Political Novelas, Rock Star Miners and Record Growth: A Latin American Year in Review

What a difference two centuries can make. As many Latin American nations marked their bicentennial in 2010, there was more to celebrate than just independence from Spain. The motherland may have brought home the World Cup, but in the face of a tanking economy that's about all the conquistadors had to celebrate. In the meantime, Latin America is on the rise with solid growth, stable democracies, an expanding middle class and digital explosion that looks set to allow the region to finally reach its long-latent potential. Sure, challenges still persist -- as evidenced by the catastrophic state Haiti finds itself in after a devastating earthquake -- but Latin America, for the most part, still produced its share of stories no less impressive or entertaining. A look back:

Telenovela Diplomacy. More than anywhere else WikiLeaks in Latin America read like the politics of the high school cafeteria, with Hillary Clinton as the resident mean girl, spreading rumors that her rival Cristina Kirchner is on meds; Hugo Chavez as the blowhard bully at head of the "Axis of Mischief," pulling pranks with his sidekicks, the conniving Castro boys; and Brazil as the popular new kid on the block who simply stands back and plays it cool.

The Rise of the Digital Class. Technology is wiring previously poor and remote areas. Emerging pockets of Class C consumers are snapping up smart phones and living more and more online. And in the super competitive digital coupon space, local start-ups like Peixe Urbano in Brazil and BuzzUrbano in Mexico are giving North American leader Groupon a run for their money. When it comes to the underlying psychology behind digital consumption, Latinos simply seem to have the cultural edge: they are more social, community-oriented, spontaneous, and always ready to respond to a good bargain.

A Mine Collapses, A Country Shines. You think Barack Obama had a challenging first year? Last spring Chilean President Sebastián Piñera ascended in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, and soon afterwards found himself orchestrating the Hollywood-style rescue of 33 miners trapped underground for more than 60 days. In the glare of the world's spotlight, Chile was cast as the little country that could, and displayed a level of organization, efficiency and professionalism that shows its status as the first Latin American member of the OECD is well deserved.

The War on Drugs Gains Ground. The battle is far from over, but Brazil and Mexico made some major advances this year against the organized drug cartels which had long held certain parts of its major urban areas hostage. Crime in Mexico City has decreased overall, due in large part to beefing up security and routing out corruption, while the Brazilian army won a major victory last month and regained control in one of Rio's most notorious slums. Of course more remains to be done, but just look at how far Colombia has come after a decade of enhanced enforcement: the world's once most-dangerous nation is now a most-desired destination, and steady job growth has offered former traffickers an excuse to go legit.

Not Just Her Hips Speak the Truth.
The World Cup in South Africa, the floor of the United Nations, sold-out arenas across the U.S.: brand Shakira was everywhere in 2010, and with good cause. As the head of her own foundation supporting early childhood education in Latin America and beyond, she has graced the world stage with politicians ranging from Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, elevating her to the ranks of global superstar with an influence that extends beyond the arts.

Peru Finally Gets Some Respect.
It's nice to see Peru gaining recognition for some of its less-ancient creations. First, there's Lima's sophisticated culinary scene, innovating new dishes with unique blends of Asian, European and indigenous flavors. Next, a thriving independent film community producing festival favorites like Undertow and Milk of Sorrow, which snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And to top it off, a Nobel Prize in Literature for native son Mario Vargas Llosa, a writer and former conservative political candidate who has come to be regarded worldwide as one of the most respected voices of the modern age.

The Rainbow Flies South. It's ironic how gay civil unions would be legalized in a region where the Catholic Church still holds sway before places like, say, New York City. But asi es. Buenos Aires started the wave a few years back -- perhaps to honor the fact that gay couples helped revive the city by snatching up real estate bargains and starting a raging design craze -- but this year legalization was extended nationwide. Most others in the region are quickly following suit recognizing that, religious politics aside, it's simply good for business.

A Rock Star Steps Down. No wrap up would be complete without a last shout out for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the outrageously popular president of Brazil who is finishing up his final term and abdicating early next year to the country's first woman leader in history. In less than a decade Lula whipped Brazil into tip-top shape to score the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and also set the stage for the country to start effectively competing in the global economic games.

A New Generation of Leaders Take the Stage. 2010 saw a swath of new democratically-elected leaders -- Piñera, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia -- and next year will bring elections in Argentina and Peru. Regardless of where these leaders fall politically, what they share is a pragmatic, measured approach to how to continue advancing globally without ignoring the domestic issues that could still potentially derail progress. But consider where most countries were just a few decades ago, and it's hard not to marvel at the leaps the region has made. Going forward, Latin America has its destiny firmly in hand, and looks more than ready for its close-up.