by Daniel Blazekovic
Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro maintains a substantial lead over his leftist rival Fernando Haddad in the lead-up to an October 28th run-off vote. Bolsonaro’s rise in popularity brings with it the end of a political phenomenon that arrived in Brazil fifteen years earlier with the election of socialist Lula Da Silva.
Often referred to as the Pink Tide, this phenomenon refers to the election of leftist political parties and leaders across Latin America beginning in the late 1990s and continuing into the late 2000s. These elected leaders not only advocate for major social and economic reforms but also reject outright the Western neoliberal ideals possessed by their predecessors.
The Pink Tide began in 1998 when the late Hugo Chávez, or “El Comandante,” captured the presidency and publicly declared the rebirth of Venezuela. The election of Chávez represented not so much a new page in Latin American politics as a new volume, with the old rulebook thrown in the garbage. Chávez campaigned on the promise to reject the Western paradigm of deregulation, tax cuts, and free trade, in favour of sweeping socialist reforms, including the nationalization of oil production. In the decade that followed, several Latin leaders adopted these same ideals and found a receptive audience in their respective countries.
Following the election of Chávez, the Pink Tide not only grew but managed to engulf most of Latin America within the decade. Within ten years, leftists were elected in some of Latin America’s most important economies: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and a few years later in Peru. Following the rise of Chavismo in Venezuela, most of Central America shifted to the left also.
One feature of the Pink Tide is the promotion of strong social programs intended to dramatically reduce poverty and inequality. In 2003, Brazilian leftist and President Lula da Silva introduced Bolsa Família, a conditional cash transfer program which targeted 50 million of Brazil’s most vulnerable. Despite heavy skepticism from pundits who opposed Lula’s brand of socialism, Bolsa Família more than halved Brazil’s extreme poverty – from 9.7 to 4.3 % of the population.
Dramatic Latin America had a decade of uninterrupted high growth rates during this period, with the sole exception of 2009 in the aftermath of the Lehman crisis. To observers around the world, the regime’s economic successes proved that Latin socialist regimes could flourish while simultaneously rejecting Western political and economic influences.
However, the regimes’ successes were fated not to last. Following one of the biggest economic expansions in Latin American history — fuelled in large part by a global commodity boom — Latin America’s economic growth came to a dramatic and abrupt end. In the absence of favourable external economic conditions, the Latin American region is expected to see GDP growth at disappointing rates of around 2 percent per capita for the foreseeable future.
The source of the Pink Tide regimes’ decline came both from without – through global economic forces – and from within. The same leaders who sold a vision of anti-corruption and accountability to their constituencies were marred by the scandals of their predecessors. In Brazil, Operation Car Wash led to the impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff and the jailing of her predecessor and mentor, former President Lula da Silva.
Now that the Pink Tide has come crashing down on the shores of most Latin American countries, a new wave seems to be forming and has almost reached its crest. Just as the left rose to power more than ten years ago, the right is capturing presidencies and populating congresses in important Latin American economies.
In Argentina, following the twelve-year rule of husband-and-wife Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of the leftist and populist Peronist movement, Mauricio Macri, a right-wing politician, was narrowly chosen by Argentinian voters in 2015 to lead the country out of economic turmoil. Along with promoting free market ideals, Macri promised voters to use his power to free jailed Venezuelan opposition leaders, severing the close relationship that Argentina and Venezuela enjoyed during the Pink Tide era.
Finally, in Brazil, the far-right Bolsonaro continues to lead in the presidential polls. Likening himself to American President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro warmly embraces being labeled as a far-right conservative who is not afraid to speak frankly about hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights.
The rise of right-wing politicians in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, combined with the weakening of leftist presidents in both Venezuela and Bolivia, leaves one thing clearly evident: except in the cases of Mexico and to a lesser extent Ecuador (who both recently elected leftist leaders) leftist regimes across Latin America are in sharp decline. Reversing that trend will likely require leftist parties to come up with a new message to again penetrate the imaginations of the voters who overwhelmingly supported them over a decade ago.
Daniel Blazekovic is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto School of Public Policy and Governance. Daniel completed his Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management with a specialization in Development Studies at Carleton University. He is particularly interested in Latin American politics, conflict studies and populism.