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11 March 2022

Gabriel Boric and Latin America’s new pink tide

Left-wing governments are being elected across Latin America, but they face the threat of a rejuvenated and authoritarian right.

By Thea Riofrancos and David Adler

On 11 December – in the final days of Chile’s fractious presidential campaign – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took the stage at Argentina’s General Confederation of Labour to sketch a history of Latin American politics in the 21st century. First, he said, “there came a whole wave of progressive governments,” motioning to Uruguay’s former president José “Pepe” Mujica on the other side of the stage. “Then a whole wave of conservative governments. And now, we have Luis Arce in Bolivia, [Pedro] Castillo in Peru, we have our dear friend Alberto Fernández [in Argentina].” Lula implored his audience to help channel the wave westwards. “Whoever has a friend in Chile must have the courage to tell them: we will reconquer Chile for the Chilean people by voting for Gabriel Boric as president.”

One week later, the 36-year-old Boric claimed a decisive victory in Chile’s presidential elections, and Lula’s sketch seemed to harden into historical fact: a new pink tide is under way. The region’s leftward turn has been as rapid as it has been far-reaching. In some cases, left-wing parties have come to the presidency for the first time in a country’s modern history, as in Mexico (2018) or Peru (2021). In others, they have returned to reclaim power after armed coups d’états forced them out, as in Bolivia (2020) or Honduras (2021). Looking to the year ahead, both Colombia and Brazil – two of the region’s largest nations – are set for a left turn if present polling holds. Like Mexico and Peru, a left victory in Colombia would be cataclysmic in a political system that has excluded progressives from national power for almost a century. Together, these victories would consolidate more than 80 per cent of the region’s economic power in countries with left or progressive governments – with real ambitions to wield that power.

But the narrative of a second pink tide fails to account for the radical transformation in Latin America’s political economy since the first tide began in 1999. There is no doubt that the region’s politics are tidal: common features of its economies – high degrees of international integration, high levels of sovereign debt, high rates of labour informality and high levels of inequality – mean they are similarly vulnerable to shocks such as financial crises and viral pandemics. But the conditions under which progressive leaders are coming to power are different from those of their pink tide predecessors, suggesting profound challenges to their political projects.

Four transformations set the original pink tide apart from the present one.

The first is structural. The leaders of the first wave came to power in the context of a commodity super-cycle, with sustained price increases across a range of sectors, from oil to copper to beef. The rapid growth that accompanied their tenure financed their agendas of reform and redistribution. Progressive leaders today, by contrast, arrive to power during a pandemic that has devastated economies. More than their pink tide predecessors, this new generation of progressive leaders has inherited an electorate with high expectations about what their governments can do to improve material well-being. But in attempting to satisfy these popular demands, governments now find themselves elected amid a historic recession (the worst since the independence era two centuries ago) and mounting external debt obligations.

Commodities are booming again – but the present “boom” is different from the last. Rather than being driven by massive industrial development in China, which sent demand for raw materials soaring for a decade and a half, the current economic conjuncture is an outcome of the pandemic’s supply-chain disruptions coupled with turbulent geopolitics and an uneven renewable energy transition. Copper, lithium, oil and cash crops have hit record highs, benefiting the region’s exporters. These revenue streams, however, aren’t reliable. Up until the current conflagration in Ukraine, copper prices were fluctuating along with the stop-and-go uneven global recovery – resembling nothing like their meteoric rise between 2000 and 2010. Meanwhile, lithium prices may be high and rising, driven by a combination of electric vehicle demand and limited market supply. But even in Chile, Latin America’s top lithium producer, revenues from this sector pale in comparison with copper: $980m vs $33.2bn.

Oil prices have been volatile, crashing into negative price territory early in the pandemic before booming again during the initial recovery period in the US, EU and China, and is now spiking to over $110 a barrel as Western fossil fuel firms pull out of Russia and Joe Biden imposes a ban on its energy exports. Exporters such as Ecuador and Venezuela stand to gain from the fossil fuel frenzy but, unlike Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, they don’t have spare capacity and can’t improve their market share. Lastly, as prices for soy and corn soar, major Latin American exporters like Brazil and Argentina won’t reap the rewards; their harvests are suffering from climate change-induced drought. Hovering over any economic recovery is the ghost of Global North inflation – which could at any moment trigger an interest rate hike that would devastate highly indebted governments in the Global South, much as the Volcker Shock did four decades ago – and the new prospect of global recession, which could dampen demand for Latin American exports.

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This structural context could be construed as an opportunity as well as a threat. The earlier embrace of an export-oriented, commodity-dependent development model came with costs for the governments of the pink tide. Booming resource rents paid for the social services and public works that their electoral base demanded, but also incurred its political backlash from communities affected by environmental harm. The absence of a sustained commodity boom today is, therefore, an invitation to transition to an alternative model of development – but the risk is that without these crucial sources of revenues, the left won’t stay in power long enough to see such a transition through.

