After the Pink Tide

After the Pink Tide

To confront the newly powerful extreme right in Latin America, the left needs a clear-eyed understanding of its time in power.

Introducing the special section of our Winter issue.

Members of the Munduruku indigenous tribe protest a hydroelectric dam in the Amazon rainforest, Pará state, Brazil, November 27, 2014. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On November 1, 2018, Trump’s bellicose National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a speech in Miami where he identified Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as a “Troika of Tyranny” and the “genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.” At the same time, he singled out Iván Duque of Colombia and Brazil’s president-elect, the neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro, as “like-minded leaders.” Bolsonaro, elected with 55 percent of the vote on October 28, has promised to rid the country of “reds” and has argued that the problem with Brazil’s military dictatorship was that it only tortured, rather than killed, its political opponents. An anonymous official in Duque’s government told a Brazilian newspaper that if Bolsonaro or Trump were to invade Venezuela, then Colombia would back them up, raising the possibility of a “nationalist international.”

Though Colombia’s government later officially denied the statement, and though such an invasion may never come to pass, the discussion does offer evidence of the radically changed political environment in the Americas. Just a few years ago, the “Pink Tide” seemed firmly entrenched. Governments of the left oversaw robust growth and reductions in inequality. In the first decade-and-a-half of the twenty-first century, it seemed like a new equilibrium had been reached in which democratic majorities and social movements finally had some control over economic distribution and political power. Now, little of that remains. The need for solidarity on the left to confront this powerful extreme right is clear. So too is the need for fresh thinking to understand what occurred during the Pink Tide, and to begin shaping an agenda to more effectively advance equality, uplift the poor and vulnerable, and provide an alternative to environmentally destructive capitalism.

The instinct for much of the left will be retrenchment against the threats of twenty-first-century fascism, and that is, of course, the immediate priority. But it must also confront the fact that the Pink Tide is no longer the global inspiration it once was. The far right, as Pablo Stefanoni has argued, now finds audiences receptive to anti-progressivism. The specter of Venezuela haunts continental politics, displacing Cuba as the country that the right conjures as warning. Yet as Stefanoni points out, the right hates the left both for what its governments did poorly and for what they did well. The task of the left is to retain the latter, remake the former, and to articulate an agenda that can succeed in meeting human needs in the years to come.

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It was against this backdrop that Dissent hosted a conference on October 5 and 6, 2018, titled “The Future of the Left in the Americas,” featuring participants from Canada to Argentina. In broad terms, the goal of the event was to hold a democratic socialist mirror up to politics in the Americas. The task was both analytical and constructive: assessing what had occurred in the years of the Pink Tide at a moment when its power is at a clear ebb, and trying to build a positive vision for the future. For the problems that the left seeks to remedy have hardly disappeared. Indeed, they exist across the Americas in ways that make it necessary for the left to have a robustly international vision. This collection of essays is derived from work presented at the conference.

No effort to imagine, or put into practice, a democratic socialism for the twenty-first century would be complete without an understanding of the Pink Tide. One point of debate at the conference was how to define the left, given that some governments that describe themselves as on the left engage in authoritarian practices, are overseeing large increases in poverty rates, or have incorporated criminal enterprises into the state. From the beginning, of course, the governments of the Pink Tide were neither identical nor unified. To many international observers, there seemed to be a more radical, self-described “Bolivarian” wing represented by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and possibly Argentina, with a more social democratic left in Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile. There were indeed differences of leadership style between the camps, even if talk of two lefts could sometimes oversimplify. To insist that one of these groups was further left is to enter into a confusing maze of categorization; what mattered more was that in most of the Bolivarian countries the old party systems had collapsed, leading to the quick creation of new hegemonic parties that used charismatic leadership to hold coalitions together. This more confrontational style polarized electorates. It put a primacy on loyalty, and often on lashing out at enemies, many real and some imagined. The social democratic countries operated within more conventional limits of democratic politics, with all of the inevitable roadblocks and disappointments that come with sharing power.

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clearer that the Pink Tide was made possible by a boom in the global price of commodities. That boom structured both its achievements and its limitations. Latin-American economies have long been exporters of primary products and importers of finished ones; most industrial production is destined for internal markets. In the early 2000s, rapid growth in India and China drove up the price of primary products, from oil to lithium to soybeans. This gave governments the ability to spend money on social welfare and development, satisfying—at least in part—the needs of their political bases without making fundamental structural changes to their economies or their position in the global system of trade.

Of course, nothing in politics (or in global commodity prices) is permanent. As prices have fallen, so have governments. In some places, like Chile and Argentina, the left lost elections. Fernando Lugo of Paraguay was removed in a “congressional coup” in 2012; Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was removed following a constitutional crisis in 2009. In Brazil, the right seized power in 2016, removing the Workers’ Party’s (PT) Dilma Roussef in an impeachment of dubious legality that depended on the very low popularity of Roussef to succeed.

At the same time, the PT’s first president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, remains the most popular politician in Brazil and would probably have won the elections were he not in jail on corruption charges. The point is not that there was no corruption in the PT—Brazil’s political system practically requires it, and of course there were those who sought to benefit materially from their political activities, including Lula—but due process was abandoned to secure a political conviction. Bolsonaro has named the judge responsible for Lula’s imprisonment, Sérgio Moro, as Minister of Justice. The PT’s moderation in office—it aimed to end hunger, not capitalism, and worked within the political system, not to overturn it—were important features of its vulnerability.

