In 1970 the ‘Joan of Arc’ of Brazil’s Marxist guerrilla movement lay tortured and broken, rotting away in the prison of a regime whose reputation was typical on the continent. Fast-forward to 40 years later, Dilma Rousseff was sworn in as the president of her country, taking the baton from her party comrade Lula de Silva; one of the famous faces of the ‘Pink-tide’ of socialist parties which swept through Latin America in the first decade of the century. Today her regime seems much more precarious, despite winning a presidential election less than two years ago. Her administration, and her ideology, are threatened from all sides. The economy is in troubled waters, oil prices are down, the state-run oil company is mired in scandal, and before she can deal with all that she must fend off impending impeachment hearings, initiated by the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, a member of her own governing coalition.
The Accepted Narrative
For many commentators this story is the story of Latin America’s shifting reputation. Throughout the late 20th century, the continent was a byword for corruption and authoritarianism. A combination of US interests and endogenous developments meant that from 1954 – 1976 its nascent democracies and quasi-democracies fell into the hands of brutal right-wing strongmen. From CIA backed coups in Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973) to the entirely domestic seizure of power in Argentina (1976), the result of Cold War anti-communism has been a half-century of rule by puppet dictators. Led by Pinochet in Chile, these right-wing autocrats initiated Operation Condor, a campaign to eradicate communist influence and ideas, suppressing potential opposition groups through means of brutal tyranny.
This was the reputation of Latin America heading towards the 21st century, until, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the continent was transformed once more. As the ideological threat of communism waned, a third wave of democratisation, beginning in the 1980s, swept away a host of authoritarian leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. The ideological bent attributed to the cold war dictators had a significant effect on the fruits of the new democracy, as a host of radical socialist parties were elected to government across the continent. Indeed, many of the leaders of this so-called pink-wave had been persecuted during the years of dictatorial rule, from President Michelle Bachelet of Chile who was imprisoned by Pinochet’s regime to President Jose Mujica in Uruguay, formerly a tupamaro (guerrilla member) in the 1970s. The ‘Pink-tide’ marked a key victory for the Left internationally, with radical economic policies and redistributions of wealth replacing the previous US-led order. All the while though, liberal commentators complained that this was not the transformation it was cracked up to be. That it was the same old story of corruption, authoritarianism and abuse of human rights; a claim for which Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela was perfect evidence.
The subsequent resource boom in many of these countries lasted for much of the last decade, but as China has shifted gear in its economic development, demand has drained away. A glut in the price of oil, currently under US$30 (£20.6) a barrel, has further added to these woes, leading those economies dependent on resource exports into dire straits. President Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina has bequeathed to her successor a fiscal deficit that is expected to reach 7% of GDP this year, the biggest since 1982 and according to Barclays Bank, default on Venezuela’s US$98 billion (£67.4 billion) of foreign debt is “becoming hard to avoid”. Furthermore, inflation and shortages in Venezuela’s mishandled economy are bringing people onto the streets in direct opposition to the regime, formerly the figurehead of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.
Those who dislike the trend towards radical politics have been rejoicing over these developments, seeing the waning fortunes of the Bolivarians as the beginning of the end of the Pink-tide. And superficially at least, in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina their prophecy seems to be holding out. Venezuela’s parliament opened on January 5th 2016 with the first opposition majority in 17 years, after Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won the popular vote by a margin of 15 percentage points. Their subsequent supermajority brings them significant power, allowing them to reject government budgets, dismiss Supreme Court justices, convene constitutional conventions and veto the president’s longer foreign trips. Elsewhere, for the first time in 14 years, Argentina is not ruled by Peronists (adherents to the authoritarian ideology which has dominated the country’s politics for 70 years), replacing the Kirchner family with former President of football club Boca Juniors, Mauricio Macri. And finally, in Brazil, the opposition stalk the wounded regime of Ms Rousseff, as her government circles the drain.
