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Chile protest, 2019

Chile protest, 2019. Photo: Carlos Figueroa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

In Latin America popular movements rejecting neoliberalism are fusing with a left electoral resurgence to make a second ‘Pink Tide’ possible, argues Jonathan Maunders

In the first round of Ecuador’s ongoing presidential election, leftist Andrés Arauz claimed a clear victory. Indeed, he had more than a 10% lead over the outgoing neoliberal president’s preferred successor, Guillermo Lasso.

If Arauz wins the presidential run-off in April, as expected, it will represent the latest rejection of neoliberal policies in Latin America and yet more evidence of a socialist resurgence across the region.

With election wins for socialist candidates and increasingly powerful protest movements, it is not fanciful to suggest that a second marea rosa (pink tide) is taking shape across Latin America.

If so, it is vital that the rise and fall of the original wave, including the right-wing response to it, are learnt from.

Pink Tide

Any understanding of the original pink tide must begin with Latin America’s historical relationship with the United States. Throughout the Cold War, a series of leftist governments were elected throughout the region, only to be removed by US sponsored right-wing military coups. In fact, almost all Latin American countries endured at least one US-backed dictator during the period.

These right-wing regimes committed countless atrocities, including murder, torture and illegal detentions. The US was eventually forced to support democratisation processes in the region, though it continued covert campaigns to topple leftist governments. This legacy generated the strong anti-imperialist current that would help spark the pink tide movement.

This current, coupled with the democratisation processes of the 1980s and 1990s, enabled leftist parties to grow and gain a foothold in local elections. Meanwhile, by the late 1990s, disastrous neoliberal policies had caused mass unemployment and increasing inequality across Latin America.

Mass protests became more and more common, particularly in Argentina and Bolivia. Amid such anger, growing numbers flocked to leftist parties offering an economic alternative to US-backed priviatisation and austerity.

Hugo Chávez soon became the enduring symbol of the wave of leftist success, being elected Venezuelan president in 1998. His election was followed by Brazil’s Lula in 2003 and Evo Morales of Bolivia in 2006 – together, they were labelled ‘the three musketeers’ by Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Decline

These leftist governments, joined by many others across the continent, reversed the tide of inequality, saw strong economic growth and rejected US imperialism. Despite these successes, the pink tide could not be sustained.

Leftist governments’ failure to properly defeat the right left them vulnerable to attack. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, was removed in a barely disguised coup and replaced by the unpopular Michel Temer, who immediately introduced neoliberal policies.

Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno, elected to continue the socialist agenda of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, promptly shifted rightwards and implemented a range of austerity measures.

Elsewhere, an overreliance on declining Chinese investment (due to the 2015 Chinese stock market crash) and external economic pressure led to rising inflation and falling GDP, allowing right-wing parties to claim election victories with arguments of economic competency.

Virtually across the entire continent, the left declined as the right surged electorally, reintroducing the very neoliberal polices that had devastated so many in the decades before. Western politicians and commentators celebrated what they saw as the collapse of a brief socialist experiment.

A second pink tide?

Unsurprisingly, recent neoliberal governments and policies have been just as devastating and unpopular as they were previously. If the right assumed people would go along with it, they were profoundly wrong. Indeed, the reaction has sparked hope that a second pink tide has begun.

The election of left-centre presidents in first Mexico and then Argentina were positive outcomes, but it was the landslide election victory of Bolivia’s Luis Arce in 2020 that really signposted a resurgence of the Latin American left.

In 2019, Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales was ousted in a coup and then banned from standing in the forthcoming election. His successor, Arce, endured sustained attacks from the right but delivered a crushing victory to show Bolivians’ commitment to socialist policies. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro has remained in power, despite the US and its allies backing an attempted military coup in 2019 to install Juan Guaidó. 

Meanwhile, huge protest movements have emerged across the continent in recent years, rallying against right-wing governments and forcing meaningful change.

In Ecuador, anti-austerity protests won major concessions and built the platform for the right’s projected election defeat in April. In Chile, protests that started against cuts to public spending culminated in a landslide referendum vote to rip up the country’s right-wing constitution. Meanwhile, protests in Peru led to the resignation of interim president Manuel Merino after a coup to remove his predecessor. All three countries have presidential elections this year and, inspired by the protests, could all deliver crushing defeats to the neoliberal project.

It all suggests that a second pink tide could be possible. For it to happen, the protest movements must take confidence from the successes above and continue to grow. Left-leaning electoral parties alone are not enough to bring systemic change; it must be forced from below.

It also vital that lessons are learned from the decline of the original pink tide, making sure that economies are more diversified and that the right have little platform from which to build a fightback. They must also be prepared for the threat of international interference, already seen in efforts to discredit Ecuadorian leftist Andrés Arauz.

Socialists across Latin America are becoming increasingly confident of another pink tide, winning electoral success and delivering significant change. They must build on the momentum they have gained to ensure they defeat the right and end inequality.

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