Latin America’s Second Wave of Left-Wing Governments Could Be More Powerful Than the First

A few years ago, commentators were announcing the demise of the Latin American left. But if Lula wins this autumn’s presidential election in Brazil, the Left will be governing the region’s six largest economies for the first time.

Former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gestures during a Labor Day demonstration on May 1, 2022, in São Paulo, Brazil. (Rodrigo Paiva / Getty Images)

Until recently, Latin American commentators were widely reporting on the inevitable “ebbing” of the pink tide. By the mid-2010s, the commodity boom that began in the early 2000s had rapidly gone into decline. The Right had grasped the opportunity to destabilize its opponents through campaigns of sabotage, propaganda, and scandal, and left-wing governments were facing crises on all fronts.

Whether through elections (Argentina), “parliamentary coup” (Brazil), “silent coup” (Ecuador), or outright military coup (Bolivia), by the second half of the last decade, the left turn seemed to be giving way to the rise of a new right in the region. For their part, social movements appeared to be in a state of fatigue or, even worse, direct confrontation with left governments, and initially lacked the energy or will to defend them against the right-wing assault.

It is no small feat, then, that today there is no better place for thinking about alternatives to neoliberalism and authoritarianism than Latin America. Gustavo Petro’s historic win in Colombia will likely be joined by Lula’s success in Brazil’s October presidential election to conclude a cycle of electoral victories for the Left. By the end of the year, for the first time in its history, Latin America’s six largest economies — Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru — should all be under left-wing rule of one kind or another.

Gaining New Ground

The renewal of the pink tide brings with it the prospect of a return to the progressivism and promise of regional integration that accompanied the initial rise of the pink tide two decades ago. But there is also much that is new, both in the socioeconomic context and the character of their political coalitions.

Only two governments that were part of the initial pink tide — Nicaragua and Venezuela — remain in power. Other pink tide governments that were previously ousted, like those in Argentina, Bolivia, and potentially Brazil, have returned to power after reconfigurations in their parties and leadership. More significantly, however, several countries that for various reasons had not joined the previous pink tide — Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Chile — have all come under left-wing governance, through very different scenarios than those that gave rise to the initial Pink Tide.

These countries had been Washington’s closest allies in the region. All have implemented free-trade agreements with the United States, while Colombia, Peru, and Mexico are key regional nodes in the “war on drugs.” Colombia has long played the role of US proxy in undermining and destabilizing the Left in the region. The electoral victories of the Left in these countries are remarkable not only for overcoming persecution and violence in the name of anti-communism but also in dealing a further blow to already declining US hegemony in Latin America.

The Left’s success is a clear signal that the neoliberal hegemony of the 1990s that was first broken by the pink tide governments was never fully restored by their right-wing successors. Characterized by low popular support, fragmented ruling coalitions, and lack of an economic agenda, these recent right-wing experiments never achieved the dominance or duration of their predecessors, and their failure opened the way for the Left’s return.

More important, these electoral victories are testimony to the strength of social mobilizations that have swept the region in recent years, even if most of the new left governments did not emerge directly from them. Whereas the right-wing dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s wiped out civic, labor, and campesino movements, destroying the Left for at least two decades, the repression unleashed by more recent right-wing governments failed to extinguish the Left.

Even before the pandemic hit in 2019 and continuing through to 2022, thousands upon thousands of people across Latin America have engaged in sustained protests as part of the region-wide estallido social against International Monetary Fund (IMF)–backed austerity policies. In Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, a reconstituted radical movement was able to forge a powerful street presence, weakening neoliberal governments and — with the exception of Ecuador — opening the way for progressive governments to come to power.

Renewed Social Mobilization

In Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, the Left might have been weakened, yet it nonetheless demonstrated that it had built sufficient power outside the state to withstand the assault from the Right and return left governments to power.

In Bolivia, social movements that had laid the foundations for the Movement for Socialism (MAS)’s initial rise to power in 2006 under Evo Morales were just as crucial in opposing the Jeanine Añez government after the 2019 coup. Sustained protests forced Añez to eventually hold elections in October 2020 after they had been canceled twice.

