By Andres Oppenheimer

Every year brings about changes, but 2012 is likely to be an especially eventful one in the Americas: there will be elections in the United States, Mexico and Venezuela, as well as other news events that could change the political map in the region.

Consider some of the things that will happen in the coming year:

- The July 1 elections in Mexico. The conventional wisdom is that front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- the once authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000 -- will win.

But because Mexico has three major political parties and an electoral system that contemplates no runoff election, any of the three candidates, including left-of-center hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- could win by a tiny margin of votes. After 12 years of rule by the center-right National Action Party, it wouldn't be surprising to see a change of guard in Mexico.

- The Oct. 7 elections in Venezuela. Despite electoral rules written to favor Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and uncontrolled government spending to support his election for a third term in office, which would end in 2019, there is growing discontent with Chávez's chaotic narcissist-Leninist model.

Street crime is at record highs, economic growth is one of South America's lowest despite a record oil bonanza in recent years, and a recent ranking by Transparency International placed Venezuela among the world's most corrupt countries.

Some polls show that Chávez may lose the 2012 election, but he may win thanks to a combination of massive government handouts, tighter press censorship and voter intimidation, if not outright fraud.

- The Nov. 6 U.S. elections. President Obama is running for a second term as the United States struggles to emerge from one of the worst economic crises in memory.

If the U.S. economy worsens in coming months, Republicans could return to the White House.

So far, however, it looks like Obama will win. The economy is recovering, although at a snail's pace, and his Republican rivals are destroying one another in a fierce primary campaign. Perhaps more importantly, Republican hopefuls have adopted such extremist anti-immigration stands in their quest to win right-wing votes in the primaries, that most of them are highly unlikely to win the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that pollsters say any Republican candidate would need to win the presidency.

- The April 14 Summit of the Americas. For only the second time since taking office, Obama will meet with all presidents of the Americas, except Cuba's, at a summit to be held in Cartagena, Colombia.

Obama will be at the height of his re-election campaign effort to capture a huge majority of U.S. Hispanic vote. In addition, he will need to respond to the recent creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean nations, or CELAC, a diplomatic group that excludes the United States, and that Chávez wants to replace the Washington-based Organization of American States.

Obama will have to come up with bold proposals to regain U.S. diplomatic clout in the region, and is likely to make headlines at the summit.

- The June 4 summit of the Alliance of the Pacific. The group, made up of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile plans to sign an economic integration treaty at a summit in Chile that would be much more ambitious than existing Latin American economic treaties, such as Mercosur. Among other things, the four countries are setting up a joint stock exchange.

My opinion: Of course, there will be several other big news events -- including Pope Benedict XVI planned visit to Cuba -- that will draw a lot of media attention, but one of the key trends to watch in the region will be whether we will be witnessing a split of the Americas into a Pacific bloc and an Atlantic bloc.

Obama recently proclaimed that the United States "is a Pacific country," and is teaming up with several Asian countries, as well as Mexico and Canada, to create an expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could counter China's economic might and may become the world's largest trading bloc.

Latin America's Pacific rim countries may decide their future lies in becoming a bridge between Asia and the U.S. market. And Latin America's Atlantic rim countries may decide that their future lies in following Brazil, as the region's first emerging world power.

In short, 2012 promises to be anything but boring.


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