But while this version of event has garnered much attention, it has numerous flaws which render its prognosis improvident. Trying to track general trends across an entire continent is really a fool’s game, but if there is something that defines the recent developments in Latin America, then it certainly is not anti-socialist sentiment, but a spirit of opposition to corruption and autocracy, the very same one that toppled every one of those cold war dictators. Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina have very different political histories, and so their ‘pink-tide’ stories must be told very differently. Such an understanding helps us account for the recent perceived movement away from left-wing governments and the motives behind this shift.
The True Face of Opposition
In Brazil there is little complaint on the ground of socialist leaders bringing illiberalism and poverty, rather it is a more general sense of corruption which is driving citizens to the streets. Brazil’s fairly developed democracy renders its comparison to Venezuela and Argentina in recent coverage puzzling, but its story is nonetheless illuminating with regards to the general trend.
Junta rule in Brazil did not cease until 1985, and their government has been plagued by major corruption ever since. In the mid-2000s, scandal hit when it was discovered that Lula’s party had been running a bribes-for-votes scheme. Comparatively, Rousseff’s impeachment troubles should be seen for what they are, a cynical attempt to detract attention away from a speaker, who, along with 33 other Senators, is under investigation for taking bribes from the state oil company Petrobas. And it is this which points to the real development in Brazil.
Under the leadership of prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, Brazil is finally clearing out its skeleton filled closet. In a recent interview, Dallagnol recalled a recent conversation with a man who said “he had cried when he saw the prince of a huge company being arrested because it made him realise the law is being applied equally. He never imagined something like that happening in Brazil.” Roughly US$6.2 billion (£4.3 billio) of corruption has been uncovered so far, but the figure is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. The new generation of prosecutors and judges, many trained in US universities, don’t have the same political connections and aren’t interested in deal making, but are interested principally in cleaning up the government. Indeed, the important story in Brazil is not even related to ideology, rather it is making the final steps towards the kind of governance expected of a developed economy.
The Argentinian Model
Of all the recent developments, Argentina fits the desired narrative mould best. Unlike in most of Latin America, the left opposition is insignificant, with the anti-Kirchner Progresistas gaining only four seats in the Senate. The presidential election was fought between three ideologies and these are roughly reflected in the Congress. The Front for Victory, whose personnel governed until last year, are an authoritarian party representing the left of the Peronist ideology. Their flip side is the Federal Peronist coalition, who came third in the recent elections. Peronism has often been described as a ‘syncretic’ populist ideology, and Peronists generally emphasising social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty. While both breeds have tendency towards authoritarianism, Kirchner’s left Peronism has a socialistic economic line whereas the federal Peronists have kept to more orthodox liberal economic policies.
While for the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, the victory of Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos is interesting because they are the most compelling case of the Left’s rejection, what is truly interesting is that they represent the first non-Peronist to govern the country in half a century. In reality, the recent election is superficially similar to Venezuela in being seen as a rejection of the Left, but it should rather be seen as finally casting aside the authoritarian nationalism indigenous to both left and right Peronists.
What’s more, for many countries where the pink-tide seems threatened, the main opposition is made up of anti-authoritarian and social democratic leftists. Besides in Argentina, popular governments and rising oppositions in Latin America can generally be defined as socialist or social democratic. In Venezuela for example, the opposition, while certainly a broad tent and is referred to in the Bolivarian press as ‘right-wing’, is predominantly composed of parties identifying as social democratic or centrist. The left elements of the opposition denounced the lack of trade union leadership, governmental bureaucracy and corruption; hardly the stuff of reaction. Indeed, in defining his vision of Venezuela, presidential challenger Capriles (one of the oppositions numerous leaders) motioned to the balanced and diverse economy created under Lula in Brazil, another pink-tide leader. And in that very country, the political arena is similarly dominated by left of centre parties. In the 2014 election, Rousseff was, up until the very last week, more threatened by the Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva than the liberal opposition party (PSDB), which itself was founded under the banner of social democracy.
