10. Snowden Leak Proves NSA Spied on Venezuela
A highly classified document in the Snowden files revealed this year that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA in concert with the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and gathered sensitive information intended to be use to spy on top company officials.
The “top secret” 2011 document revealed that the NSA infiltrated in 2010 the internal network of the PDVSA, the most important company in Venezuela largely seen as hostile toward U.S. corporate interests. It also revealed a secretive joint operation between the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency operating out of the U.S. embassy in Caracas.
PDVSA is in charge of financing Venezuela’s National Budget, directing more than 60 percent of those funds towards social investment.
9. World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord “El Chapo” Escapes
Mexican drug cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison for the second time in July through an epic mile-long underground tunnel from his jail cell shower to a deserted house. El Chapo’s high-profile escape, which raised serious suspicion about high-level government complicity and corruption, spurred a massive manhunt to track down his whereabouts with some 10,000 police and dozens of sniffer dogs.
Authorities still have not found El Chapo. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has speculated that he is hiding out in the mountainous region of Sinaloa and Durango. Despite the huge manhunt, El Chapo is no closer to being captured, and he is even seeking to expand his cocaine trafficking business to Europe since his escape.
8. Central American Migration Continues to Soar
Tens of thousands of Central American migrants continued to make the perilous journey to the U.S. this year, many fleeing violence, crime, poverty, and systemic inequality in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In October and November alone, more than 10,000 unaccompanied, undocumented children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, up more than 100 percent compared to the same two month period in 2014.
Mexico is increasingly playing a role in stemming the flow of migrants and cracking down on undocumented Central Americans before they reach the U.S. border. But migration experts say that the human traffickers or “coyotes” that take migrants north are quickly adapting and finding new ways to evade border patrols. This likely means that the already-perilous migration route is becoming more dangerous for tens of thousands of migrants, including unaccompanied children.
More than 100,000 undocumented Central American migrants were deported from Mexico this year and more than 46,000 from the U.S.
7. Brazil Suffers Rio Doce Mining Disaster
In the biggest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history, a flood of contaminated water from the site of a mining dam breach in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais on Nov. 5 devastated a community and will wreak long-term havoc on the local ecosystem.
The dam rupture at the Samarco iron ore mine, owned by mining giants BHP Billiton and Vale, unleashed a massive wave of water and mud, equivalent to 20,000 Olympic swimming pools, containing mining waste products and chemicals.
The mudslide contaminated over 300 miles of Brazil’s Doce River, shutdown community water supplies, almost entirely destroyed the nearby community of Bento Rodriguez, devastated the local ecosystem, and left as many as thousands of people vulnerable. The cleanup cost is estimated at US$1 billion.
6. Pope Francis Visits Latin America
Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, made a historic visit to Latin America this year, expressing support for many anti-capitalist efforts of progressive governments and social movements.
In South America, the Argentine-born Pope visited Ecuador, Paraguay, and Bolivia, where President Evo Morales gave the pontiff the unconventional gift of a wooden hammer and sickle with a figure of a crucified Christ resting on the hammer. The Pope then visited Cuba and the U.S. after helping to negotiate the bilateral thaw between the two countries.
5. Mining Protest Erupt in Peru
Thousands of rural Peruvians clashed with mining giant Southern Copper Corporation as they protested against the Tia Maria mine, home to one of Peru’s largest copper reserves.
Protests to put an end to the Tia Maria mine in southern Peru reignited once again in March after years of resistance. Violent clashes between security forces and protesters during demonstrations in May resulted in the deaths of one police officers and three civilians. In July, a survey found that the vast majority of local residents opposed the to the billion-dollar project.
Protesters have warned that they will maintain their mobilizations until the government answers their demands. Many fear the mine will destroy the local environment and drastically pollute the local Tambo river, which is a key lifeline of the area’s agricultural sector that provides many jobs and agricultural products to southern Peru and beyond.
4. Central America Rises Up
This year massive protests erupted in Guatemala and Honduras, sparked by major multimillion dollar corruption scandals that rocked both Central American countries. Tens of thousands of protesters regularly took to the streets for months to demand an end to impunity and resignation of presidents that saw their delicate credibility crumble in the face of scandals.
In Guatemala, waves of corruption scandals in various public institutions began to surface in April, mobilizing people across demographic and class lines and giving birth to a movement that succeeded in forcing President Otto Perez Molina to resign. In Honduras, protesters launched a new “indignados” movement and weekly torch-lit marches to demand an independent anti-impunity body and the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez after scandals implicated the ruling National Party in a multimillion dollar scandal in the social security institute came to light in May.
While the mass protests have ebbed, the outrage and underlying potential for movements to demand deeper change still lingers, and it’s likely that another wave of protests could easily be tipped off in Honduras and Guatemala.
3. Right-Wing Re-emerges
Latin America’s right-wing forces have gained momentum this year and increasingly consolidated new tactics to delegitimize and destabilize progressive governments in the region.
In Argentina, 12 years of progressive Kirchnerismo ended with a right-wing win by President Mauricio Macri, who began to roll out a series of neoliberal reforms within days of taking power, including plans to scrap export taxes and import rules, overturn the Media Law, and devalue the currency. Then, in Venezuela, the opposition swept the parliamentary elections for the first time since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998, taking control with a right-wing supermajority in the National Assembly.
In Ecuador, right-wing opposition groups - in alliance with historically progressive Indigenous movements that helped bring Rafael Correa to power - have launched a series of anti-government protests to oppose constitutional amendments, wealth redistribution plans, and other reforms. Meanwhile, opposition groups in Brazil have been pushing for an impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, whose ability to block the impeachment process launched on Dec. 2 stands on delicate footing as her vice president hints at switching alliances to support the impeachment.
2. Colombian Peace Process Achieves Milestones
The ongoing Colombian peace process between FARC guerilla rebels and the Colombian government reached landmark agreements this year despite a destabilizing resurgence of paramilitary activity, bringing the country closer to bringing an end to more than 50 years of armed internal conflict.
The government and the FARC signed a historic agreement on the victims of the armed conflict on Dec. 15 after reaching partial agreements on identification and return of people “disappeared” in the conflict and on transitional justice for victims in previous months.
Hopes are high that a final peace deal between the FARC and the government will be signed in March 2016. But ongoing paramilitary violence remains a central threat to the three-year process.
1. Cuba and the U.S. Normalize Ties
The year 2015 has been a landmark in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations as the two countries established foreign embassies and continue to normalize ties after decades of frozen relations. The U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state of sponsors of terrorism in May, paving the way for Cuba to reopen its Embassy in Washington on July 20 and the U.S. to reopen its embassy in Havana on Aug. 14 after 54 years.
While the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations this year has been historic, talks are ongoing and diplomatic challenges still remain. Cuba has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. end the economic blockade against the island, return the U.S. naval-occupied territory of Guantanamo, and respect the Cuban sovereignty by halting all funding of anti-government groups.
Cuba has also criticized the U.S.’s Cold War-era immigration policy which allows Cuban migrants who arrive on U.S. soil to become residents after one year under what’s popularly known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. Thousands of Cuban migrants have attempted to make their way to the U.S. in the last month, many hoping to reunite with their families, in the face of possible changes to U.S. immigration policy for Cubans.
All photos by Reuters