The individuals who shaped Latin America in 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In no particular order, these are the individuals who I felt had the biggest impact on Latin America in 2016:

Juan Manuel Santos: In November, Colombia's president secured an end to the region's longest guerilla conflict. It wasn't simple. In October, his citizens voted down the peace proposal with the Farc. In a strange year for Nobel prizes, Santos was then given the Peace award only a few days later. Undaunted, he put together a new peace treaty (this time without any referendum) – all before the year was up. Time will judge whether Santos, and Bob Dylan for that matter, were worthy of their prizes. I think he is.

Nicolás Maduro: Inflation is so rampant in Venezuela that bills in circulation no longer hold any value. Basic goods and medical supplies are scarce. Looting and riots break out periodically. The economy is collapsing. But instead of admitting the need for change, Venezuelan President Maduro has done everything he can to continue the 17-year-old "Bolivarian revolution" – including throwing his opponents in jail and blaming the catastrophe on foreign enemies.

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Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Neymar, and Juan Martín del Potro: The Olympics came to Brazil and Phelps and Bolt lit up Rio de Janeiro with superhuman performances. For Neymar, it was especially sweet to win the one tournament Brazil's storied national team was lacking. Even though it's seen as a second-tier competition for soccer, the gold medal helped ease the gutting memory of the thrashing by Germany in the World Cup two years earlier, and offered his nation a break from recession, snowballing corruption scandals and, not least of all, an ugly impeachment. Also during the Olympics, Argentina's Juan Martín del Potro, returning from a wrist injury that almost ended his career, stunned top-ranked Novak Djokovic and went on to win the silver medal. A few months later, the big-hearted Torre de Tandil led his country to a remarkable first-ever Davis Cup victory.

Maximo Pacheco: Chile had a poor year in governance and economic affairs, with one exception: its energy sector. Only five years ago, the energy system in Chile was old-fashioned, uncompetitive, slow-moving and overpriced. Today, prices are highly competitive and green power is booming. A genuine energy revolution is occurring, and it's market-based – but this could not have occurred without Pacheco's leadership. Though he stepped down in October, it was a job well done, and his efforts will be aped by many in the region. Argentina, under new energy minister Juan José Aranguren and President Mauricio Macri, has already shown a willingness to follow suit.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski: PPK won the presidential vote in Peru by a mere 40,000 votes out of 18mn cast, but history can be made on the slimmest of victory margins. Born in Lima, raised in the Peruvian Amazon, PPK has a fascinating storyline that fits well into Peru's image as the star of emerging markets. He's announced a massive infrastructure plan, is working to improve relations between communities and mining and energy projects, is courting new Chinese investment and pushing for additional multilateral trade agreements, and is well regarded on the international stage. His country will for the second year in a row outperform all other major economies in the region, and grow by close to 4%.

Fidel Castro: At the end of a year that saw the continued ebbing of the Latin American Pink Tide; that saw his island make peace with archenemy the United States; that saw Cuba's close ideological ally Venezuela implode, Fidel Castro died. Though the shape of the world was probably not what he would have envisioned after his 1959 revolution, he lived a storied life – and no one in Latin America was untouched by his ideas.

Barack Obama: Perhaps his country wasn't ready for him, but many in Latin America will miss outgoing US president Obama's eloquence and charm. An astute student of history, Obama knew that the great problems of our day - climate change, mass migration, inequality – were global in nature. He saw our species as one; he was an optimist, a thinker, a bridge between people. He supported close hemispheric relations: "Todos somos Americanos." He knew that our fortunes were entangled. (In the "Build the Wall" noise of recent months, it's easy to forget that from 2009 to 2014 more Mexican immigrants returned to their homeland than migrated to the US.) In Latin America, he will be especially remembered for helping to broker the détente with Cuba, and for providing an inspired brand of global leadership based on tolerance and respect for the rule of law, one that might now be an anachronism.