Andres Oppenheimer

Latin America will make big news in 2018, and not just because of six elections

leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is leading in the polls for the July 1 presidential vote.
leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is leading in the polls for the July 1 presidential vote. AP

An old joke among foreign correspondents in Latin America says that Americans will do almost everything for Latin America — except read or watch news about it. But that may not hold true in 2018: It’s going to be a year in which the region will make big headlines worldwide.

Here are six major reasons why:

First, in 2018 there will be presidential elections in Mexico and Brazil, the two biggest countries in the region, as well as in Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay and Costa Rica. That means that nearly 80 percent of Latin America’s population will be electing presidents in the coming year.

In Mexico, leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is leading in the polls for the July 1 presidential vote. If he wins, perhaps helped by a nationalist reaction to President Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican rants, the United States may for the first time in recent history have a detached — if not hostile — neighbor.

That could hurt the United States badly, because Mexico is the third-largest U.S. trading partner, and its government’s cooperation is key to fighting trans-national drug cartels and organized crime. Furthermore, the United States would lose a key regional ally in its efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Second, the Trump administration is expected to announce in 2018 whether it will withdraw from the 1994 Free Trade Agreement of North America (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. Trade between the United States and Mexico supports 4.8 million U.S. jobs, including 566,000 in California, 382,000 in Texas and 290,000 in Florida, according to Wilson Center figures.

Third, Cuba’s dictator Raúl Castro, 86, has vowed to resign in April 2018. While he is likely to step down from his jobs as head of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, he probably will retain the important job of First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party and continue to be a power behind the scenes.

For the time being, Cuba is likely to continue being a repressive military regime, but there will be a huge media show surrounding the appointment of Castro’s hand-picked successor, rumored to be current Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Fourth, the eighth Summit of the Americas — held every three years, and at which the U.S. president meets with the leaders of virtually all countries in the region — is scheduled to take place in Lima, Peru, on April 13.

Sources close to Trump’s foreign policy team tell me that the president is not likely to attend the Lima meeting. However, a senior White House official emailed me that the administration “has not yet announced the president’s travel plans for 2018.”

If Trump does not attend, he would be the first U.S. president to skip the Summit of the Americas since the first was held in Miami in 1994.

Fifth, Argentina is scheduled to host the G-20 meeting — the summit of the heads of state of the world’s wealthiest countries — on Nov. 30. If Trump dodges the Summit of the Americas in Lima and attends the meeting of global economic superpowers in Argentina, it would be his first trip to Latin America as president.

Sixth, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe may turn into a regional migration crisis in 2018. While more than 2 million Venezuelans have already fled the country since the late President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, millions more could follow in the near future, escalating tensions in the region.

For the first time, Venezuela reached hyperinflation levels of more than 50 percent a month in late 2017, and the International Monetary Fund is projecting a 2,400 percent inflation rate in 2018. That’s likely to lead to greater economic chaos and harsher political repression, which may result in a social explosion or massive emigration.

Several of these events could change Latin America’s political map in 2018. There may be good news or bad, but one thing is sure: It won’t be a boring year in the region.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera