Illustration by Tilly Binucci
If there is one consistent rule of politics in Latin America, it is that you may be down, but you are never out. Volatile, fast paced and often unpredictable, it seems the pendulum of favour has swung back to the left after almost a decade in the wilderness.
Elections over the past two years and upcoming elections this year look to confirm the revival of the fortunes of left-wing parties across the continent after a long bout of opposition and obscurity. Left-wing parties are now in power in seven of twelve South American countries, a significant improvement from just a few years ago, and two of the countries currently governed by right-wing leaders (Colombia and Brazil) have upcoming national elections, where it is possible the left could re-gain power.
Indeed, only in Paraguay, Uruguay and Ecuador have right-wing candidates or parties won presidential or legislative elections since 2019. In that same period, the left has defeated conservative incumbents in no less than four countries.
Nor is this hegemony confined to South America; Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel are all decidedly to the left; while in Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras, it is the centre-left that is in power.
The current political climate certainly appears to be a repeat of the original pink tide of the early 2000s. Sparked by the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, the pink tide referred to a turn towards left-wing politics and politicians across the region. For several years, in election after election, right-wing governments fell across the continent, bringing in every shade of left-wing, from centrist to authoritarian to populist.
From 2000 to 2007, pink wave leaders included indigenous leader Evo Morales, who held power in Bolivia, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who became Brazil’s President, and Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, who both held office in Argentina. On the Pacific coast, Ricardo Lagos was elected president in Chile, as was Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Similarly, in Central America, Daniel Ortega ruled Nicaragua, while Raul Castro continued the left’s dominance in Cuba.
Only Colombia remained without a left-wing leader in the first decade of the twenty-first century, due to its close relations with the US and its ongoing civil war, demonstrating both the geographical and cultural range of the pink tide over thousands of miles and almost twenty countries.
The origins of the first pink tide are threefold: a shift in US foreign policy after the fall of the Soviet Union, the neoliberal policies of Latin American nations in the 1990s, and the commodities boom of the 2000s. During the Cold War, and especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US opposed the election of left-wing governments in the Americas, and intervened both covertly and sometimes militarily to preserve the governments they sponsored or to replace the regimes they opposed.
This led to the overthrow of Allende’s socialist government in Chile, the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to remove Castro’s government in Cuba, and the support for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
It became difficult for left-wing parties in the region and neoliberal, pro-market leaders such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or General Jorge Videla in Argentina prospered with American support. However, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, the socialist governments in Latin America no longer posed such a threat to US interests. They have intervened far less since then, allowing left-wing groups to come out of the shadows and compete seriously again. Additionally, American military resources were more concentrated on the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11 and attention was shifted away from the Americas.
Secondly, the combined effects of unpopular neoliberal governments in many Latin American countries, rising poverty and inequality, and widespread opposition to free trade deals resulted in mass protests and growing hostility to the incumbent conservative governments and allowed opposition parties to campaign effectively.
Finally, the rise of developing economies like China and India in the late 1990s and early 2000s created a boom in demand for commodities such as oil and minerals that South America possessed in abundance. For a time, the region saw significant economic growth, which enabled left-wing governments to remain popular and enact large-scale public spending that they might not otherwise have been able to afford.
However, a string of corruption scandals, most notably the Odebrecht affair, in which the engineering company bribed politicians with $740 million in exchange for overpaid contracts worth around $3.3 billion, and an economic downturn by the 2010s precipitated a popular backlash against these pink tide leaders, leading to a string of election losses.
This trend began in Brazil during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff for corruption and falsifying official economic numbers, shortly after her 2014 re-election, and continued with the replacement of the Peronist de Kirchner with the business-friendly Mauricio Macri in Argentina in 2015. This was followed by the election of Jair Bolsonaro, described as the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ in Brazil in 2018. Meanwhile, Correa’s successor in Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, though of the same party, proved to be substantially more conservative, so much so that Correa branded him a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Chile elected conservative Sebastian Piñera, who served as President for two terms during 2010-2014 and 2018-present.
However, it seems that the right’s decade of power in Latin America is reaching its curtain call. Perhaps Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil marked both the era’s high point and last success, as 2019-2021 has proved almost totally disastrous for right-wing governments.