The tensions that had arisen under the MAS government did not prevent even its most ardent left critics from mobilizing in support of the MAS under the new leadership of Luis Arce — as well as rallying in support of the decision to jail Añez for her role in the coup. The vice presidential candidate David Choquehuanca, who identifies as Aymara, was able to regain the support of indigenous groups who had previously been frustrated with the MAS, including leaders who had criticized Morales.

In Brazil, ties between the Workers’ Party (PT) and social movements that had been weakened under PT governance were revitalized in the face of the soft coup against Dilma Rousseff and repression from the Jair Bolsonaro government directed against social movements. Lula’s choice of the former conservative governor Geraldo Alckmin as his running mate has not stopped the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and other left organizations from supporting his presidential candidacy in the October elections, rejecting other proposals for a broad-based front against Bolsonaro led by a nonleft candidate.

This is possible because the PT is still seen as the party where social movements can most effectively push their agendas. The MST has supported the formation of popular committees with the aim of developing an agenda from popular movements to ensure the demands of the working class reach Lula’s presidential agenda.

Only in Ecuador did the frictions between the previous Rafael Correa government and social movements prevent the return of Correísmo to power. Andrés Arauz ran for president last year as the candidate of the Union for Hope (UNES). UNES was set up as a reconstituted version of Correa’s previous party after his former vice president Lenín Moreno’s betrayal of Correa and the Citizens’ Revolution.

Arauz and UNES continued to enjoy remarkable popularity despite Moreno’s dirty campaign. However, the conservative banker Guillermo Lasso’s victory against Arauz in the 2021 elections was facilitated by long-standing divisions between Ecuador’s powerful indigenous movement and Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution. In the second round of the elections, Pachakutik candidate Yaku Pérez called on supporters to cast a null vote, arguing that neither the extractivism of Correísmo nor Lasso’s neoliberalism represented indigenous communities.

The indigenous movement itself was divided on its stance towards Correismo, with Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) president Jaime Vargas dissenting at the last minute to give his support to Arauz. But this did not prevent 1.7 million Ecuadorians from voting blank, ensuring Lasso’s victory. Defenders of the null vote argued that they can bring down Lasso’s government through mass mobilizations, such as those which are currently bringing the country to a standstill.

Building New Coalitions

In countries where the Left has been elected for the first time, parties have adopted a different strategy toward social movements than initial pink tide parties. Whereas in the 1990s and 2000s, explosive revolts brought neoliberal governments to their knees and directly propelled left governments to power, recent left governments have emerged through more gradual processes of coalition-building against the background of social protest and exhaustion of the neoliberal right.

In Chile, student protests, teachers’ strikes, indigenous conflicts, and pensioners’ and feminist movements have been building for over a decade. This revitalized left provided the groundwork for sustained social mobilization when the estallido social broke out in 2019. The estallido also created a space for a new alliance between the student movement’s Frente Amplio (FA), the Communist Party, and other movements, leading to the formation of Apruebo Dignidad.

Throughout the 2010s, the FA followed a strategy of building power in state institutions, both national and local. During the 2019 mobilization, the FA spoke out for the protesters, demanding that right-wing president Sebastián Piñera lift a state of siege. It brought the issue of human rights violations before the International Criminal Court and sought to impeach Piñera on those grounds.

Similarly in Colombia, a decade of mass mobilizations — including the 2011 and 2018 student protests, the 2013 and 2016 agrarian strikes, and the national strikes of 2019 and 2021 — precipitated a crisis for right-wing Uribismo. Combined with the signing of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel movement, this opened the way for a major shake-up of the political scene.

The country’s new president, Gustavo Petro, was not a protagonist of these mobilizations, and after his two decades in public office many Colombians would see him as part of the political establishment. Nonetheless, it was these mobilizations that made possible the building of Petro’s Pacto Historico political alliance, composed of a variety of movements including the Communist Party, Unión Patriotica, Congreso de los Pueblos, and indigenous and environmental movements.

