In the early 2000s, a wave of left-wing politics swept through Latin America, the so-called Pink Tide. In the mid-2010s, it was countered by a conservative, right-wing political wave. However, in the last few years, we have witnessed reactions to the conservative movement, as left-leaning political leaders in the region have once again moved towards the front. Could this indicate another shift in regional governance—possibly even a rebirth of the Pink Tide in Latin America?
The original Pink Tide
The original Pink Tide started with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998. Elections of left-leaning leaders in other countries soon followed, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Lula da Silva in Brazil. Many Pink Tide countries allied themselves with the long-standing Cuban government and several of them joined ALBA, an alternative regional organization founded by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 with the objective of promoting economic cooperation, regional integration and countering US influence and free market policies in the region.
Some mutual characteristics of these governments were opposition to neoliberalism, largely populist strategies, and initiation of social reforms. In Brazil, at least 20 million people were lifted out of poverty during Lula da Silva’s presidency. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez’s social programs reduced poverty by almost 30 percent. In some cases, social reforms meant that key companies or whole extractive industries were nationalized.
Pink Tide governments, in the historically export-dependent region of Latin America, benefited from the commodities boom of the early 2000s. The profits from domestic extractive industries, which previously often had been under foreign control, now helped fund social reforms. Due to the history of US interference in Latin America, economic ties were often established with China, a viable alternative and at that time an emerging market. These governments largely followed the notion of Patria Grande, an anti-imperialist idea of the whole Latin America as a united and sovereign homeland. Patria Grande is strongly rooted in Latin American leftist discourse and the idea of Latin American independence.
However, as the commodities boom ended, the Pink Tide faded out in the mid-2010s and conservative and neoliberal governments gained power, such as those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Mauricio Macri in Argentina. Several Pink Tide leaders were also victims of US-supported coups or so-called lawfare, such as Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay.
Possible signs of a changing tide
As reactions to policies of conservative governments, several Latin American countries have elected Pink Tide-influenced leaders in just the last two years. Many of these leaders are former advisors or ministers of Pink Tide governments. Most recently, the left-wing candidate Andrés Arauz in Ecuador won the first round of the presidential elections on February 7th. Arauz previously held positions in the Pink Tide government of Rafael Correa.
In Argentina, Peronist Alberto Fernández won the 2019 election, with former Pink Tide era president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as running mate, who now assumed the role of vice-president. Fernández himself was previously Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers under Néstor Kirchner, president from 2003 to 2007 and Cristina’s late husband.
In Bolivia, president Evo Morales was forced out of office in a far-right coup in 2019. Morales was accused of election fraud, which later was revealed to be false. Morales went into exile and was first granted asylum by centre-left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and later by the newly elected Alberto Fernández in Argentina. A new election was held in Bolivia in late 2020, after months of postponement, and was won by landslide by Luis Arce, Morales’ former Minister of Economy and Public Finance. Evo Morales returned to Bolivia, symbolically accompanied by Alberto Fernández to cross the border from Argentina.
Another possible indication of a new left turn is the increase of mass protests against the region’s right-wing governments in recent years. In Chile, demonstrations against the government of Sebastian Piñera have been almost constant since 2019. A historical plebiscite to change the country’s neoliberal constitution from the Pinochet era was approved by landslide in October 2020. A new constitution will be drafted in 2022, and in November this year presidential elections will be held. In 2019 and 2020, there were also massive anti-government protests in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, and in Peru, where there will also be presidential elections in April.
Too soon to tell where the tide is turning?
There are still exceptions countering the idea of a new left-leaning regional trend, as conservative governments remain in several countries. The conservative wave also came late in some nations, such as in El Salvador and Uruguay. El Salvador’s left-leaning FMLN lost power in the 2019 election, and Uruguay’s popular leftist alliance Frente Amplio, which held office since 2004 also lost the election in October 2019 after a very tight runoff. Additionally, Jair Bolsonaro remains in power in Brazil, even though his support has decreased during the Covid-19 pandemic and the opposition has moved forward in local elections.
It is likely too early to say what comes next for Latin America, as the effects of the conservative wave have not worn off completely yet. Latin America is a very politically and economically polarized region, and what might seem like political ambivalence might be symptoms of this polarization. But if what we are seeing is the beginning of a new Pink Tide, what consequences could that have? Would this Pink Tide have the same level of unity as the original one? These questions, and more, will hopefully be answered in the near future.