract foreign investors with their pro-business reforms, and laudatory storylines will follow. News pieces will reflect hope that other nations such as Brazil and Argentina will be inspired by their successes. Although Brazil may not be the big economic story in 2012, President Dilma Rousseff will continue to be a voice—and media darling—for emerging markets in the southern hemisphere, much like her predecessor, Lula da Silva.
6) Energy Resources, Exploration and Development: The axed Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada to Texas has already made plenty of news in 2012, but this won’t be the last story about the hemisphere’s energy sector. At this point, the Keystone outcome serves as a bellwether of how China will step in to seize the opportunities that the U.S. passes up. This will be the underlying message, and concern, in future news reports on energy development and energy markets.
5) Venezuela’s October Presidential Election: Chávez will likely win, giving himself another six years in the office he has held since 1999. While it is hard to believe that the vote will be clean and fair, it will be interesting to learn the margin of Chávez’ loss and how well the opposition does in unifying against him. Most recently, with Leopoldo López bowing out of the race in order to support rival Henrique Capriles, the usually fragmented opposition looks stronger than in recent years.
4) Mexico’s July Presidential Election: Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of the State of Mexico and current PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party) candidate, will likely win. In doing so, PRI will return to the presidency after having held it for 71 years before President Felipe Calderón’s PAN (Partido Acción Nacional, or National Action Party) won it in 2000.
This election is widely viewed as a referendum on Calderón’s war on the narco-criminal cartels. What happens in this election—and potentially with a new party in charge—matters very much for the United States and U.S. policymakers. Amid concerns of the cartels’ influence in elections and governance overall, news analysis will likely check democratic progress in Mexico. While it’ll be easy to go overboard with criticism, such analysis should not forget how many advances this country has made in the last 15 years.
3) Drugs, Immigration and Border Security in the U.S.: In an election year, the national storyline here will be looking at which candidate promises to do what and what the Obama administration has tried to achieve. A new factor to this news story is the budget-tightening mood on Capitol Hill; even more salient will be the bureaucratic and congressional machinations in getting federal funding for these cross-agency and cross-department border programs.
2) Iran in Latin America: This topic deserves some old-fashioned gumshoe reporting, and an objective look at what various experts are asserting. Just how concerned should Americans be about Iran’s interest, and growing influence, in the hemisphere? What are the security risks? What are Iran’s real intentions in pursuing deeper relations with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador? Is it something more nefarious than building a club for unpopular tyrants? The potential for mayhem and tragedy is a real nightmare; we need good information to ensure it doesn’t become a reality.
1) Pope Benedict XVI Visits Cuba: In this much-anticipated papal visit in March, the U.S. media has an opportunity to fairly portray Cuba as a police state in which human rights abuses are routine and in which neighbors spy on each other. It’s a fair criticism—and concern—that American news groups overwhelmingly depict Cuba as a quaint and exotic country of old Fords, delicious rum, great music and sumptuous cigars while skimming over the atrocious human rights violations. Typically in such broadcasts, an expert provides a breathy, brief caveat about Fidel and Raúl Castro ruling the country with an iron fist—and then we’re back to sunny Old Havana streets shots. But, perhaps since the pope’s visit comes on the heels of dissenter Wilmar Villar’s death, news organizations will tell a more accurate story about Cuba, and highlight the grave need to make more progress on human rights before enjoying a fat cigar.
This all said, it is overly ambitious to predict the ten stories about Latin America that will make big headlines in the United States. In the last two years, news organizations have cut back on foreign coverage. Furthermore, even in the best of times, Latin America was never a high priority, or of high interest, for most national news groups since the end of the Cold War. Instead, it is probably more realistic to expect half, or maybe just two, of these storylines will get prominent news coverage, as they are competing against presidential politics, economic meltdowns, a bellicose Iran, and, of course, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s personal dramas.
*Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.