Jan 3, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

9 mins read

The Smoldering Hot Spots of Latin American Political Instability

In Honduras, supporters of the opposition coalition, whose candidate narrowly lost the presidential election in December, set up a roadblock in Tegucigalpa.
  • Transitions of political power in Latin America have become generally peaceful over the past three decades. But in Bolivia, Cuba, and Honduras — where deeply entrenched governments will dispute control against political challengers — domestic politics will become more unstable over the coming years.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales' weakening hold over domestic politics will be the main driver of instability in that country in coming years.
  • In Cuba, the eventual lifting of the U.S. economic embargo will bring with it more money, leaving political leaders to jockey for influence and greater access to revenue from trade and tourism.
  • In Honduras, political unrest will persist over the next few years as the country's opposition tries to resist unpopular government moves.

For about three decades, peaceful transitions of political power have been the norm in Latin America, a marked turn from the pattern of military overthrows that peppered the region's history for much of the 20th century. At the height of the Cold War, populist governments, which often had seized power by force, inspired reactionary backlash from conservative political forces — often with the backing of the United States, which was focused on countering the spread of communism. But since the 1980s, countries in Central and South America discarded military rule in favor of regular, democratic elections. The shift toward democracy for the most part reduced the short-term political instability brought on by unplanned changes of government.

Stronger democratic institutions generally allowed for smoother legal transitions of power — even in contested cases such as Brazil's 2016 presidential impeachment. But widespread democratic rule did not eliminate the threat of periodic instability. Unstable political systems that have developed in some countries could, under the right circumstances, boil over. This latent instability will be felt especially keenly in countries where long-established governments try to cling to power in the face of efforts by political challengers to upend them.

Of all the countries in Latin America, Venezuela, suffering a deep economic malaise, remains far and away the leading example of its most politically unstable. But Bolivia, Cuba, and Honduras also provide clear-cut examples of places that will, to varying degrees, become more unstable over the next decade. It's impossible to predict exactly when events, or even specifically which events, could destabilize those countries, but it's clear that the governments of all three will face increasing challenges to their rule. In Bolivia, the leftist government of President Evo Morales is losing ground among voters hungry for political change — yet Morales has resisted the growing wave of political opposition. In Honduras, a populist political coalition threatens to unseat the ruling rightist coalition, which is striving to remain in power as long as possible despite the threat of violent unrest. In Cuba, a shift away from President Raul Castro's rule and an eventual lifting of the U.S. trade embargo will bring with it more competition for political power and financial benefits, which will erode the stable political order created over several decades by the Communist Party.

Riot police in La Paz chase medical students, who were protesting changes to Bolivia's malpractice laws.

Medical students protesting a new law in Bolivia proposing sanctions for malpractice run from riot police in La Paz on Dec. 19, 2017. As President Evo Morales' popularity wanes, the challenges to the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party will rise.


Bolivia: The Government's Political Pull Erodes

As Morales, president since 2006, loses his grip on Bolivia's political system, instability there will grow. The president, who won re-election in 2014 with 61 percent of the vote, still enjoys some popularity (around half of Bolivian voters still approve of his rule), but support for him and the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party has shown signs of slipping. In 2016, voters narrowly rejected a referendum that would have allowed Morales to run for re-election in 2019 despite reaching the limit on terms mandated by the Bolivian Constitution. Despite his defeat at the ballot box, a subsequent Constitutional Court ruling paved the way for Morales' re-election bid by removing the term limit provision.

Even so, a growing number of voters are shifting away from Morales, despite the country's strong economic growth in recent years. Although unemployment has shrunk and Bolivia's economy has grown by around 30 percent since Morales took office (largely due to increasing natural gas exports to Brazil and Argentina), many of the jobs created pay poorly. Morales' waning popularity among the electorate doesn't bode well for MAS, which is closely identified with the president and can feature no other political figure to match Morales. The president's administration has already demonstrated its willingness to keep Morales afloat politically — resorting to the judicial decision on term limits when popular support proved lacking. Without him on the ballot, MAS runs the risk of a greater political defeat in 2019.

The 2019 election will be the clearest potential flashpoint for political instability in Bolivia. There will be little the government can do to remain in power if it suffers a decisive loss. But if Morales' popularity continues to hover around 50 percent, a close electoral race could result. A hotly contested election, particularly one in which accusations of voter fraud fly, runs the risk of inflaming an already tense domestic political scene. Demonstrations would spread, particularly in eastern provinces such as Santa Cruz, a hub of the Bolivian political opposition's strength. To defend its legitimacy in case of a close vote, the government would mobilize its own voters, raising the possibility of widespread transport disruptions and violent confrontations between groups of political opponents. Such confrontations run the risk of spiraling into a wave of protests and counterprotests, since a close election could give the Bolivian opposition grounds to claim it's the legitimate heir to power. That situation could bring about the risk of a brief period of possibly violent political confrontation across the country.

Cuban President Raul Castro (L) is scheduled to hand over power to Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2018.

Cuban President Raul Castro (L) plans to hand power over to Miguel Diaz-Canel in what is expected to be a smooth transition. A challenge to the central government's control would arise after the United States lifts its embargo and dollars flow into the island nation.


