Resurgence of the ‘Pink Tide’? Revisiting Left Politics in Latin America

The left in Latin America needs to reinforce its message of social justice and development for all.


Politics in Latin America is in a sea of change, caught between the right and the left. In October, a protest in Chile against the government’s decision to hike the fare of metros turned into a mass movement against the right-wing government led by Sebastián Piñera, and against the neo-liberal reforms initiated since the rule of Augustos Pinochet in the 1970s. Public anger towards the government was encapsulated in a single slogan from the Chilean protest: “no son $30, son 30 años” (It is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years). 

In Bolivia, protests against the re-election of Evo Morales—the first president to come from the country’s indigenous population—led to the army “suggest” that he vacate office. Morales has since fled from Bolivia, and has taken refuge in Argentina, while a far-right politician, Jeanine Áñez, has declared herself interim president without following due process, and has implemented policy that could further divide the country along ethnic lines. The United States (US), too, has been accused of influencing events in Bolivia, with the Trump administration openly supporting the alleged military coup. Furthermore, the recently concluded elections in Argentina have seen the right-wing government led Mauricio Macri ousted from power, and the centre-left candidate, Alberto Fernández, winning the election. Colombia is also witnessing mass protests against the right-wing government of Iván Duque Márquez, who came to power in 2018.

While the right has held power in Latin American states in the recent past, it is the left who have been dominant since the turn of the century. In 1998, Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela, sparking what is now known as the marea rosa or the “pink tide”—a political wave against the right and neo-liberalism that had concentrated power and wealth in the hands of the elite. In the coming decade, left governments were voted to power in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Nicaragua. 

However, the left’s ascent was short-lived. Paraguay’s president Fernando Lugo was deposed in a military coup in 2012, and with the death of Chávez in 2013, the left’s hold on governance in Latin America began to wane.  Brazil’s popular leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to jail on corruption charges, and the country’s former president Dilma Rousseff, was impeached on seemingly unfair grounds. Both of these events allowed for the rise of the current far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. In Argentina, Mauricio Macri formed a right-wing government in Argentina in 2015 that attempted to cut austerity measures and usher in other neo-liberal reforms. Piñera and Márquez both installed right-wing regimes in 2018. 

With protestors in the streets across the continent, and with a seeming turn towards the left once more, there is talk of the pink tide returning to Latin America. Through this reading list, we look at the advent of left politics in Latin America, the effect of the pink tide revolution, policy, and ideology, and the future trajectory of left governments.  

1) Rejecting Empire-building

Sujatha Fernandes writes that owing to its geographic proximity, the Latin American region has historically served as a testing ground for the US’s neo-liberal policies.

This unique position of Latin America may be due to its status as what Greg Grandin has called “empire’s workshop,” the place where the US acquired its conception of itself as an empire, a school where they learned how to execute violence through proxies, and a staging ground for experiments with free-market nation building.

Fernandes further argues that governments installed during the pink tide are actively seeking more policy independent of US presence, and are increasingly critical of US foreign policy in international fora. 

Latin American countries were also the first protest, and there is now a visibly growing gap between the left and centre-left governments of the region, and the neocons in Washington. Several leftist leaders are rejecting George Bush’s war on terror, the FTAA, and dictates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) …  in a post-cold war era, Latin America is carving out a more independent role for itself, and rather than patrons or benefactors it needs allies. The degree to which these leaders successfully manage to build those alliances—with Europe and beyond—may be crucial to the sustainability of new left agendas in the Americas.

2) A Flawed Understanding of Left Politics

Andres Lazzarini and Margarita Olivera argue that the Western, liberal media often dismisses a left-oriented agenda that focuses on social justice, development, and environmental concerns as “trivial,” choosing instead to focus on protests and conflict. In 2010, then Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was kidnapped, but the media referred to the event as an act of “police indiscipline.”

Since 2006, Ecuador’s government has implemented economic measures that have clashed with the interests of the United States (US) and other powerful countries. It has defaulted on foreign debts and cut itself off from foreign capital markets and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ... The new trends in politics since 2000 have given hope to ordinary citizens in Latin America. Nevertheless, the privileged few with the power of money and the media naturally opposes the changes: the development of national and regional processes focusing on regional cooperation and integration, sustained economic growth with progressive income distribution, and most importantly democracy for the once-forgotten sections of the society. 

