With 2020 just around the corner, the time has come to look ahead and consider what the new year might have in store. 2019 is coming to an end and there’s a large amount of geopolitical uncertainty in the air. Some of the usual-suspect hotspots are simmering, domestic politics in a handful of European nations are causing headaches for the European Union, and a few areas of the world regional powers are making diplomatic, economic, and military moves that can only be described as being hegemonic.
At first glance, the geopolitical situation appears to be quite similar to what it was one year ago on this day. However, there are a number of variables lurking just beneath the surface which can potentially turn a given hotspot into a raging conflagration with the right amount of coaxing, or neglect. North Korea and Iran are the two examples that immediately come to mind but there are others.
2020 could also be the year when the great-power competition shifts into high gear. The US, Russia, India, and China have all been positioning themselves, and making respective preparations in anticipation of a point in the future when moves will be made. Syria is one place where the ambitions of multiple powers have clashed to create a fast-moving conflict with ill-defined goals. Now it seems Libya is on the verge of becoming a smaller version of Syria.
Over the weekend and through Christmas Day we’ll evaluate a handful of potential 2020 flashpoints, and then break out the crystal ball to forecast what might occur over the coming 12 months in areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean, North Korea, the Persian Gulf, and South America.
The expulsion of Evo Morales from the presidency of Bolivia marks the end of a South American leftist, authoritarian ruler who abused his power excessively, ignored the will of the people, and all but exiled democracy from the country. When all was said and done, Morales went a step too far and it was too much for the Bolivian people to take. The 20 October, 2019 election results were clearly fraudulent, and bent in Morales favor artificially. The people took to the streets in protest. Evidence of voter fraud surfaced, international pressure grew, and the protests continued, becoming larger, and now included police officers marching side by side with private citizens.
After 19 days of protests, the police and military demanded the resignation of Morales. He addressed the nation, announced he was resigning from office, and has disappeared from sight. Rumors are circulating that warrants for his arrest have been issued and he’s on the run, but there has been no confirmation. Mexico has offered asylum to the former president, and claims Morales is the victim of a military-backed coup.
What comes next for Bolivia remains to be seen. Morales was Bolivia’s longest serving president and his departure will leave a vacuum. The stage looks to be set for a period of unrest. In the streets, supporters of the former president are constructing barricades and preparing for a long, drawn out struggle. The political leadership picture is fluid at the moment. Along with Morales, a number of senior government officials also resigned, including the vice president. Questions about the nature of the upheaval also need to be answered. Was this a military revolt, or a democratic uprising?
As the questions are answered, and post-Morales Bolivia gets sorted out, it would be valuable to look around the rest of South America and wonder what comes next. There are other nations there contending with similar problems at the moment. South America is rife with instability, and leftist authoritarian leaders. If this can happen in Bolivia, it can easily happen elsewhere.
Venezuela, I was staring directly at you as I typed that last sentence.
Political instability has reared its head in another South American nation this week. On Tuesday, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno announced a multi-billion dollar fiscal reform package which would eliminate fuel subsidies. This would raise the price of gasoline and diesel dramatically, perhaps even doubling it in some instances. Yesterday, as soon as the new fuel prices went into effect, the protests began in Ecuador’s capital city Quito, and its largest city of Guayaquil. A nationwide transportation strike was also called. Protesters blocked streets, burned tires and fought with police through the day. Moreno declared a state of emergency to ‘avoid chaos,’ and it went into effect last night.
He added that there is no chance his government will change policies now, “especially those related to a perverse subsidy that was causing harm to the country.” Government sources claim 275 protesters were arrested and 28 police officers suffered injuries.
Ecuador is currently struggling with a high level of public debt. The fiscal reform package is part of Moreno’s austerity policies. Many Ecuadorians believe the policies are the result of a $4 Billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Moreno has also announced that Ecuador will be leaving OPEC in January, 2020. This move allows the nation to increase its oil production and exports beyond the cartel’s imposed limits. Ecuador’s exit will not cause a shakeup in the world oil market given that it is OPEC’s smallest member in terms of oil production.
The fate of the Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan remains unknown this evening. The diesel sub has been missing for two days. The last communication between San Juan and higher headquarters was on Wednesday. She was in the area of San Jorge bay at the time. Although an Argentinian Navy spokesman told local television that the sub cannot be considered lost yet, the search was formally classified as a search and rescue operation earlier tonight. A NASA P-3C Orion that was in Argentina for an unrelated exercise was offered by the US to assist in the search. Buenos Aries accepted the offer and the Orion is actively taking part in the operation. Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Britain and South Africa have also formally offered assistance. A Chilean patrol aircraft is on its way to join the search at the moment. It is unclear whether or not Argentina has accepted any other offers of assistance.
The search efforts are being hampered by high winds and rough seas in the area. Time is critical in an active search and rescue operation involving a sub potentially in danger. The longer the search drags out, the more likely it becomes that San Juan has suffered a catastrophic malfunction, or other type of emergency.
San Juan is a diesel-electric submarine built by Thyssen Nordseewerke in Germany. She was commissioned in 1985 and served without major issue. Her mid-life upgrade took place between 2008 and 2013. Since then San Juan has taken part in routine operations and exercises in the waters around Argentina. She has a compliment of 37 but was carrying a slightly larger crew of 44 during this cruise.
The days of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his regime might finally be numbered. Massive protests were staged on Wednesday in Caracas and across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the government as the nation marked the 207th anniversary of the revolution that led to its independence. The anti-Maduro sentiment boiled over into violence with dozens injured and at least three people known to have been killed. National Guard and government-backed militias clashed with protesters in a series of running battles. More protests are expected to take place today and through the weekend.
Opposition groups in Venezuela were galvanized by the Supreme Court’s attempt to dissolve the opposition-dominated legislature. Venezuela’s Supreme Court is controlled by loyalists to Maduro. The move set off a firestorm of dissent, so much so that Maduro ordered the court to backtrack on much of its ruling. Since then, Maduro has continued to tighten his hold on power through other measures such as barring his most likely candidate in the next presidential election from holding political office for 15 years.
This latest protest movement is different from previous ones that sought the removal of the government from power. The demands this time are centered around a timetable for elections, which the opposition is confident it will win. Along with the new strategy comes a renewed presence in the streets that does not appear ready to lose energy.
Despite the prolonged opposition and protest movements aligned against him, Maduro has survived and continues to hold power. As the political and economic crises facing Venezuela continue, Maduro remains committed to his strategy of applying a socialist band aid to the country’s wounds. Yesterday, authorities seized a General Motors factory in Valencia. Normal operations are no longer possible and GM has announced it is suspending operations in the country. It’s not clear exactly how seizing the factory will help the Venezuelan economy. Realistically, the move was probably made to rally support from Maduro’s political base.
Maduro’s take on the here and now has always been suspect. While the nation suffers, he is either unwilling or incapable of putting forward effective measures to push Venezuela back onto an even keel. As the opposition strengthens and protests intensify, Maduro’s inaction makes him appear more like Nero and Venezuela more like Rome with each passing day.