Cuba: The Communist Party's Internal Challenges

To most observers, Cuba may appear to be an unlikely candidate for political instability. After all, it has a robust internal security apparatus and there are no meaningful domestic political challengers to the Communist Party. But that state of affairs will likely change once the U.S. trade embargo on the island nation is lifted. Despite deteriorating political ties between Havana and Washington, Cuba will continue to press to have the embargo lifted — and despite the prevailing sentiment in the White House, a thawing of relations is likely, at least eventually. While Cuba's sitting government is ideologically hostile to Washington, its state-run economic model is unsustainable without assistance from abroad. To forestall heavier austerity measures, the Cuban administration will attempt a slow economic opening to the outside world. As part of that effort, it will negotiate a lifting of the embargo imposed by its neighbor after the Cuban revolution. Among most U.S. politicians and companies, lifting the embargo is a relatively popular proposal, although the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated stricter limits on the relationship between the countries after a brief thaw under his predecessor.

If it eventually happens, lifting the embargo would provide an economic windfall for Cuba, mainly in the form of greater tourism revenue and related economic growth. But a greater inflow of dollars into a post-Castro Cuba is a recipe for greater political instability in the long run. The U.S. private sector would likely see lifting the embargo as a long-term benefit, albeit accompanied by a greater risk of upending the traditional, Communist-enforced political balance. While Raul Castro, now 86, would likely have died by the time the embargo is fully lifted, power will rest with a new civilian president whose authority will rest on the approval of the armed forces. The system the Castro brothers established over several decades prioritized political stability by giving direct relatives and associates of the president, such as Raul Castro's son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez, control of key government institutions. These include Rodriguez Lopez's control of a tourism conglomerate that administers much of the island's dollar revenue. Greater tourism revenue would create more opportunities for economic growth, which in Cuba's state-run economy would translate into more money and political power for prominent members of the armed forces. A lucrative, state-run tourism sector in the hands of few military leaders may turn into a tempting target for other members of the military who feel they are being left out.

Such instability would take years to materialize, however. Raul Castro has likely carefully orchestrated his transition of power — planned for this year — to civilian leader Miguel Diaz Canel. The Castro-era stability will likely persist for years after that power transition. As part of any deal to lift the U.S. embargo, Cuba's government would have to make democratic reforms — strengthening the influence of opposition parties in power. Cuba has no sustained history of peaceful political transitions, and so ultimate power rests with whoever can command the most security units. Currently, that command rests firmly with the presidential administration, but as economic opportunities spread out, competing poles of power could arise in the Cuban government. With stronger opposition parties and the potential for factionalization in the post-Castro government, Cuba appears set to become more politically unstable even as more U.S. tourists visit and U.S. companies come to see it as an easier place in which to do business.

Supporters of Honduran presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla clash with soldiers and riot police in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 30, 2017.
Even though Honduran authorities declared incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, supporters of the other candidates considered their loss to be the result of widespread voter fraud by the administration.

Honduras: The Left and Right Struggle for Control

In Honduras, political instability is already present, but future election cycles will only aggravate it. Honduran politics, long the bastion of the rightist National Party and the more centrist Liberal Party, are now sharply split between the ruling National Party and the more leftist opposition alliance spearheaded by former president Manuel Zelaya's Liberty and Refoundation Party. Zelaya's party split from the Liberal Party after he was overthrown in a 2009 military coup. In recent years, high-profile incidents of corruption by the National Party have reduced its support among voters. For the Nov. 25 presidential election, the opposition's addition of popular sportscaster Salvador Nasralla to the ballot helped it closely compete with the National Party — the final margin was less than a percentage point. Even though Honduran authorities declared incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, Nasralla and Zelaya's followers widely considered their loss the result of widespread voter fraud by the incumbent administration.

The political left can clearly gain enough votes in Honduras to closely contest elections. But the entrenched, politically conservative business class in Honduras will perceive a leftist presidency as a threat to its economic benefits and political power. Though Hernandez (their preferred presidential candidate) is poised to begin a second term, the leftist coalition under Zelaya will likely again contest the presidency in 2021. Honduran politics have settled into a pattern of polarization in which the leftist opposition generally considers that it has twice been denied the chance to rule — once in the 2009 coup, and again in the 2017 elections. This resentment among opposition voters will drive further instability in coming years, which will compound the drivers (such as economic hardship and drought) that are already pushing people to immigrate illegally to the United States.

Between now and the 2021 presidential election, the main risk in Honduras will be posed by a higher incidence of protest activity. Any unpopular moves by the sitting administration, such as tax hikes, will unleash thousands of demonstrators onto the streets of major cities such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Opposition factions could also become radicalized to the point that they carry out frequent vandalism or attacks against the assets of Honduran business leaders or foreign companies. The next election may also bring with it further political instability similar to the recent unrest. Unless the presidential administration manages to drive a wedge between opposition leaders and prevent them from successfully contesting power, it runs the risk of another close race (or outright defeat) in 2021.

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