In 2018, the centre-left retained power in Costa Rica, winning 60% of the vote in the run-off election, while 2019 saw the Peronists return to power in Argentina, as Alberto Fernandez took the presidenty. Also in 2019, Laurentino Cortizo of the centre-left party won the presidency of Costa Rica from the right-wing Juan Carlos Valdera.
The right’s fortunes declined in 2020, as left-wing victories came in Guyana, where Irfaan Ali became President in a hotly-contested election, and Suriname, where Chan Santokhi’s Progressive Reform Party came to power.
2021 saw a similar trend for the right. Left-wing governments beat the right in Honduras, where Xiomara Castro will become Latin America’s only female leader; Bolivia, where Morales’ ally Luis Arce has restored the left to power after the police and army forced Morales’ resignation in 2019; and most recently Peru.
Pedro Castillo, whose parents were peasant farmers, and who rose to prominence as a union leader, won the presidency in a runoff election by a margin of only 44,000 votes, winning 50.126% of votes cast. Castillo ran an overtly left-wing campaign against opponent Keiko Fukimori, daughter of Peru’s neoliberal President in the 1990s. Castillo campaigned on similar themes to the leaders of the first pink tide, including ‘drastic action’ against poverty and inequality, a promise to draft a new constitution, and tough action against corruption. Some labelled his Free Peru party as Marxist, while his foreign minister was accused of sympathising with the ‘Shining Path’ Maoist guerilla group. In short, even the far-left are benefitting from the renewed pink tide.
Chile’s presidential runoff election took place on the 19th December between far-right José Antonio Kast, who received the most votes in the first round, and left-wing Gabriel Boric. Boric’s campaign was primarily composed of tours of rural areas of the country, aiming to add the rural vote to his already sturdy base in progressive Santiago.
While polling suggested the race to replace conservative incumbent Sebastian Piñera would be extremely tight, in the end Boric emerged as victor with 56% of the vote, a surprisingly large margin of victory.
Boric, who at 35 years old will be Chile’s youngest-ever president, represents a new generation of left-wing leaders across the continent, untainted by the disappointment and scandals of the generation of the 2000s, yet with the same sense of hope and unity that produced such great electoral success then.
This was symbolised in a speech he made along with Piñera, where he declared he would be ”the President of all Chileans”, and that “only with social cohesion, re-finding ourselves and sharing common ground will we be able to advance towards truly sustainable development – which reaches every Chilean”.
Even if Kast had won, though, the left in Chile won’t have left empty-handed, as the Pinochet-era constitution is set to be replaced after mass protests last year, and the constituent assembly is likely to be progressive in its aims. Suggestions for reform include a public healthcare system, reforms to pensions to make the system more equitable, and better land rights for indigenous peoples.
Two crucial elections during this year will indicate whether this pink tide is a long-term phenomenon or whether it has already peaked. The Brazilian Presidential race in 2022 is likely to produce a symbolic win for the left: former President Lula da Silva is projected to beat Bolsonaro in a run-off by 56% to 31%. Even in staunchly-conservative Colombia, which never fell to the original pink tide, the left is topping the polls, and Gustavo Petro, a former Guerilla fighter, is favourite to win the presidential election.
The reasons for this new pink tide are not yet fully clear. Still, anger at corruption and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic by incumbent conservative governments appear to have played a large part, as well as resentment towards continued inequality, poverty, and economic stagnation.
Castillo’s victory in Peru and Boric’s success in Chile suggest the left’s victories are due to an alliance between young, progressive, urban voters, and rural, disillusioned, impoverished constituencies.
However, a large part of their success relies on the current unpopularity of right-wing governments. Ivan Duque, the President of Colombia, has a disapproval rating of 77%. Similarly, under 20% of Brazilians approve of Bolsonaro, according to a recent poll, after extremely high numbers of COVID infections and deaths, and inflation which reached 10% last year.
The left-wing in Latin America is optimistic, and rightly so, but victory is far from assured. The next year will be crucial to see whether there will really be another pink tide or whether the successes of the past two years have been an anomaly.
More importantly, it remains to be seen whether this cohort of left-wing governments can avoid the mistakes of the 2000s: of relying on a short-term economic boom, engaging in corruption and cronyism, and veering into authoritarianism. Latin America could be on the cusp of its next golden age, or another cycle of crushed optimism and disappointment.