As The 'Pink Tide' In Latin America Retreats, How Far Will The Centrist Surge Reach?

Between 2000 and 2010, a slate of leftists swept into power across Latin America. This is widely known as the ‘Pink Tide’ of leftist presidents. Some of these included former guerilla fighters – Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica – who were staunch supporters of leftist and, sometimes, Marxist ideologies. Recent history has seen the region slip from dictatorial militarism to right-of-center administrations and then the ‘Pink Tide’. Recently this trend has retreated as centrist governments take hold of the region and begin implementing more market-friendly policies; most notably in Argentina, Peru, and Brazil. However, it is still to be determined exactly what caused the Pink Tide to occur.

Latin American governments share a few structural similarities. Firstly, almost all are presidential systems with legislative assemblies elected through proportional representation. While the combination of these two systems has been praised in some circles, the poor economic performance and political instability that plagues much of Latin America make this an unattractive model. The complications of multi-partyism, executive-legislative interplay, and coalition-building all contribute to governmental gridlock. Joe Foweraker of Cambridge University notes that the best predictor of governability is a legislative assembly where the presidential party boasts 45% representation. Barring an out-and-out achievement of this threshold, a president’s best option to achieve high governability is coalition-building with their various political rivals. But fractious politics and large personalities limit the possibility for secure coalitions, which often-times leads to unstable government.

Historically, five types of interruptions have destabilized Latin American presidencies: resignation; resignation through early elections; presidential incapacity; impeachment; and coups. Government crises are a critical gauge of an electoral shift. If, during a crisis or interruption, the administration in power was a right-of-center party, there is greater likelihood of a leftist leader inheriting power soon after.

While this type of democratic interruption reduces stability, there is evidence that suggests this could positively impact Latin American democracy by reducing presidential rigidity. The increased flexibility stems from greater engagement between Latin American presidents and their legislative bodies; to which they have become significantly more beholden and responsible. As a result, presidents no longer have carte blanche to conduct their affairs free from legislative (read: public) scrutiny. This growing flexibility is creating a quasi-parliamentary state that couples some aspects of the rigid and centralized presidential system with the diffuse and flexible aspects of a parliamentary system. Though Latin America’s path-dependent adoption of presidentialism will likely never cede to parliamentary reform, this growing hybrid is providing a happy medium between the two systems.

Rather than a homogenous rise throughout the region, the left’s rise in Latin America occurred along a sweeping gamut, anchored on either end by the leftist rise in Chile and Venezuela. Chile’s leftward shift saw an embrace of neoliberal market forces and growing economic prosperity as a result of it. Venezuela, in contrast, adopted radical populism that railed against the international system – the United States, in particular – and did everything to reject that very same neoliberal market economy.

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While most countries exist on the spectrum between these two extremes, they can generally be placed in one of these two camps. Colombia and Peru tend toward the Chilean camp, while Bolivia and Ecuador toward Venezuela. Argentina and Brazil, interestingly, vacillates between the two. Rentier economies are the best predictor of these affiliations. In non- rentier states the left are more likely to operate within the parameters of representative democracy and market economies.

Conversely, in rentier states, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, rents foster an animosity toward neoliberal policy constraints. The windfall of revenue from rents create illusory opportunity and the ability to reject the norms of the political and socioeconomic order. As evidence of this, Bolivia’s shift to left-radicalism from left-moderation followed the discovery of gargantuan natural gas reserves and a newly-formed rentier economy.

Commodity booms – such as those associated with mining, oil, and agricultural goods – allow for leftist leaders to garner widespread support through redistributive policies. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez famously used the country’s substantial oil revenues to win the support of the country’s poor. Similarly, former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva famously instituted the Bolsa Familia welfare program which provided aid to poorer Brazilian families.

As the region grows economically, and a middle class begins to form, new concerns have come to the fore of political discussion that were previously less pressing, such as corruption and personal security. Where poverty was previously seen as a pandemic afflicting swathes of Latin American populations, now it is viewed as a social issue that must be tackled by the middle and upper class.

In her 2012 article, Karen Remmer explores the root causes of the rising leftist-populist governments in Latin America. While support has been growing for populism, strength has been drawn from both ends of the political spectrum. Though various factors have been blamed for this phenomenon, Remmer argues that it is due to

improving external economic conditions during the early 2000s, which relaxed the preexisting constraints on policy choice, enhanced the credibility of anti-status quo political actors, and created new opportunities for the pursuit of statist, nationalist, and redistributive political projects and associated challenges to U.S. hegemony

The rise of Latin America’s Left is not wholly dependent on current events, though. It is also related to historical factors that came to a head right at the onset of the ‘Pink Tide.’ More specifically, the region’s historical affinity for Marxist ideologies and how well they resonated with Latin American electorates. Voters and leaders who came of age during the height of Soviet-era Marxism inherited power at the time of the Pink Tide and ushered in a wave of leftist policies.

Starting with the post-colonial era, Latin American governments underwent a series of ideological shifts that saw the region skirt from left-wing and right-wing politics; with variations of each in between. The most critical period begins with the militaristic, dictatorial era of the mid-20th century. With Soviet-era Marxism sweeping through the world, its tenets found a particularly welcoming home in much of Latin America. Whether out-and-out Communists such as Cuba, or socialist heroes such as Chile’s Salvador Allende, Marxism was a viable and attractive option for many Latin Americans who saw themselves as part of an oppressed proletariat.

