Updated: Apr 19
A belated absolution
“History will absolve me,” in 1953, the 27-years-old Fidel Castro declared emphatically in court in a national outcry over the right-wing dictatorship under Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista. True to his words, in a few years the Marxist revolutionary launched an armed revolt, overthrew the autocrat, and succeeded in turning Cuba into one of the world’s most equitable societies. All the while the rest of his native Latin American continent bemoaned US-backed, neo-liberal military autocrats who came to power in CIA-staged coups and perpetually oppressed their populace with fear and violence. An oligarchic economy, coupled with the lack of political representation from the minorities, meant that poverty is transmitted from generation to generation, turning Latin American societies into vicious cycles of economic inequality.
Much has changed throughout the continent since the end of the Cold War as the United States loosened its rein. Leftist, and, for the first time in history, socialist candidates were elected to office in many countries around the turn of the century, signalling hopes of transformation. Notwithstanding the progress of democratization, however, much of Latin America remained economically stagnant and hierarchical. Today, Latin America has the highest levels of income inequality in the world. In Chile, one per cent of the population owns more than 25 per cent of the wealth.
For Latin Americans, enough was enough. In 2021, voters in Peru, Honduras, and Chile stood firmly behind progressive candidates in presidential elections, extending “a decisive shift to the left” across the continent. Indeed, Latin American leftists are making an overwhelming resurgence following decades of neo-liberal rule, reminding analysts of a similar “pink tide” movement that was most active a decade ago. Only this time, changes appear to be far more abrupt, profound, and ubiquitous. This is best exemplified by the Chilean riots of 2019. Protests triggered by a subway fare increase quickly snowballed into a nationwide uprising that resulted in five months of political mobilization, the drafting of a new constitution, and the election of a former student leader, Gabriel Boric. Boric, who campaigned for a youth-led inclusive government have, at 35, sworn in as the country’s youngest-ever president in March 2022.
From a broader time perspective, the “Pink Tide 2.0” of Latin America had had its roots even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Kickstarted by Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico in 2018, who trounced his conservative opponents by promising to end corruption and reduce violence, the movement expanded to Panama, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, where voters favored leftist challengers over rightist incumbents. By the end of last year, Honduras and Chile, two more of the region’s neo-liberal strongholds, turned “pink”. Furthermore, polling suggests that if elections are being held at the moment, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Gustavo Petro would become the presidents of Brazil and Colombia respectively, where said elections are scheduled to take place in mid-2022, potentially placing the number of left-wing leaders in Latin America to an astounding total of 18.
“It is a social explosion,” said Nicole Martínez, a student leader in the Chilean protests.
A social explosion
Why are Latin Americans all becoming so progressive all of a sudden? A single factor that stands out is, of course, the impact of the pandemic, which considerably exacerbated the economic disparities across the region. Latin America has long been a region with a large informal economy and crowded settlements, making it easier for the virus to spread and more difficult for governments to intervene, all the while running on health supply deficits. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Covid-19 entails the highest death rate in Latin America than anywhere else. Low-wage workers, more than anyone else, were hurt by the pandemic due to suspensions of essential services, mounting unemployment, and rocketing price levels. Low disposable income, coupled with rising food prices, can translate to harsh food insecurity and, in some cases, famines. Children from lower-income families lacked access to education during school closures due to the general lack of electronic infrastructure in many regions. As the most vulnerable communities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the consequent economic crisis, they had no choice but to cast their votes to radical reformers who seemed to offer solutions of last resort.
The “social explosion” started over economic issues, observed Alisha Holland of the Harvard Gazette, but it did not just end there, for the people simply aren’t satisfied with a few pesos’ drop in subway fees. Instead, they demand a complete overhaul of the neo-liberal capitalist system that reigned supreme ever since the continent’s invasion by US corporations and remained untouched after the democratic transition. As the commodity boom came to halt, however, the kind of economic policies responsible for economic growth during the early 2000s is no longer working in 2022. Instead, they hindered social mobility, hurt employment, and occasionally if not frequently culminated in corruption scandals that diminished people’s faith in the government. As the political establishment failed to address the looming crises, their popular support collapsed. It should be noted that not only the extreme left but also the extreme right benefited from surging poll numbers. “There’s a sense of ‘Just throw all the politicians out.’' Holland said.
Why, then, did leftist parties, but not their rightist counterparts, come out victorious in most of the cases? An interesting comparison can be drawn between Latin America and Eastern Europe, a region where political extremism is also on the rise. Unlike Latin America, though, it was the right-wing extreme of the political spectrum that seemed to have gained an upper hand, whether it’s the Hungarian Fidesz Party under Viktor Orban or the Polish Law and Justice Party.
