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Latin America’s new pink tide faces a difficult balancing act

A wave of left-wing victories in the region doesn’t guarantee sweeping social progress

By Oliver Stuenkel

SÃO PAULO – The electoral triumph of the 35-year-old former student leader Gabriel Boric in Chile on 19 December marked the third victory in a row for a left-wing leader in Latin American presidential elections. In June the far-left Pedro Castillo, schoolteacher and union leader, was elected to Peru’s highest office. And Xiomara Castro will take office on 27 January in Honduras, after she won the presidential contest in November.  

Three marks a trend but it doesn’t stop there. After a slew of right-wing leaders rose to power across the region during the 2010s – most prominently, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri in 2015, Brazil’s Michel Temer and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in 2016 and the return of Chile’s Sebastián Piñera in 2018 – a new pink tide seems to be sweeping the region. In addition to already-installed left-wing governments in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico, left-wing politicians are favoured to win in elections later this year in both Brazil and Colombia, the latter of which has never been governed by the left. 

But while leftist leaders across Latin America share some common traits – they tend to emphasise redistributive issues; frequently speak about the need to reduce inequality and poverty; and favour a more active role of the state in the economy – there are profound differences. This is most apparent when it comes to social liberalism vs conservatism. In Chile, for example, Boric campaigned on an explicitly progressive platform and promised to strengthen LGBT rights, legalise abortion (which is largely prohibited in Chile) and bolster gender equality.

Boric describes himself as agnostic and his girlfriend, Irina Karamanos, an anthropologist and feminist activist who played virtually no role in his campaign, recently delighted many progressives by saying she disapproved of the notion of a “first lady”, and that there should be “no office in the state that… is related to the president’s kinship or relations”. 

Peru’s Castillo, on the other hand, is an ultraconservative when it comes to social policies: he favours reintroducing the death penalty and is strongly opposed to both elective abortion and gay marriage. This brand of left-wing conservatism is not exceptional. Latin America’s most iconic left-wing leaders – ranging from Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s former leader Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s ex-president Evo Morales – were social conservatives with little regard for issues such as LGBT rights.

Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, regularly sought to weaken Henrique Capriles, his most serious political opponent in recent years, by calling him a “little princess” or saying he had “overheated ovaries”, insinuating Capriles was homosexual. In Nicaragua, the left-wing dictator Daniel Ortega has embraced social conservatism in a successful effort to co-opt the Catholic Church, supporting a law that bans all abortions, even in cases of rape. In Ecuador, the long-serving leftist president Rafael Correa opposed easing the ban on abortions, and it was only in April last year that abortions in cases of rape were decriminalised.

Yet a shift is under way across the region. Helped by fairly progressive supreme courts in several countries, Latin American social liberals have celebrated a string of victories. In 2019, the environmentalist candidate Claudia López, who is gay, won the mayorship of Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, and the photo of her kissing her partner after victory has become a symbol for LGBT activists across Latin America. In December 2020, Argentina’s legislature legalised elective abortion, bowing to pressure exerted by a sophisticated grassroots campaign. A year later, Mexico’s supreme court decriminalised abortion. Even in ultraconservative Honduras, the victorious Castro has called for easing the ban on abortion, one of the most draconian in the world.

Such marked differences between left-wing leaders across Latin America can be partly explained by the societies they spring from. Some countries are more socially liberal than others, a result of dynamics involving highly influential civil society – in such places as Chile and Argentina – or the growth of evangelical churches – whose followers tend to be more socially conservative – in others, such as Brazil.

Uruguay has long been the darling of social liberals in the region, notably by legalising the recreational consumption of marijuana. Most strikingly, even after ousting the left from the presidential palace in Montevideo, the country’s centre-right president Luis Lacalle Pou vowed not to reverse the legislation – in part because the business community is eager to benefit from the growing global market for legal cannabis. In the same way, some of Chile’s most important legislation towards a more socially liberal society – such as legalising same sex marriage in December – notably took place during the presidency of Piñera, the centre-right leader. Previously opposed to the measure, Piñera told reporters during the signing of the law that “life” and “meeting people” had changed his mind.

Yet the jury is still out on whether Latin America’s new left will succeed in sowing progressivism further through the region, or whether socially conservative leftists will retain the upper hand. Last year, two progressive contenders who had received enthusiastic support from social liberals across Latin America – Ecuador’s Yaku Pérez and Peru’s Verónika Mendoza – both fell short of making it into the run-off round of presidential elections and their political fortunes are uncertain.

Just like Chile’s Boric, Lula da Silva and Gustavo Petro, the leading presidential candidates in Brazil and Colombia, respectively, will have to walk a fine line between mobilising progressives in urban centres without irking social conservatives. In an effort to divert attention from Brazil’s dismal economic performance under his watch, the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is set to embrace a full-blown culture war as he seeks re-election in October, a move that may make Lula more cautious about emphasising a socially liberal agenda. Though he’s leading in the polls, Lula also looks increasingly likely to pick right-wing running mate Geraldo Alckmin to join his ticket in order to make inroads among conservative and religious voters. Meanwhile, in Colombia, Petro has embraced Alfredo Saade, a Christian leader with a long history of homophobia.

Despite the patchy progress, many still hope that Gabriel Boric’s leadership will herald a new era of social liberalism in the region. The Chilean politician, who takes office on 11 March, recently presented his cabinet – which contains, for the first time in the country’s history, more women than men.

[See also: Chile’s new leftist president could transform the country]

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