The Latin American left’s shifting tides


Viewed by many as the most promising development for the global left in decades, the Pink Tide is in retreat. To understand its decline, this essay compares its rise and achievements to the rise of the region’s classical left, which emerged following the Cuban Revolution. Whereas the classical left’s accomplishments were rooted in the structural leverage of industrial labor, the Pink Tide has been based on movements of informal workers and precarious communities. The Pink Tide built its base from a social structure that had been transformed by two decades of deindustrialization and industrial fragmentation. This had two critical implications — it gave newly elected governments far less leverage against ruling classes than the earlier left, and it also inclined them toward a top-down, clientelistic governance model, which turned out to be self-limiting. In the end, Pink Tide regimes were undone by their own constituents, whereas the classical left was toppled by the elites that it attempted to dislodge.

The new millennium unleashed a wave of popular rebellions in Latin America, which propelled a number of left governments into power. These governments came to be known as the Pink Tide, and while they have not pursued full-blown “red” policies, they received enthusiastic support from radical quarters, including from some of our leading thinkers. Noam Chomsky, for instance, praised the achievements of the new reformers in the areas of democracy, sovereign development, and popular welfare.1 The ability of these countries to soften neoliberalism’s worst effects, empower popular sectors, and stand up to US domination mark a welcome rebound from the prior “lost decades” of market fundamentalism and social exclusion. In the global context, the Pink Tide contrasts starkly with full-blown neoliberal continuity in the capitalist core and the discouraging outcomes of the Arab Spring in the Middle East.

Yet the tide is receding, and unlike daily coastal ebbs, the decline of the region’s left is a longer-term retreat of reform governments. After Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 as an outsider populist-nationalist, Lula, the historic leader of the Workers’ Party, was elected president of Brazil in 2002, followed by Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003, Evo Morales in Bolivia a year and a half later, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador one year after that. They and their successors enjoyed impressive runs. But beginning in 2015, key losses initiated a reversal of the Left’s fortunes. That year, elections took down reform Peronism. Then followed a “constitutional coup” that toppled Dilma Roussef in Brazil. Rafael Correa’s coalition in Ecuador is crumbling after his reform candidate just eked out a win. Although Morales’s hold on power remains firm, when Nicolás Maduro goes in Venezuela, bringing down with him what remains of the Bolivarian Revolution’s accomplishments, the cycle will be complete.2

How should we evaluate the Pink Tide? What is its true record of achievements and failures? What undercut its promise and reversed its ascent?

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