Pink Tide 2.0? The same trap awaits
In recent years, there has been a change of political direction in Latin America, which has brought left-wing governments into office, notably in Peru, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. This trend culminated in the electoral victory of Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro. Should Lula prevail in the Brazilian elections this year, then the six largest and economically strongest countries in Latin America would have presidents with a left-wing agenda.
For some, this political development in Latin America may elicit a déjà vu, as at the beginning of the 21st century, the region had already witnessed a series of electoral victories by left-wing and centre-left candidates. This political shift, which was called “pink tide”, brought among others Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to power. In light of the parallels between the developments then and now, various international media outlets are already talking about the emergence of a new “pink tide” in Latin America.
The term “pink tide” did not originate from the scientific literature, but was coined by US-journalists. Latin American countries that were not automatically pro-Western (i.e., pro-US), maintained friendly relations with Cuba and/or wanted to strengthen their relations with China were sweepingly put under a pink hat by the North American wordsmiths.
However, this friend/foe scheme also works in the opposite direction, namely in self-assured demarcation from the regional supremacy. Left-wing leaders of the first tide, regardless of their hue, found it difficult to articulate criticism towards Havana. Additionally, several of those governments joined ALBA, an alternative regional organisation founded in 2004 by Cuba and Venezuela with the aim of promoting economic cooperation and regional integration, as well as countering the influence of the United States and its planned Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA). Consequently, affiliation to the “pink tide” was indeed a source of self-identity.
Heterogeneity is the cue
The US blueprint, however, was based on only one characteristic, namely foreign policy orientation, and therefore diluted all other political differences of the various hues. Neither then nor now is this concept sufficient enough to portray such a complex mosaic of different state leaders and political ideologies. This becomes particularly clear when considering the various governments of the current left swing and those at the beginning of the 21st century.
The initial “pink tide” can be distinguished into three camps. There was one faction that represented a more social-democratic stance, which tried to combine a free-market orientation with social inclusion and, in its centre-left position, established alliances with liberal and Christian Democratic parties. In contrast, the other camp pursued a left-wing populist approach with a much stronger emphasis on redistribution as well as a strong state. It claimed to be the sole representative of the will of the people, which was accordingly associated with a stronger demarcation from other political currents. However, not all of these characteristics applied to a similar degree and intensity to the individual governments. For example, not all left-wing populist leaders were automatically authoritarian. To a greater or lesser extent, this pertained for instance to Chávez and Correa, but hardly to Morales or, later, Ollanta Humala. Moreover, the red-tinged Cuba epitomised its own group, which was included in the term “pink tide“.
The “pink tide” was already very diverse and included democrats like Michelle Bachelet in Chile and autocrats like Chávez in Venezuela; however, the current shift to the left includes an even more heterogeneous group of governments, which makes a homogenisation based on a single term further challenging.
A fundamental differentiator that highlights the heterogeneity of these newly elected left governments is, of course, their political ideologies. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, for example, pursues a very divergent agenda to that of Peruvian President Pedro Castillo or, if re-elected, the Lula administration. Boric’s inherently heterogeneous left-wing government could be characterised as having a social democratic foundation and is strongly associated with post-materialist demands stemming from new social movements. Castillo’s government, on the other hand, follows a Marxist discourse merged with a highland worldview and indigenous traditions, of which many are culturally conservative.
These approaches also lead to distinctly opposing political programs. On fundamental topics such as democracy, environmental protection and minority rights, positions diverge widely. Boric and Petro, for instance, embrace social demands that focus on identity-based emancipation and counteract a left-wing populist discourse by challenging societal homogeneity of “the people”. They advocate, just like Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, for more rights of the LGBTQ+ community, which is a novelty in the history of the South American left.
This contradicts the positions of the three left-wing leaders whose countries the Transformation Index BTI describes as hard-line autocracies, but which are also subsumed under Pink: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Politicians such as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Castillo also publicly oppose the implementation of comprehensive LGBTQ+ rights. Similar distinctions can be identified regarding attitudes toward the separation of powers and democratic institutions, as well as nationalist or cooperative alignment.
