The 21st Century

Towards the end of the 1990s and into the 21st century, things took a remarkable turn for the better in South America. A rising middle class, falling poverty rates and strong economies were hallmarks of the early 2000s. As the continent veered to the left, wage disparities fell slightly and social justice seemed to be the hot topic of the day.

Progressives like former Brazilian president Lula helped pave the way, demonstrating that you could both grow an economy and help lift people out of poverty. Machismo took a blow, with the first female presidents in South America helping to break down barriers. Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile all recently served as presidents of some of South America's largest economies. Leaders from indigenous backgrounds also emerged on the political stage, including Evo Morales of Bolivia and Alejandro Toledo of Peru.

On other fronts, there have been equally dramatic changes in recent years. Gay marriage has been legalized in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and three other countries (Chile, Colombia and Ecuador) have a form of same-sex civil union. Gay marriage is also legal in French Guiana, which is considered part of France.

On the downside, political corruption remains pervasive in South America. In Brazil, one of the largest scandals in the nation's history (a staggering US$3 billion bribery and money-laundering scheme) brought down many politicians and heads of industry, and led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. In Argentina, former president Cristina Kirchner had to deal with damaging allegations that she and her late husband (who was president before her) enriched themselves at taxpayers' expense. Likewise, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has also found herself embroiled in a corruption scandal – involving abuse of power by her son – which has led to her plummeting popularity ratings.

In recent years, South American economies have struggled with falling currencies and rising unemployment. Rural poverty remains a gripping problem in every country in South America, with many families still struggling with basic needs: adequate nutrition, health care and clean water. And one in seven still live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than US$2.50 per day.