History offers explanations. Like Latin America, much Eastern Europe saw the discrediting of dictatorships after the Cold War had ended. While Eastern Europeans spent forty years living under the yoke of Soviet communism, for most Latin Americans the most traumatic memories were none else but that of during conservative dictatorial rule. The most obvious example, of course, belongs to the infamous General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who was notorious for tossing his political opponents from helicopters into shark-infested oceans. Even after the country became a democracy, many defects of dictatorial rule remained unscathed in Latin America. For instance, Chile’s current right-wing government was able to clamp down hard on the protests by imposing a toque de queda as mandated by the 1980 Pinochet constitution. The country is also the only place in the world where water is privatized, another legacy of Pinochet. In 2021, therefore, Gabriel Boric was able to gain sympathy from centrist voters by skillfully portraying his ultra-conservative opponent, José Kast, as “an heir to Pinochetismo”. It won him the election.
An uncertain future
Perhaps it would be premature to conclude what the renewal of the Pink Tide would bring for the Latin American people. Like their predecessors, the newly installed socialist governments in Latin America faced numerous difficulties. The previous administrations have already exhausted their limited fiscal firepower as they struggled to contain the spread of the virus, leaving few options for political newcomers to fix the economy. While increasing spending on social welfare might sound great on a ballot, it is hard to imagine if it could do any good to long-term economic growth.
Moreover, anti-incumbent sentiments, the very force that aided left-wingers’ coming to power, remained strong, and could very well backfire against them should voters remain frustrated over public health and the economy. Peruvian and Chilean left-wingers pulled off only a narrow victory in the previous election. If they want to adopt radical policies to change the system, they will be met with limited support from other parts of the government. In Peru where Castillo became president half a year ago, for example, the union leader’s reforms made negligible progress as a result of political infighting and legislative resistance. Is “Pink Tide 2.0” going to be a lasting ideological shift, or might it be no more than a few ephemeral electoral victories? We do not know.
Still, there are several things that we know for certain. Firstly, the leftward shifts come in the form of peaceful reforms, not violent revolutions like the one in Cuba, and will remain so in the foreseeable future. No one offers a better example of this than the radical left politician Gustavo Petro, the current favourite for the Colombian elections this year. A guerilla fighter of the M-19 organization in the 1980s, Petro chose to lay down arms and engage in democratic elections, winning his current position of the mayoralty of Bogotá, the capital city. “The necessities of Colombian society are based on building democracy and peace, period,” he explained in a recent interview. Petro said this because there is already a formidable democratic consensus among Latin American voters, and any attempts to overturn them would likely prove futile. A United Nations Development Program report suggests that “[Latin America] is the most violent on the planet” and violence could “increase inequality” by disproportionately affecting the poor. It is therefore inspiring to see left-wing leaders consistently employ peaceful tactics when rallying for support.
Secondly, the left has become a lot “softer”. Some commenters in the United States tend to equate Latin America’s newly leftist leaders with the kind of authoritarian Marxists like Castro or Maduro. In truth, the “millenial left” is no more than a progressive wing of social democrats, what their people call amarillos — the Spanish word for “yellow.” Anti-imperialist rhetoric has long been replaced by promises of progress and hope. Instead of vowing to turn their countries into proletarian dictatorships, they campaign to reduce income and gender inequalities, increase spending on social welfare, and combat climate change, all of which an average US Democrat voter would gleefully appreciate. A striking feature of the new “Pink Tide” leaders is how environmentally committed they are. For example, the exploitation of mineral resources, a crucial economic policy of Chávez and Morales, is now under heavy criticism in the speeches of Castillo and Boric.
The advent of leftist governments should be seen as a sign of hope for Latin Americans and people abroad, as they will strive to improve situations at home while committing their respective countries to solve global issues. They enjoy cordial relations with China and Russia, all the while sharing similar endeavours as the Biden administration on areas such as social justice and climate change. If done correctly, Latin America’s leftist leaders could serve as a bridge between the increasingly divided United States and China. Furthermore, the success of social-democratic leaders in Latin America helps eliminate the caricature of socialism that inevitably morphs into a brutal dictatorship. Destigmatisation of socialism, and leftist ideologies in general, would come in great help by inspiring democratic struggles elsewhere against conservative autocrats.
“Pink Tide” leaders might not offer perfect solutions, and we probably shouldn’t expect them to. Their governments will make meaningful changes for the Latin American people so long as they are in power. Whether it’s for the better or for the worse, only time could tell. History has absolved Fidel Castro of his charges; one day it shall, too, absolve the Latin Americans of all of their sufferings.
pic：重庆南开中学 ISC 陈炫 Hyun Chen