A New Left Tide in Latin America. Making Structural Progress Finally?

Can the recent election of Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, be seen as an impulse for change that will finally create social structural progress in Latin America?

The victory of the left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro is a political breakthrough both in Colombia and in the new Latin American ‘pink tide’. Petro, a former guerrilla politician, became the first leftist president in Colombia’s two hundred years of independence, symbolically completing the defeat of colonialism and undermining neoliberal capitalism. This may indeed bring significant positive changes for the lower and middle classes in Colombia.

At the same time, it is an important turning point for the whole of Latin America because, until now, Colombia has played the role of a Trojan horse for the United States. It was Colombia in particular that weakened the first Latin American pink tide (marea rosa in Spanish and onda rosa in Brazilian Portuguese), which began with the 1999 election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Perhaps the proponents of the second tide will learn from the first and be inspired by other examples globally in order to finally deliver social structural progress.  

Reasons for the late tilt towards the left in Colombia

How is it possible that Columbia is only now reaching this turning point? One of the reasons was the unsustainability of the long-standing right-wing ideology in the country. Secondly, the current tilt towards the left is due to long-standing problems that have not been sufficiently addressed: social inequalities and injustices, narconomics, the consequences of disputes between the right-wing regime and earlier radical left alternatives and so on. Thirdly, Gustavo Petro is probably suitable as he had already established himself as mayor of Bogotá. Moreover, when Petro ran for president, he was pushed to declare that he would not expropriate large private properties, as Chávez did in Venezuela. In doing so, Petro reassured the owners of domestic and especially foreign corporations as well as the United States. Under the current Biden administration, preoccupied with waging a proxy war against Russia and containing China, such a declaration was apparently sufficient. Fourth, the current new left tide in many Latin American countries is an important external support and motivation for electing a left-wing president. And still, there are other reasons.

The first Latin American pink tide 

Now let us look at the differences between the first and second pink tides. The first began with a strong personality, Hugo Chávez, who won the support of many citizens and became President of Venezuela in 1999. Thereafter, left-wing leadership gradually came to power in other countries of South America as well. The symbols of the wave were the ‘three musketeers’: Hugo Chávez, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), and Evo Morales (Bolivia). Their governments positioned themselves differently along the left-wing spectrum. For example, while Venezuela was the strongest supporter of Cuba, Brazil was more likely to represent social and participatory democracy. Whereas Venezuela nationalised oil companies and introduced substantial social benefits, Brazil strengthened the welfare state and promoted civic experiments in participatory democracy — bolsa familia social measures, participatory budgeting and the social forum. All the pink-tide countries strengthened social programmes that have since helped vulnerable citizens.

Behind these policies were concrete material economic causes that were one of the conditions for social change. The gradual economic development of China and other countries strengthened global commodity demand. Increased world commodity prices enabled Latin American countries with natural wealth to pursue social policies. Venezuela and Brazil in particular became early models of how to take advantage of increased oil prices. Other countries with leftist governments did what they could to follow this social path as well, although many did not or could not take advantage of their natural wealth.

However, these changes proved to be less profound than necessary and, therefore, only temporary. Although the Venezuelan government made specific structural changes in favour of public ownership and introduced various structural social programmes, these changes were not deep enough. As soon as commodity prices fell on the world market, the Venezuelan government lost large amounts of funding for these social programmes. As Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro wanted to maintain them, the country suffered an economic crisis. Other countries also made mainly surface changes. Essentially, only one particular phase of the political cycle was used, when a social democratic government was in power, to increase funding for social benefits for the poor and the middle class. Then, in the next phase of the political cycle, right-wing governments came in. Were these right-wing governments not to return, the United States would help implement a constitutional coup d’état (golpe de Estado), as happened in Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. The gradual decline of the left in Latin America culminated in a constitutional coup in Brazil in 2016 when President Dilma Rousseff was ousted. After that, there was not much remaining of the left on the continent. The first pink tide from 1999 to 2016 was over.

The impacts of the second Latin American pink tide

The second pink tide grew less intensely and less noticeably. The base of the wave still consists of socialist Cuba and Venezuela but both these countries face severe economic problems. In other countries, politically more moderate social democratic figures have come to power. In 2018, López Obrador became president of Mexico, followed by the 2019 elections of Alberto Fernandez in Argentina and Laurentino Cortizo in Panama.

In 2020, Luis Arce came to lead Bolivia, and, in 2021, Gabriel Boric in Chile, Pedro Castillo in Peru and Xiomara Castro in Honduras became presidents. This year, 2022, Colombia has elected a leftist president, Petro, for the first time in its history, a truly significant change in Latin America.

And now we are awaiting the presidential elections in Brazil, which should take place in October. In the last election, the main candidate, Lula, was unable to run because he had been thrown in jail after a political trial. Hopefully, this time Lula will be able to run without interference. He has the highest electoral preference so far, and there is hope that he will reverse the current policies of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Were Brazil also to switch to the left, the left would be in power in all six major economies in Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Peru, in addition to other smaller countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Only a few smaller economies would still have right-wing governments. This would already be a solid transnational basis on the left for economic and social changes on the continent. But these would have to be more comprehensive and deeper than during the first pink tide. In addition to necessary social benefits, this would require major social and economic structural changes that go in the opposite direction of the asocial structural adjustments previously demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States, and other neoliberal pressures.

A lot has changed in the world since the first pink tide began, and some tendencies have become more relevant as time has progressed. BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), comprising five emerging big economies, was established in 2006. Since then, the BRICS countries have had increasing influence on the world economy and have been working together under the current conditions as well. Some other developing countries in Africa and Asia have also significantly stepped up and are cooperating with Latin America in a South-South cooperation. The main developing country today is China, which has also become the main trading partner of South America and the second largest in Latin America overall. It has been developed a cooperation on a China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) basis. This is, of course, on the radar of the United States. Since the rise of Trump, containment of China has begun. Partly this policy is also being applied in Latin America, with an attempt to maintain US hegemony in this macro-region as its backyard.

Second tide – second chance? 

Will the current left Latin American governments be more integrated (ALBA, etc.) and proceed in the sense of putting more emphasis on key infrastructure investments; strategic planning as a framework for a market socialist economy; key strategic ownership in the hands of the state, provinces, and cities; and structural poverty eradication? If they don’t come up with an innovative model, it could end up like last time: overly reliant on civil society and unsecured resources for social welfare, resulting in the gradual fall of the left in each country and the end of the tide. This time the fall would be even easier because Venezuela and Brazil are no longer riding the crest of a commodity boom. More needs to be done than simply reinforcing the necessary social redistribution.

The people of Latin America have placed their hope in the left governments they have elected to push for changes to improve the structure of the economy and the social living conditions of the poor and middle class and thereby create better conditions for democratic participation of the people. At the same time, in joint Latin American cooperation, strategic foreign partners will need to be well chosen to counter the hegemonic efforts of the United States. The second left tide represents this new opportunity.