3) ‘New Politics’ in the Pink Tide

Deepak Bhojwani writes that current left governments have learnt from previous experience of unilaterally adopting a neoliberal agenda, which was built on unstable foundations, and deepened these countries’s reliance on foreign capital. Today, leftist politicians are more pragmatic and wary of the pitfalls of traditional communism.   

Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have been supple in their application of socialist policies, careful not to alienate their popular base. This has paid dividends, in the form of re-election through popular ballot. They have also managed to co-opt, or neutralise, powerful military establishments that may present a threat. Extreme steps, nationalisation of foreign assets, for instance, have been balanced by the lure of access to oil, mineral and other resources. Dome­stically, they have relied on targeted, often lavish, social programmes and ­effective redistribution of wealth.

Bhojwani further argues that the pink tide has developed “21st-century socialism,” which is hinged upon participatory democracy, respects private property, and separates religion from state affairs.

It would appear that the New Left in Latin America and the Caribbean is here to stay. It has come into being, and survived, on account of manifest failures of the ruling class in several countries. Its legitimacy has been reaffirmed through democratic elections. Some analysts des­cribe this movement as post-liberal or post-neo-liberal. Strong management of the disposition of natural resources, generous social and redistributive programmes, tight political control over party apparatus, as well as over military establishments, have ensured longevity, even respectability.

4) A Tide of Many Shades

Samyukta Bhupatiraju and Rahul Sirohi write that despite a common objective to reduce social and economic inequality, left governments in Latin America are heterogeneous in nature. 

The Plan de Equidad of Uruguay reached around 50% of children, while in Brazil the Bolsa Familia cash transfer programme benefited 57.8 million individuals in 2012 (Huber and Stephens 2012; Weisbrot et al 2014). In Argentina, the Universal Child Benefit programme reaches four million households, consisting of those mainly employed within the informal sector (Grugel and Riggirozzi 2012). In Venezuela health coverage has increased sixfold between 1998 and 2007 benefiting as many as 20.5 million individuals (Chodor 2014).

Further, Bhupatiraj and Sirohi argue that development, as promoted by the left leaders, rejects the idea that there is no alternative to neo-liberalism. 

Speaking at a conference in 2007, Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly referred to as Lula) explained that increasing growth in itself was a meaningless pursuit. Instead, true development required that the fruits of growth be distributed to “all without exclusion and without perpetuating historical inequalities be they of gender, race, or any other type” … Ecuadorian constitution defines the prime objective of development to be sumak kawsay or “good living” … Sumak kawsay therefore entails nothing short of a revolution in the state–citizen relationship, where the state is subordinated to popular pressures and where citizens are actively engaged in governing their own futures. 

5) Indigenous Politics in Latin America

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s former president who recently fled the country, belongs to the indigenous Aymara population. The current interim president, Jeanine Áñez, has revealed a cabinet with no indigenous leaders, which could further polarise the country along ethnic lines. Sujatha Fernandes writes that indigenous groups fight for political representation in Latin American countries has been arduous in the face of repression by the ruling class. 

The 2005 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a leader of the coca growers union, is an expression of these years of indigenous organising. The rise of Morales and other left leaders across the region, along with their attempts at nationalising gas reserves, rewriting the constitution, and giving land titles to indigenous communities, has highlighted the contradictions that exist, as wealthy landowners, transnationals, and creoles are unwilling to give up their entrenched power and control over ancestral lands. 

However, with the increasing mobility of indigenous people, there has also been a rise in racism across Latin American countries. Media outlets have promulgated racist stereotypes and caricatures, which, Fernandes argues, speak to the anxieties of the wealthy.

One piece published in the supplement El Camaleón of the daily El Nacional in 2003 entitled “Founding of the Bolivarian Circles in the Community of the Tabayara Indians,” reported the visits of president Hugo Chávez to the imaginary Tabayara community. In one visit to the Cacique Konsoda, a parody of an indigenous chief, the chief supposedly speaks with the president for an hour and a half, but since the president does not speak indigenous languages he is unable to understand anything. The report concludes: “That is the problem with these indios, nobody understands anything they say.”   

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