A Receding Tide?: The Left in Latin America Today

Most sensible commentators will tell you today that the Pink Tide is over.

Most sensible commentators will tell you today that the Pink Tide - the wave of Leftist movements and politicians which swept to power across Latin America between in the first decade of this century - is over. Disappointing election results, corruption investigations and the loss of inspirational leaders have meant, apparently, that the Right is now resurgent across the continent of Guevara, Castro and Chávez.

Or at least that’s what they want you to think.

In fact, tales of the Pink Tide’s death have been premature and greatly exaggerated. While there have doubtlessly been a number of important losses and narrow victories in recent years, there has also been a wave of popular mobilisations and social movements which have emerged to defend the progress made in the last decade, and push for change in the future.

This is crucial, because critiques of the Pink Tide have tended to focus on the role of politicians and political parties, and have measured its success by the rate of electoral victories (or potential for “state capture”) across Central and South America. Without an overall view of the popular mobilisations which have supported Leftist parties, Right critiques of the Pink Tide have argued that it is characterised by authoritarian tendencies. Left critiques, on the other hand, have argued that centre-Left, social democratic parties are insufficient for generating counter-hegemonic projects and lasting social change.

Whilst there are certainly important elements of truth to this Leftist critique, it does not pay sufficient attention to three aspects of the Pink Tide. Firstly, to the counter-hegemonic potential of socialist projects in Bolivia and Venezuela (both supported by significant social movements) where, despite the economic problems caused by a global fall in commodity prices, a return to the old conservative Right seems unlikely. Secondly, whilst centre-Left parties in other countries have introduced only limited reforms, they have engaged actively in forms of regional co-operation (Mercosur, BancoSur) which can be seen as constructing a regional alternative under the rhetoric of anti-US imperialism. Finally, in countries with centre-Left Presidents and crucially also in countries in which the Pink Tide has had minimal electoral success, there have also been effective social mobilisations in order to defend the limited gains of recent years, or to push for new social changes in the near future. Whilst electoral defeats and the loss of important leaders are certainly damaging, these movements suggest that we are not witnessing the death of the Pink Tide, but perhaps the beginning of its Second Wave.

The ebbs and flows of the Pink Tide

The first decade of this century saw Leftist political parties and Presidential candidates achieve significant success in elections across Latin America. Between 2003 and 2015, Néstor & Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva & Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and Tabaré Vázquez & José Mujica in Uruguay came to power in their respective countries on centre-Left platforms, with the aim of reversing some of the neoliberal reforms enacted in the previous decade. In Bolivia, Evo Morales became the country’s first indigenous President, with a distinctly left-wing programme focused on reducing poverty, inequality, and US influence in the Bolivian economy. Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Paraguay saw the election of significantly Left-wing Presidents (Rafael Correa in 2007, Daniel Ortega also 2007, and Fernando Lugo in 2008 respectively) whilst Hugo Chávez survived serious challenges to his Bolivarian Revolution in 2002 and 2004. Across South and Central America, the Left was in the ascendancy.

These election victories didn’t just have significant impact in national contexts, but also saw an increase in international co-operation. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA – Spanish acronym) was established in 2004 as a trade treaty between Cuba and Venezuela, and today has eleven members (including Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and several Caribbean nations). Mercosur (a sub-regional trading bloc and customs union) was expanded in order to promote co-operation and free trade between full members (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela) and associate members (Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Suriname). And the Banco del Sur (“Bank of the South”) was established in 2009, by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, in order to encourage lending between nations in order to fund infrastructure investment and social programmes.

However, this wave of success and optimism for the Latin American Left appears to have receded in the past few years. Peru’s President Ollanta Humala (2011-16), for example, signed an agreement before his inauguration to maintain the structures of Peru’s neoliberalised economy. In Argentina, Fernández de Kirchner has been replaced by the centre-right Mauricio Macri, and Michel Temer came to power in Brazil after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. In addition to this, the deaths of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro have created uncertainty about the future of two of Latin America’s greatest socialist projects. All across the continent, the progress made during the Pink Tide years appears to be being rolled back and undone.

Causes for hope

Taken out of context, electoral defeats, charges of corruption & fraud, and the loss of important leaders appear to have had a disastrous effect for Leftist politicians across Latin America, and to have created the perfect circumstances for a resurgent Right to begin a new hegemonic “tide” of their own.

However, there are some causes for hope. After losing in 2010, Michelle Bachelet returned to the Presidency in Chile in 2014, and Lenín Moreno (former Vice President to Rafael Correa) won a narrow victory to continue Ecuador’s own particular brand of developmental-environmental socialism. Yet focusing only on electoral results and state capture belies some of the deeper causes and legacies of the Pink Tide. In Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela, Leftist Presidents came to power (and have had it reinforced, or challenged) on a wave of popular mobilisation. Whilst Rousseff and Maduro have faced significant right-wing opposition resulting in either their impeachment or a significant weakening of their position, there have been significant popular movements to resist the Right’s return to power. This has been perhaps most visibly demonstrated in the “Fora Temer!” protests against Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and the installation of Michel Temer as President, in Brazil. However, there is also evidence from Venezuela that Chavismo retains widespread public support as a project to build a “genuine, participatory democracy”.

In Argentina, there have been numerous large protests against foreign fruit imports, and against job losses and right-wing economic policy, whilst the #NiUnaMenos movement (which mobilised to protest violence against women) has also grown quickly. Even in Peru - which, since 1990, has seen Presidents from across the political spectrum adhere to an extractivist, neoliberal doctrine - recent years have seen large protests: against the candidacy of Keiko Fujimori (daughter of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori), the #NiUnaMenos marches, protests against the Tia María mining project, and most recently widespread teachers’ strikes in Cusco and Ayacucho.

Despite electoral losses, these mobilisations offer hope for the future of the Latin American Left and have led some to suggest that the Pink Tide is far from over. As the historian Alejandro Velasco has argued (in relation to Venezuela), social movements don’t just have the potential to bring progressive politicians to power, but can also challenge them to go further in reforms, revoke the legitimacy once bestowed on them, and create new programmes to work towards. Therefore, the Left (in Latin America and around the globe) should not look at the Pink Tide as a missed opportunity or political defeat, but as a transitory moment of success which provides clues as to how to mobilise, win elections, and achieve deeper social change in the future.


Daniel Willis (@not_djw)

Daniel Willis writes about Latin American history and politics, with a particular focus on Peru, global commodity chains and extractivism.