Image: Latin America’s “pink tide” presidents gathering for a Summit of the South American Union of Nations in 2010. Source: Vice News.
In recent years, Latin America’s political direction has changed, bringing 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. If Lula prevails in the Brazilian elections this year, the six most populous 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 sense of déjà vu, as, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the region had already witnessed a series of electoral victories by left-wing and center-left candidates. This political shift, which was dubbed the “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 discussing 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 U.S.-journalists. Latin American countries that were not automatically pro-Western (i.e., pro-U.S.), maintained friendly relations with Cuba, and/or wanted to strengthen their relations with China were sweepingly categorized as pink by North American wordsmiths.
However, this friend/foe scheme also works in the opposite direction, namely in self-assured demarcation from regional supremacy. As a result, left-wing leaders of the first tide found it difficult to articulate criticism towards Havana regardless of their hue. Additionally, several of those governments joined the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), an alternative regional organization founded in 2004 by Cuba and Venezuela to promote 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, the “pink tide” affiliation was indeed a source of self-identity.
Heterogeneity is the Cue
The U.S. 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 the characterization sufficient to portray such a complex mosaic of state leaders and political ideologies. When one considers the various governments of the current left swing and those at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the diversity of the pink wave becomes particularly clear.
The initial “pink tide” can be separated into two camps. The social-democratic camp tried to combine free-market orientation with social inclusion and established alliances with center-left liberal and Christian democratic parties in their respective countries and abroad. Contrastingly, the left-wing populist camp emphasized redistribution as well as a strong state to a much greater extent. The populists claimed to represent the will of the people, which was accordingly associated it 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.
The first “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, making the characterization under a single term even more challenging.
A fundamental differentiator that highlights the heterogeneity of these newly-elected leftist governments is, of course, their political ideologies. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, for example, pursues a very divergent agenda from that of Peruvian President Pedro Castillo or, if re-elected, the Lula administration. Boric’s inherently heterogeneous left-wing government has 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 the societal homogeneity of “the people.” They advocate, just like Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, for more rights for the LGBTQ+ community, which is relatively new in the history of the South American left.
Contrarily, politicians such as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Castillo 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 alignments.
Due to this heterogeneity, classifying the various governments through a vague and multifunctional term should be avoided. 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, regarding 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.
If the focus within the context of a “pink tide” is not on commonalities in foreign policy, the picture becomes clearer concerning socioeconomic developments. A blatant widening of the gap between rich and poor is taking place on a continent 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. But, on the other, 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.”
Growing social injustice led to protests in several Latin American countries, such as Peru. These demonstrations were primarily directed against conservative forces but also towards the status-protecting parties of the center, which appeared programmatically drained and untrustworthy. This development resulted, inter alia, in the lackluster election results of the conservatives in Colombia.
Social injustice also contributed to the growing polarization of elections in Latin America recently, 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-wingers, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, José Antonio Kast in Chile, or Rodolfo Hernández in Colombia, who replaced weakened conservatives for a bewildered middle and upper class. Polarization 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 fundamental right-wing 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 decarbonization 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 (PT) emancipatory reform narrative had lost its luster 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. This pressure has led to the election of left-wing governments in numerous countries, which differ significantly in both ideologies, 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 the 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 to augment social justice, political emancipation, and sustainable economic restructuring is likely limited in 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 widespread protests against social inequality, austerity measures, and the privatization of public resources resulting from the neoliberal economic model that prevailed in most countries of the region in the final decades of the twentieth century. Similarly, 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 represent another step of the cycle depends largely on the ability of newly elected governments to initiate profound social, emancipatory, and sustainable change against significant resistance.
Yannik John is the project manager at Transformation Index BTI. Over the course of his academic and professional career, he specialized in International Relations and public economics.