The frequency with which authoritarian socialists in Latin America are replaced with liberal socialists shows that for the most part, these trends are not part of a broad decline of the Left in the region. Rather, these developments show that the long process by which Latin Americans have been redefining their image and the way in which the world perceive them, no longer as brutal and corrupt autocracies, but as modern and democratic members of the international community, is almost at an end. And while, to a fairly significant extent, people are also voting against the economic state of their nations, it is not an attack on ‘left-wing’ politics, but on the corruption and illiteracy which defines policy in Venezuela and Argentina. The two should not be seen as one and the same. In Bolivia, Morales, initially ridiculed internationally, is now credited by the World Bank and IMF with implementing transformative economic and social reforms that have reduced poverty levels, boosted real wages and produced high growth rates.
In a lot of senses the regimes of Chavez and Kirchner had more in common with those Cold War dictators than with the new political trend in Latin America. As Brazil wipes the sleaze away from its well-developed institutions, Venezuela begins this long process. Once this transition is complete, and the strongmen no longer taint the reputation of the continent, Latin America will no doubt be seen as a place of open and thriving nations, but ones which retain a politics centred on social justice and the alleviation of poverty.
But just as it is not the beginning of a right-wing upswing in Latin America, nor is it the final end of authoritarianism. In Venezuela particularly, the disjointed opposition has a lot of hurdles to overcome given the regime’s tight grip on power. And while much of the continent is ahead of the Kirchners (supporters of the outgoing regime in Argentina) and Chavistas (supporters of the current regime in Venezuela) when it comes to political liberty, in Ecuador and Bolivia, where economic policy has not succumbed to the same pitfalls as Venezuela, imperial executive rule remains unblemished.
As electoral defeat loomed in Venezuela, Maduro’s men in the Congress made moves to shore up their power. One of the final acts of that assembly was to pack the Supreme Court with 13 obedient judges, who duly ruled that four of the incoming MPs (three from the opposition) could not be sworn in as they are subject to investigations into possible electoral fraud – throwing into doubt the MUD’s supermajority. The assembly also introduced a bill stripping the assembly of its right to appoint directors of the Central Bank, or to even question them. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, renegade union leaders accuse the ruling party of manipulating the key unions in order to keep their support. Bolivia’s national trade union (COB) set up an oppositional leftist party, the Worker’s Party (PT), in March 2013, but after their protests began meeting police violence, the trade union congress decided to change their support back to the Movement for Socialism (MAS).
Roadmap for the Future
But if the trend really is towards a pluralist democracy, and voters are rejecting authoritarianism and illiberalism, the Chavistas will soon be sent packing, and Morales and Correa may be the next to go. But it is not as if they have no example to follow, as discussed before, while the tide was pink everywhere, its exact hue varied from country to country. The Socialist Mujica administration in Uruguay has liberalised the country socially, updating divorce law, decriminalizing abortion and introducing innovative drug policies which drew commendation from The Economist which labelled it 2013’s country of the year. All the while, Mujica’s Broad Front Party has spread the wealth, implementing a suite of social programs. In Chile too, the Socialist Party has managed to navigate its way through the 2008 crisis relatively unscathed with the help of the Keynesian counter-cyclical policies of then-Finance Minister Andres Velasco, and even the Wall Street Journal has recognised that “as a socialist president, she maintained good relations with the business community”.
The ‘pink-tide’ isn’t ebbing yet
In picking out the most radical elements of the ‘pink-tide’ movement, much of the media has mistakenly diagnosed the end of the movement in Latin America. By understanding the local politics of the respective countries, we can see there is no such rejection of the ‘pink-tide’ tendency as a whole. Rather, the nations inflicted with more extreme cases are simply on a path of moderation, moving towards a norm which most ‘pink-tide’ nations already hold to. So while Latin America may be on the pathway to moderation and modernity, to a future free from the threat of coup and counter coup, nobody should be in any doubt that the politics which will define this era will remain recalcitrantly tinged pink.