© 2022 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Latin America Report

Populists, Immigrants, Refugees – And Women – Dominated Latin America In 2018

Tim Padgett
WORST HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: An exhausted Venezuelan refugee tries to give her toddler son shade while waiting for food stamps in Cucuta, Colombia, this year.

Immigrant caravans – and family separation. Venezuela and Nicaragua rocked by refugee and human rights crises. Someone not named Castro becoming president of Cuba; Brazil and Mexico electing populists as presidents – one of them with a big reputation for sexism. But women surging big at the polls, too.

To review some of Latin America and the Caribbean’s top stories of 2018, WLRN’s Tim Padgett sat down with Felicia Knaul of the University of Miami. Knaul heads UM’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas and is a public health professor there. She’s also worked for the governments of Mexico and Colombia.

Excerpts from their conversation:

WLRN: It’s of course noteworthy – especially in South Florida – that for the first time in six decades, a Castro is no longer president of Cuba now that Raúl Castro stepped down last spring and had the National Assembly elect Miguel Díaz-Canel to the office. But in reality little else will change in Cuba any time soon. So let’s start with the more important rise of the populists in Latin America’s two biggest countries, Brazil and Mexico.

Credit Brynn Anderson / AP
Undocumented immigrant children detained and separated from their families entering a shelter in Homestead.

Felicia, you’re a Mexico expert – and I should mention your husband, University of Miami President Julio Frenk, is Mexico’s former health minister. Left-winger Andrés Manuel López Obrador took over as president there this month. Can he finally fix Mexico’s problems of poverty, corruption and drug violence – or is he just another demagogue?

KNAUL: I have to tell you I’m worried. I’m worried particularly about several of our – and I say our because I’m still a permanent resident of Mexico – our social programs. Seguro Popular, for example, is a proven win – The Economist called it a global highlight – which gives health insurance to 55 million mostly poor Mexicans, improves access to care and reduces catastrophic health spending. Yet this month they confirmed it would be closed. Mexico has one of the most impressive anti-poverty programs in the world. And at the real core of it is the woman head of household – and giving her the power to have ownership of some funds, and having those translate into improvements in health and education and even income generation for the family. Right now, they’re attempting to close the program.

Credit AP
New Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Meaning López Obrador?


But López Obrador says what he wants to do instead is develop his own anti-poverty program – maybe even in conjunction with President Trump – to curtail immigration from Mexico and especially Central America, which launched all the desperate immigrant caravans we saw arrive at the U.S. border this year and resulted in widely criticized U.S. policies like migrant family separation.

Nothing would make me happier. But I’m worried we are throwing away the baby with bathwater in Mexico to serve a leftist-populist agenda.

READ MORE: Dictatorship, Disaster, Donald: Latin America, Caribbean Say Good Riddance to 2017

Populist right-winger Jair Bolsonaro gets sworn in next week as president of Brazil. He’s made public jokes about rape – and says women should not earn as much as men do. He's also notorious for fascist, racist and homophobic rhetoric. He’s now the leader of Latin America’s largest country. How worried should the rest of the hemisphere be?

We should be incredibly worried about this year's rise of left-wing and right-wing populists in Latin America. I also worry that our U.S. president is encouraging that certain kind of governance in the region. –Felicia Knaul

We should be incredibly worried. Here in the United States we have a sitting president who has also, shall we say, “suffered” accusations of misogyny. It is encouraging a certain kind of governance throughout Latin America – an acceptance of disgracing of women.

In contrast, women did great at the polls this year. From Mexico to Argentina, many national legislatures became almost half female. Colombia’s new federal cabinet is half female. Are women in Latin America breaking the leadership ceiling?

Well, I think we’ve seen women breaking the leadership ceiling in Latin America for several decades now.

True – Latin America and the Caribbean have had half a dozen female heads of state. That’s half a dozen more than the United States has had.

Credit AP
Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro

Exactly. What we’re seeing now is incredible improvements in the legislatures. We are seeing these gender quota policies having some positive effects.

You’re talking about the number of women the parties in many Latin American countries must now nominate to run…

Right. And the important thing now is that in order to take advantage of these increasing opportunities, Latin American institutions have to offer maternity leave and long-term care leave for families that isn’t just tied to formal or private-sector labor force participation.


We also saw quite a surge of women candidates in mid-term elections here in the U.S. Do you think that will have a positive effect in Latin America?

Credit Natacha Pisarenko / AP
Women in Argentina demonstrate for abortion rights.

Yes, just as I think a Hillary Clinton victory [in the 2016 U.S. presidential election] would have had a big effect in the region. I think it will help women in Latin America find a stronger voice in politics and business, too. I think it can counterbalance some of that out-of-control machismo we were talking about earlier.

We saw incredible improvements in women breaking the leadership ceiling in Latin America's legislatures.

One female leader is not popular at all, though. Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo and her husband, President Daniel Ortega, have been widely condemned for their brutal response to protesters who want to get rid of their corrupt and authoritarian regime.

You’ve made a very important point. Gender does not make you a good person. Or a good politician. Or a defender of human rights. What we’re seeing in Nicaragua, with that kind of destabilization, we’re going to see increasing poverty. The reduction of tourism is going to be a kind of economic violence – as we’ve seen happening in Venezuela.

Right. Venezuela’s economic collapse is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history. The health ramifications alone – the acute malnutrition and lack of medical care among the Venezuelan refugees we saw this year. What are the long-term effects of this tragedy?

Even if today we could get food and medicines and health care into Venezuela, we have robbed a generation of the ability to be healthy and fully develop.

Credit Alfredo Zuniga / AP
Nicaraguans protesting the Ortega regime on the streets of Managua.

Speaking of health, you’re also doing important work on the lack of access to pain medication in Latin America and the Caribbean.

We have an opioid epidemic in the United States, but a pain crisis all over Latin America. In fact, we have the ability in Latin America to satisfy only about a third of the palliative care needs for pain relief. It really does mean that children with cancer, for example, are going to look on the street for opioids, which aren’t really medicines.

How much of that crisis stems from governments not wanting to give people the kind of access to opioids that led to the crisis we’re facing here?

A lot, but it’s often a false belief on their part. We’re seeing better policies emerging in a number of countries like Argentina – which has been very innovative in importing morphine powder and then setting up a private not-for-profit industry linked with the government that offers reasonable ways to access opioid medications.

An entire generation of Venezuelans has been robbed of the ability to be healthy and to fully develop.

How did you come to combine your two specialties, public health and the Americas?

I’m from Canada and I’m the daughter of migrants – my mother from Britain and my father a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland who came to Canada as a refugee. He’d suffered abuse and torture as a youth, and so I found myself drawn to work with street children in Guatemala because of the human rights abuses there during the scorched-earth genocide of the 1980s.

That’s also why I believe in the importance of accepting those who seek asylum. And it turns out it’s always the good thing to do in terms of the prosperity of host nations like the United States.

Credit University of Miami
Felicia Knaul

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.