12/29/2013 10:40 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Biggest News Stories From Latin America In 2013

Franco Origlia via Getty Images

It’s been quite a year for Latin America. We take a look at the moments that have brought joy and heartbreak to Latin America this year:

1. Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Catholic leader

The former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected in March as the first pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit.

Since taking over at the Vatican, Pope Francis has shaped the global conversation on religion by showing an openness to homosexuality and women’s leadership within the church, as well as by placing an emphasis on reforming the Vatican’s finances while addressing inequality and poverty around the world.

Time magazine selected Pope Francis as its Person of the Year , saying the Catholic Church’s new leader has changed the perception of the 2,000-year-old institution in an extraordinary way.

2. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez dies from cancer

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who went from a young conspiratorial soldier who dreamed of revolution to the fiery anti-U.S. leader of one of the world’s great oil powers, died March 5 in Caracas of complications from an unspecified cancer in his pelvic area.

He was 58 and had been president since 1999, longer than any other democratically elected leader in the Americas. After Chavez died, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who became Hugo Chavez’s protege, was declared the winner of Venezuela’s presidential election but the opposition refused to accept the result and demanded a recount of all the votes.

3. Uruguay approved to legalize marijuana

Uruguay is now the first country ever to legally regulate the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, after the House of Representatives approved a bill that now must discussed by the Senate.

Growers, sellers and consumers, all aged 18 and above, would be licensed by a confidential registry to keep people from buying more than 40 grams a month.

Anyone carrying, growing or selling without a license would face stiff punishments, including long prison terms.

President Jose Mujica has backed the law, despite polls showing two-thirds of Uruguayans are opposed to it.

“I have never tried it in my life and I don’t know what it is,” Mujica told a local radio station. “[I am aware] a lot of young people have tried it.”

The purpose of the bill would be to give the government legal control of the marijuana market, creating enough quality product to drive out illegal dealers and draw a line between pot smokers and those who use harder drugs.

4. Evo Morales plane rerouted on Snowden fear

President Evo Morales’ plane was rerouted while flying over Europe — when some European governments suspected NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden was on board.

Morales had sparked speculation that he might try to helped Snowden get out during a visit to Russia after he said that his country would be willing to consider granting him asylum. Austrian officials said Morales’ plane was searched by Austrian border police after Morales gave permission.

However Bolivian and Austrian officials both said Snowden was not on board. Morales called on Europeans to distance themselves from the United States after the incident.

“The United States is using its agent (Snowden) and the president (of Bolivia) to intimidate the whole region,” he said, as the Associated Press reported.

5. Colombian farmworker protest

Thousands of Colombian farmworkers staged protest marches in rural areas, demanding national dialogue on land access and government subsidies.

Organizers say they want President Juan Manuel Santos to set up a national dialogue to discuss land and other issues affecting farmworkers.

Backed by the FARC, the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, farmworkers called the open-ended protest to demand government subsidies for certain agricultural products, and lower prices for inputs like fertilizer.

Protesters were seeking guarantees on access to land, special land preserves for poor farmers, policies in support of traditional miners, improved delivery of health care and potable water in rural areas.

6.Michelle Bachelet wins presidential election in Chile

President-elect Michelle Bachelet vowed to initiate profound changes after winning the seat by the biggest victory in eight decades.

“The social and political conditions are here and at last the moment has arrived,” Bachelet said after winning 62 percent of the vote in a runoff against the center-right’s candidate, Evelyn Matthei.

“If I’m here it’s because we believe that a Chile for everyone is necessary,” Michelle Bachelet added. “It won’t be easy, but when has it been easy to change the world?”

Bachelet will be sworn in on March 11, 2014, giving President Sebastian Pinera nearly three months left in office.

7. Protests in Brazil

Hundreds of thousands of frustrated Brazilians took to the streets in at least eight cities throughout the year to protest the price hike in public transportation, a downturn in the economy, the handling of funds for the 2014 World Cup and the increase in crime.

More than 250,000 people, most of them young, took to the streets of major cities to rail against the $15 billion being spent on the ongoing Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup, to the detriment of investment in health and education.

The AP reported, “Many are angry that billions of dollars in public funds are being spent to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics while few improvements are made elsewhere.”

8.Obama shakes hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro

President Barack Obama shook hands with Raul Castro, president of Cuba, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg.

In 2000, president Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro at a lunch for world leaders taking part in a United Nations summit. Today the gesture is considered a politically significant move when both countries are taken small steps to improve the political relations that were frozen soon after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

The handshake between Obama and Castro came during a ceremony at the FNB stadium in Soweto that’s focused on Nelson Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation.

9. Tough times looming for Cristina Fernandez

President Cristina Fernandez has tried to reinvent her image since her return from skull surgery. She’s put aside the all-black wardrobe she wore for three years mourning her late husband Nestor Kirchner, and reshuffled her Cabinet. This week, her economy minister announced a new stimulus program.

Analysts, however, say what she really needs to do, and quickly, is take politically painful steps to contain inflation by dialing back government spending.

According to AP, restoring Argentina’s sense of pride and sovereignty after its 2001 economic collapse has been the central goal of the Kirchners’ “victorious decade” in the presidency.

They renegotiated or paid off nearly all of Argentina’s defaulted debt in ways that removed the supervision of international lending organizations, nationalized the pension system, retook control of the national airline and oil company, and dug deep into the treasury to redirect revenue to the poor.

10. Snowden documents allege U.S. spying on Brazil and Mexico

Documents leaked by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden allege that Washington spied on the presidents of Mexico and Brazil, further complicating relations weeks before Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit to the United States.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on the first day of its annual meeting, President Dilma Rousseff accused the US of violating Brazil’s sovereignty with what she called a “grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties.”

“In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations,” Rousseff said. “Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership, as in our case, cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal. They are unacceptable.”

The Mexican government also summoned the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Anthony Wayne, to protest the reported spying and delivered a diplomatic note demanding an exhaustive investigation.

“The government of Mexico rejects and categorically condemns any works of espionage against Mexican citizens in violation of international law,” a statement from the Mexican Foreign Ministry said.

Originally published on VOXXI as Top events that shook Latin American in 2013



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