During his time as mayor of Bogotá, Petro became the figurehead for popular protests when the attorney general, Alejandro Ordoñez, attempted to remove him from office for his attempt to reverse the privatization of the city’s waste disposal. In 2013, Petro led a mass occupation of Bogotá’s central Plaza Bolívar, which was renamed “Plaza de los Indignados.” The movement behind Petro brought together an array of groups affected by the hard-right attorney general: feminist pro-choice activists, LGBTQ movements, and the anti-bullfighting campaign.

Although Petro himself was not a leader of the national strikes of 2019 or 2021, his running mate, Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian environmental and feminist activist and human rights lawyer, spoke out regularly in defense of the human rights of the protesters. In his 2022 election campaign, Petro amplified the demands of the protesters, promising to dismantle the ESMAD riot police, revoke the military service requirement for young men, and transfer the police force to the control of the Ministry of Justice.

In Honduras, Xiomara Castro’s party (Libre) emerged out of the massive grassroots opposition that developed after the coup against Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The National Front of Popular Resistance united women’s, labor, campesino, LGBTQ, and indigenous movements. Over the course of several years, they built a potent street presence, combining mass mobilizations with international pressure on the regime.

Economic Storm Clouds

Another feature distinguishing the renewed pink tide is that it has emerged in a very different economic moment. Latin America was the continent most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. GDP growth might have reached over 6 percent last year, but this was insufficient to compensate for the 6 percent contraction of 2020.

Already in the five years prior to the pandemic, the region had experienced a “lost half decade” of low growth. With economic collapse in 2020, modest recovery in 2021, and weak growth forecast in 2022, the region faces another “lost decade” of development. Twenty-five million people lost their jobs during the pandemic, and those who have found new employment since then face lower-quality, more precarious work.

Global commodity prices have risen, but this trend does not offer the same opportunity for Latin American countries as it did in the 2000s. The previous commodities boom was primarily driven by sustained growth from China and other emerging markets, which created a high demand for raw materials. The current price hike has been driven by COVID-induced supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine rather than an economic boom.

With China facing economic difficulties, commodity prices are unlikely to experience prolonged growth, instead becoming more volatile. Any rise in prices will equally be offset by shortages and higher prices for imports. While the previous pink tide had presided over a boom, current left governments are faced with the prospect of presiding over a bust.

Forging a New Model

The US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates will see investors flee developing economies for “safe havens” like the United States. In response, Latin American central banks are raising their interest rates in the hope of appeasing flighty foreign investors — but this comes at the cost of workers at home.

Latin America entered the pandemic with high levels of public debt, and from 2019 to 2020 debt levels rose from 69 to 79 percent of GDP. Despite the IMF’s changing rhetoric since the 2008 crisis, in practice, the fund has not backed down on its commitment to austerity. Major battles over the cost-of-living crisis and public spending such as that currently being fought on the streets of Ecuador are likely to spread.

Without the magic bullet of a commodities boom to fund social programs, new left governments will have to start by reducing inequality through structural reforms, with a more redistributive tax system and increased social spending. With the institutions of state power divided under most left presidents, attempts to do so will face conflict. In the course of such battles, governments can build bases of popular support.

Dim economic times can also present opportunities. The end of the commodities boom has reduced the prospects for economic growth but also opens the door for a more radical agenda going beyond the previous pink tide’s economic strategy based on national resource extraction.

Colombia’s Petro and Chile’s Gabriel Boric have promised to put environmentalism at the top of their agendas. Petro has vowed not only to end new oil exploration in Colombia but also to work with other progressive leaders on a regionwide just transition. Boric participated in Our Green America, a movement proposing a blueprint for a post-pandemic Green New Deal, and he has signed the Escazu Agreement on environmental justice.

Although the relationship between these new left governments and social movements is yet to be defined, this fresh direction opens the door to novel alliances with environmental and social movements that had been strained under previous left governments. This in turn creates possibilities for the Left to build power outside the state to push for a more radical agenda under the renewed pink tide.