The second transformation relates to governance: the translation of constituent demands and party platforms into public policies. Many pink tide presidents benefited from legislative majorities, which enabled the speedy passage of ambitious bills. Today’s crop of leftist leaders will govern under conditions of slim majorities or divided governments. In Peru, for example, Pedro Castillo may have captured a majority of votes in the final round of the presidential election, but his minority government – then composed of his party Perú Libre and its partner Nuevo Perú – held less than a third of seats in Congress on election day. Following Boric’s election in Chile, left-wing parties comprise just over 20 per cent of the seats in Congress. Meanwhile, in Argentina, the left coalition Frente de Todos lost its majority in November last year. If the original pink tide often saw the swift implementation of policies, the contemporary left faces a likely prospect of legislative gridlock, fuelling discontent among their base – and providing an electoral opening for the right.

In all cases, the obstacles to left governance are further complicated by the radicalisation of the region’s right wing. The dominant right-wing parties that the pink tide replaced were old, exhausted and out of ideas. Today, the right is rejuvenated, adopting tactics from the US Republican Party: fake news, false claims of electoral fraud, and a commitment to stymie the legislative agenda of their opponents. These tactics are deployed to channel broader social grievances in a right-wing direction – from the anti-corruption movement that propelled Jair Bolsonaro into the Brazilian presidency to anti-immigration sentiments fuelling the rise of José Antonio Kast in Chile.

[See also: Tom Nairn: The prophet of post-Britain]

The rejuvenation of the right has yielded a third transformation in the region’s institutions. After the defeats of the initial pink tide, the forces of the right directed their efforts towards capturing, corrupting and deploying the judicial system to handicap their opponents. There was evidence of such legal warfare, or “lawfare”, in the case of Lula’s incarceration before the Brazilian presidential elections in 2018, and in recent attempts to disqualify the former Bogotá mayor, Gustavo Petro, from holding office in Colombia because of alleged “irregularities in the public service of garbage collection”. But there is also evidence of legal impunity for the right in the case of the Colombian president Ivan Duque’s criminal deployment of lethal force against protesters last year, or in the Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso’s extensive and impeachable offshore finances revealed by the Pandora Papers in October. The institutional foundations of Latin American democracy have become weaker, not stronger, in between the two tides of progressive politics.

The final transformation is geopolitical. Recent decades have seen a mutation of the Monroe Doctrine and the tactics the US deploys to sustain it. Specifically, the US has moved away from overt modes of intervention – military invasions, naval blockades, weapons shipments, military training and coups d’état – to more covert ones. This has involved using the procedures of the Organisation of American States to advance claims of fraud in countries such as Haiti and Bolivia. But as the rapid escalation of economic warfare against Russia suggests, sanctions have become the most efficient tool for Washington to take on its adversaries, while shifting the reputational cost for their intervention away from the US and on to the adversaries themselves.

While overt modes of intervention create chaos in the short term, their impact on the politics of the hemisphere is centripetal over time: they draw together left movements and parties in defence of sovereignty and the spirit of “Bolivarian” anti-imperialism. Covert modes, by contrast, exert a centrifugal force on the Latin American left today: by locking certain states out of the global economy, the US divides the hemisphere between its “good” and “bad” left governments. Any plan for renewed regional integration will require transcending this manufactured division and confronting US power.

[See also: John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism]

These four transformations create formidable challenges to the progressive governments coming to power. Winning was hard enough: fighting off legal challenges to their candidacies, false charges of electoral fraud (Bolivia, Peru), and alleged vote-inflation efforts (Honduras), the victory of the region’s left is itself a testament to the courage and determination of its popular forces. But governing the region is the goal, one imperilled by a renewed right-wing opposition with the tacit support of the neighbours to the north. A new pink wave may be cresting over Latin America, but rip currents threaten to drag down left governments before they have the opportunity to transform their economies or rebuild the institutions of regional integration. The risk is not only that the region cannot respond to its escalating crises of climate, recession and viral pandemic. It is also that this crisis of governability continues to erode confidence in democratic institutions wholesale, providing an opening for an authoritarian turn to come.

The new generation of left leaders are not unaware of the threats these transformations pose to the progressive agenda. That is why, in so many cases, their ambitions reach beyond the ballot box to the constitution itself. From Xiomara Castro’s promise to convene a constitutional assembly as the president of Honduras, to Gabriel Boric’s defence of Chile’s own convention process, the leaders of the new pink tide hope to rewrite the rules of their democracies in ways that expand rights, deepen representation and guard against the destabilising effects of new structural, geopolitical and party political circumstances. Here, the present tide not only resembles its predecessor, which saw constitutional referendums in countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, but by incorporating the bold ideas of its indigenous, feminist and environmental movements, the present generation also learns from the past – not just defending, but deepening democracy in the region.

To succeed, these governments will require the US to reorient its approach to the hemisphere, and its stewardship of global governance more broadly. The American secretary of state, Antony Blinken, likes to say that there is a “thread” that runs through US foreign policy, “and that is working to make democracy work for all people”. Yet the policies of the Biden administration cut across this thread, from aggressive economic sanctions to extractive debt agreements. If the US is serious about its defence of democracy across the Americas, then it must facilitate – rather than undermine – the progressive changes under way across the region. The future of democracy in the Americas depends on it.

[See also: The world is at financial war]

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