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Latin America in 2011: the year ahead

Happenings south of the border for the coming year.

Mexico drug war, migrants
Central American migrants ride on top of a freight train through southern Mexico on their way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. (David Rochkind/GlobalPost)

BOSTON — A Latin American decade? The term is starting to be tossed around.

We won't pretend to have a magic eight ball, but there's certainly plenty to watch in the region.

Here are five stories likely to be important in Latin America this year.

Digging out

2010 was the deadliest year for natural disasters since 1983 — more people were killed by natural disasters last year than have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past 40 years (260,000 vs. 115,000, according to the Associated Press). With earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and flooding in Colombia and Venezuela, Latin America was hit hard.

The situation in Haiti remains particularly acute. The government must figure out how to rebuild its economy and get hundreds of thousands of Haitians out of tent camps and into permanent housing. On top of that, health agencies estimate cholera could sicken 650,000 by May.

Runaway currencies

Latin American economies emerged from the global downturn relatively unscathed. The International Monetary Fund projected 6 percent growth for the region last year, led by Peru, Brazil and Argentina. But an influx of foreign capital means Latin American currencies are appreciating rapidly amid fears of a commodity boom. Can Latin American countries turn their recent fortune into long-term macroeconomic stability, or are they headed for another boom-and-bust-cycle?

Stick 'em up

Ciudad Juarez recorded more than 3,000 homicides in 2010, making it the deadliest year ever in the border city. Troops have fanned out across Mexico, and security forces have notched a string of high-profile arrests. But there is growing alarm from the United States about the government's strategy, and Mexico’s other neighbors are growing increasingly concerned about spillover violence. So far there is little indication the Mexican government can end the drug war.

Brazil, home to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, is also likely to make headlines for its struggles with crime. Brazilians weren’t pleased when the New Yorker published a story about Rio’s slums immediately before the Olympic Committee was set to decide on the site for the 2016 Games. The army recently took over two of the most violent neighborhoods as part of an effort to bring the favelas under government control. But in past invasions of slums, armed forces have left soon after, allowing an easy return for drug gangs. Will this effort be any different?

Open for business

While Chinese investors spent the last decade buying up natural resources across Africa, they’re now beginning a Latin American shopping spree. Chinese investment in Brazil jumped from $82 million in 2009 to more than $25 billion last year. And it’s not just Brazil that has attracted Chinese interest. There’s soy in Argentina, zinc in Peru and copper in Chile. As China extracts raw materials and sells manufactured goods, some in Latin America fear the region will become victim of a commodity trap.

Power grabs

Presidents are powerful in Latin America — and next year the top spots are up for grabs in Peru, Argentina, Nicaragua and Haiti.

In Peru, Keiko Fujimori is one of three front runners. Her father? Ex-Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is likely to run for re-election in Argentina. A victory for Fernandez would extend the Kirchner dynasty to 12 years (her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, served as president from 2003 to 2007, before stepping aside for his wife).

Daniel Ortega first came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 and ruled until 1990. He spent the next 16 years trying to regain power, before winning the presidency in 2006. He can stand for re-election this year, now that the Supreme Court has overturned a ban that would have prevented him from running again.

An international panel is reviewing the results from Haiti’s November election, in which thousands of Haitians were barred from voting. A run-off was initially scheduled for this month, but there’s no indication when final results will be announced, and many observers fear violence will break out.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/the-americas/101230/top-stories-latin-america-2011