But if moderation created vulnerability in Brazil, that doesn’t mean that more confrontational styles yielded great success. The Bolivarian approaches presented different dangers, and different pathways for the erosion of their own democratizing potential. Evo Morales in Bolivia, probably the most successful leader of the Bolivarian governments, would leave a mostly positive legacy were he to depart, but he is still trying to extend his time in office in spite of a popular consultation rejecting that plan. Poverty fell under Hugo Chávez in Venezuela during times of high oil prices, but the ways that he undermined independent state administration and increased dependence on oil set the stage for the catastrophic administration of his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro. In the last few years, the country’s GDP has fallen by more than half, leading to shortages, hunger, an exodus of refugees, and a poverty rate above 80 percent. The government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has turned its guns on its own people, drawing comparisons to the Somoza family dictatorship that Ortega once helped to displace. The institutionalization of power in hegemonic parties has meant that, as the governments have declined in popularity, repression, rather than ceding power, has been their strategy.

The situation for the left in the hemisphere is not universally bleak. Everything looks most like a failure at the moment it is ending; many of these governments will leave records of significant achievement, in spite of their flaws. (Some will not.) In the two major Latin-American countries that weren’t part of the Pink Tide, the left has recently shown surprising strength. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, lost the presidential election in 2018 but had the best showing of any left campaign in years. In Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected by a wide margin last summer with the support of the left and took office on December 1. And in the United States, in spite of institutional weakness, the grassroots left has shown resilience and organizing power that has not been seen in at least a couple of generations. Even with the PT’s disappointments, the reason that Brazil did not reelect Lula instead of Bolsonaro is not that the latter was more popular. As in the United States, the collapse of the center-right in Brazil and Mexico is an important part of the continental picture, even though it has led to different outcomes in each of those countries.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that both Bolivarian and social democratic strategies have shown their limits; if they are not exactly exhausted, they are surely out of breath well before reaching the end of the race. During the Pink Tide, the primary posture of democratic socialists has been one of ethical superiority: observing the defects of the Bolivarian governments in their claims to democracy and the shortcomings of the social democrats in their claims to socialism. But can this ethical critique be developed into a program capable of designing government policy and mobilizing support for it?

The essays in this section attempt to begin that process, addressing central problems raised by the various experiences of the Pink Tide. How does the left build the power we need to transform economy and society while facing down the inevitable hostility of capital to such a project? How do we do so in a way that retains the trust of the population, and without destroying the productive base of the country? How it is possible to build state power to overcome the power of capital while preventing that state power from becoming a threat to rights and an opportunity for personal gain for those connected to it?

If the essays have a unifying theme, it is that the relationship between state projects and the organized left, in the form of social movements, ought not be subsumed into a single project. Ailynn Torres Santana, writing about Cuba—the country with, of course, the longest experience with socialism in the hemisphere—observes that this was primarily a socialism “from above.” Its egalitarianism and its universal provision of social services are important achievements, but the political monopoly of the Communist Party limits the capacity of political self-organization. Today, as Cuba undergoes a transition away from the leadership of the revolutionary generation, it must consider the value of a more pluralistic and less state-centric politics. Andrés Pertierra argues that Cuba’s new leadership may face a crisis of legitimacy. Whether that potential crisis will be addressed by more democratic participation in decision-making remains to be seen.

Pablo Ospina turns to Ecuador, where policies under Rafael Correa’s government have frequently strengthened the state while weakening organizations in civil society. Correa preferred initiatives that provided reliable support to his political project rather than ones that could advance democratic and egalitarian goals. But the organizations created by the state to compete or replace more self-organized associations have not succeeded, and they have the potential to become instruments of control and demobilization.

From the social democratic side of the ledger, Gerardo Caetano draws our attention to the success of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay. Poverty has fallen substantially while two politicians have alternated in the presidency, producing a genuinely strong record of effective governance. Unions and other institutions of civil society have maintained a supportive but autonomous relationship with these governments. Nevertheless, there are signs that the coalition is losing some of its reformist energy and is facing an uncertain electoral future.

Whether Bolivarian or not, one of the clearest limitations of the governments of the Pink Tide has been a continued dependence on natural resource extraction. Securing the future will require significant changes in the mode of production. As the left looks to the future, it will need to be able to assemble a coalition that centers the need for a rapid energy transition with meeting human needs and distributional goals. Thea Riofrancos argues that this will require a combination of local activism, national policy, and international solidarity. There are some reasons for hope, such as a national ban on metallic mining in El Salvador. Finally, as Daniel Aldana Cohen reminds us, the critical situation in Brazil offers a starkly bifurcated future: eco-apartheid or democracy. But the coalitions of the new right, in Brazil and elsewhere, are not as stable as they seem. The task ahead is to resist the destructive agenda of the right while building the power and capacity to more effectively advance goals for the left’s next time in power.

The scale of the problems is international, so the solutions must be as well. Across the Americas, we face oligarchic tendencies that undermine democratic control of political systems, economic resources, and the environment. International problems of security, inequality, and lack of elite accountability make the success of the left in one place critical to its success in others. There is much to be done, together.

Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Harvard University Press, 2015) and a member of the Dissent editorial board.

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