Due to this heterogeneity, it should be avoided to classify the various governments through a vague and multifunctional term. The label “pink tide” was already misleading 20 years ago. Today, with even more pronounced distinctions between the left-wing presidents and diverse foreign policy orientations, including some critical views of Cuba, such a generalization has become even more outdated and is by far too inaccurate to categorize a political trend. Therefore, with regard to the current shift to the left, it would be unwise to fall into the same trap and use the term “pink tide” again. It conceals more than it explains.
A not insignificant commonality
If the focus within the context of a “pink tide” is not on commonalities in foreign policy, the picture becomes clearer with regard to socioeconomic developments. A blatant widening of the gap between rich and poor is taking place on a continent that is already characterized by a pronounced level of social inequality, which has made a decisive contribution to the current shift to the left.
For several years, the prevailing trend in the region has been anti-incumbency, at least where elections are fair. On the one hand, this tendency can be attributed to the fact that voters rejected conservative governments that were struggling with economic stagnation. On the other hand, the pandemic turned back the clock for millions of people who belonged to the lower middle class. In this regard, the BTI wrote: „The coronavirus pandemic has exposed Latin America’s oft-cited economic structural weaknesses – extreme inequality, weak economic productivity and fractured social systems”.
The growing social injustice led to protests in several Latin American countries, such as Peru. These demonstrations were primarily directed against the conservative forces, but also towards the status-protecting parties of the centre, which appeared programmatically drained and untrustworthy. This development resulted, inter alia, in the lacklustre election results of the conservatives in Colombia.
Social injustice also contributed to the growing polarization of elections in Latin America in recent years, even in flagship democracies such as Chile. In times of increasing poverty and inequality, preserving the status quo is no longer conservative, but radical. This led to the equally fulminant and logical rise of radical right-wing demagogues such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, José Antonio Kast in Chile or Rodolfo Hernández in Colombia, who replaced the weakened conservatives for a bewildered middle and upper class. This will undoubtedly complicate efforts to build bipartisan consensus and implement difficult but necessary reforms for any government in the years ahead.
For this reason, it will be even more important for left-wing governments to develop a reform narrative that reaches beyond the boundaries of their own supporters, convincing and engaging broader segments of society. How difficult a balance between post-election euphoria and bitter right-wing opposition is in practice was recently experienced by the Chilean government, whose plans for a constitutional reform failed because of maximalist left-wing demands and particular interests in identity politics, as well as right-wing fundamental opposition. The Colombian government will face similar obstacles as it seeks economic transformation to achieve sustainable development and overcome „resource-driven growth predicated on access to cheap labor and capital”. Their planned decarbonisation of the economy will endure fierce resistance from established interest groups. Lula will find himself in a similar situation if he wins the elections in October against incumbent President Bolsonaro. The Brazilian Workers’ Party’s emancipatory reform narrative had lost its lustre when in office, as it has had to secure the support of the opportunistic and corrupt Centrão party bloc through grants and concessions in order to win a majority in parliament. Not surprisingly, Centrão currently backs Bolsonaro’s government.
The political, economic and social pressure for reforms is high and has led to the election of left-wing governments in numerous countries, which differ significantly in both ideology as well as programs and therefore elude a uniform “pink” coloration. Often, these left-wing candidates didn’t have the public majority behind them but were elected by a large number of voters due to a lack of alternatives. Some of these governments possess an understanding of an emancipatory yet consensus-oriented need for reforms as well as the heterogeneity of their societies that will make it easier for them to resist left-wing populist enticements.
The window of opportunity to develop a blueprint for reforms aimed towards more social justice, political emancipation and sustainable economic restructuring is likely of limited scope. The current shift to the left is not the first time in the last two decades that widespread discontent has led to intra-regional political upheavals. The governments associated with the first “pink tide” gained support in the widespread protests against social inequality, austerity measures and the privatisation of public resources resulting from the neoliberal economic model that prevailed in most countries of the region in the last decades of the 20th century. Equally, conservative parties gained support when commodity prices fell in the mid-2010s to some of the lowest levels of this century, which had a devastating impact on economies across export-dependent Latin America. Whether the current shift to the left will be part of this cycle depends largely on the ability of newly elected governments to initiate profound social, emancipatory and sustainable change, against significant resistance.
This article was first published in Global Americans on Sept. 22, 2022.