The ensuing military coups and dictatorships of the following decades were seen as rampant American interventionism – despite only a few documented cases of its execution. Nonetheless, this worked to build a deep anti-American sentiment across the region that manifested in violent protests and outright guerilla movements against central governments. Moreover, this was coupled with a rejection of American and neoliberal development policies such as the Washington-consensus which was expected to bring about accelerated growth to the region. The dictatorial era gave way to sweeping right-wing governments across the region that went about implementing the neoliberal policies so fervently rejected by previous generations of protestors. The late 1980s, through the 1990s, saw mediocre growth in the region as the global economy shifted away from much of the region’s largest commodities. This placed Latin American electorates in the domain of losses and left them ready to eject the current establishment in favor of leaders willing to make drastic changes.

The 2000’s saw the rise of the Pink Tide and the populist-leftist governments discussed today. Much of this was possible due to the rise of China on the world stage. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization saw its economy skyrocket from a middle-income country to the second largest economy in the world (by some accounts). The rise of China also saw a boom in commodity prices for the agriculture and mineral goods primarily exported by many Pink Tide countries. Countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile soon grew fat feeding the Chinese appetite for commodities. This put most of these countries in the domain of gains wherein electorates largely attributed the countries’ good fortunes to the administrations in power and rewarded them for their efforts. The improving external economic condition allowed for the positive impact that saw sustained growth in much of the region. More importantly, it allowed them to eschew ties with the United States and Western markets in favor of the newly-opened Chinese market which had an apparently insatiable appetite for Latin American goods. This rejection of the American market also saw a rejection of free-market policies in favor of leftist and redistributive policies. The pendulum, once again, swung back left.

The development of quasi-rentier states also saw a sharp divide amongst the Latin American left between what was seen as anti-American economies such as Brazil and Argentina, and pro-American economies which included Mexico, Chile and Colombia. This divide was most visibly seen in the two competing regional trade blocs: the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) and the Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance, which comprises Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru, embraced open market policies, free trade, closer economic integration, and discouraged trade with few, if any, states. Mercosur, comprising Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela, is a customs union which, while touting economic integration, was protectionist in nature and paralyzed by political infighting. The close relationship between Mexico and the United States drew the Pacific Alliance closer to the US economy, while political animosity to the US from Mercosur members saw the bloc distance itself from the US in favor of China. Thus, Mercosur states benefitted from Chinese growth and were not as heavily impacted when the 2007 US Financial Crisis shuddered through the global economy. Conversely, Pacific Alliance members, namely Mexico, suffered greatly through the financial crisis. This juxtaposition lent leftist leaders legitimacy amid their electorate as they boasted continued growth throughout the storm.

The divisions witnessed along the Pacific Alliance-Mercosur divide similarly follow the ideological divides between moderate leftists and radical leftists. As outright agricultural and oil rentier states, Mercosur countries saw public rhetoric against the US escalate. Relations between Brazil and the US soured following a wire-tapping scandal, Evo Morales’ ejection of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as an American tool for manipulation, Hugo Chavez’ Castro-style bombast against the US ‘empire’ echoed across the globe, and Cristina Fernandez’ public feud with her country’s creditors and a US federal judge were all perfect examples of radicalized leftists as categorized by Kurt Weyland’s 2009 study on leftist governments. In contrast, The Pacific Alliance’s strong institutional framework and openness to market economies exemplify a more moderate leftist manifestation which was more centrist in nature. The sudden boom in commodity revenue for these radical leftist states saw a growing middle class – particularly in Brazil where record numbers of people were pulled out of extreme poverty. In this, the charismatic leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva was revered. However, the growing middle class also brought about new issues not tied to economics – particularly, corruption and personal safety.

The new centrist surge that has been taking hold in the past few years is seeing the pendulum shift away from the left and back to the center. Starting with the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, there has been a signal that protectionist policies will no longer be tolerated if they are at the detriment of the country. The Kirchner governments were quick to give political handouts to their constituents and enact policies that were politically popular but economical anathema. Macri’s shock therapy was a clear and present move against that mentality. Bolivians’ refusal to give Morales a further term in office despite his unbridled popularity is another example that institutions are taking precedent to politics. Peruvians’ rejection of Keiko Fujimori this year suggests that her father’s legacy has tainted her as well, and they skipped over her to usher in former World Bank executive Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Lastly, Brazil’s impeachment of Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff on corruption charges indicates that the country has reached a new level of concern as outlined by Michael Shifter in his 2011 article “A Surge to the Center.” Even now, Rousseff’s replacement is dogged by allegations of bribery and corruption – indicating that this corruption purge is not limited to any one party.

Ultimately, the Pink Tide took place due to various of reasons. Increasing performance from budding Latin American rentier states were propelled by Chinese growth. As China expanded at an accelerated rate, they brought along anyone willing to hitch their caboose to their engine. However, following this path brought about unchecked government that flouted many of its laws and institutions while placating their electorate with politically popular policies. The booming economic conditions were vastly attributed to the skills of the leftist administrations rather than the external economic conditions that allowed for such rapid and unfettered growth. Coupled with the maturing generation of would-be revolutionaries – 4 Presidents of the Pink Tide were former guerillas – and the overall Marxist sentiments carried over from the Soviet era popular support for these leftist leaders welled across the region.

This constantly shifting allegiance to different political ideologies does not necessarily correlate with changing sentiments in the electorate. While most people identify as centrists, there is still a consistent shift along the left-right divide. There is a stark possibility that this has much to do with the institutional structure of Latin American presidentialism. Because of the region’s PR-presidentialism, there is a constant struggle between the executive and legislative branch. The increasing occurrence of presidential interruption suggests that, while the office of the president is still central to domestic power, the legislature is becoming increasingly combative with their presidents. The recent impeachments of Dilma Rouseff and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, and the ongoing battle against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are only a few examples of this growing trend.


Yakir Pimentel is a contributor at Geopolitical Monitor.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Frontera and its owners.
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