The rise and fall of South America’s Pink Tide

. Aug 19, 2018
lula pink tide unasur chavez bachelet Pink Tide leaders during the 2nd Unasur Summit

By the end of the 1990s, South America was desperate for change. A debt crisis drove most countries in the region to elect neoliberal governments, before subsequent periods of hyperinflation and banking crises caused unemployment and poverty to rise. A groundswell of dissatisfaction was latched onto by galvanized social movements, clearing the decks for what we know today as the Pink Tide.

The Pink Tide was a historical moment, beginning in 1999, in which throughout South America, left-wing and center-left governments came into power. It was so named as even though the leaders in question were to the left of center, many were not so radical, neither traditionally socialist, hence the use of the color pink.

The Pink Tide was hardly a homogeneous or unified movement, either. In fact, what made the phenomenon so striking was the wide range of leftist ideologies on show. A reformist-turned-Marxist populist became president in Venezuela. Brazil elected a trade-unionist, Bolivia, an indigenous activist. The period also saw a Peronist take charge in Argentina, a Keynesian economist in Ecuador, a once guerrilla Marxist in Uruguay, and a Christian socialist in Paraguay.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Far from being a revolutionary band of hard-left radicals, South America&#8217;s Pink Tide governments were largely reformist, intending to domesticate capitalism rather than destroy it. A common theme among these administrations was the implementation of vast social programs aimed at improving people&#8217;s everyday lives in areas such as health, education, and housing. These gains were palpable among the lower-middle and working classes, which made the Pink Tide governments initially very popular. After nearly a full generation of austerity and/or uncertainty, the masses could be forgiven for believing in the possibility of a new and less unequal South America.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The social gains under the initial Pink Tide were made possible thanks to the commodity boom of the 2000s. Suddenly, South American governments had money to spend and redistribute. However, under the pressure of the global financial crises of 2008 and 2011, Pink Tide leaders began to wobble, before dropping like flies in the current decade. </span></p> <h2>The swell of the Pink Tide</h2> <div id="attachment_7616" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-7616" class="size-large wp-image-7616" src="" alt="Lula, Chavez, Kirchner" width="1024" height="512" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-7616" class="wp-caption-text">Lula, Chavez, Kirchner</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Year Zero of the Pink Tide is 1999, with the election of Hugo Chávez as President of Venezuela. The son of a poor single mother from the rural city of Barinas, Chávez&#8217;s election already signaled a rupture with the status quo. His early years, promoting moderate social reforms (which were less Castrismo and more Third Way Blairism), created ripples across the continent.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, things really kicked off in 2002. Disenchanted right-wing protesters staged a media-backed coup in Caracas which removed Chávez from office, only for a total of 47 hours. Massive popular protests worked against the coup and brought their man back into the presidency. From that point on, Chavez was radicalized, well on the path to becoming the Marxist populist he is now remembered as being. The swell of the Pink Tide grew stronger later that year, as Brazil elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">A trade-unionist who provided instrumental leadership in the metalworkers&#8217; strikes of the 1970s and one of the founders of the progressive left-wing Workers&#8217; Party, Lula&#8217;s election marked a significant change in Brazilian politics. Having been beaten three times by neoliberal opponents (Fernando Collor and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, twice), Lula&#8217;s ascension to the top office in Brazilian politics at the fourth attempt embodied the country&#8217;s rejection of 1990s neoliberalism and highlighted its desire for change.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In the first year of his term, Lula introduced a network of social assistance programs called </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Fome Zero</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (Zero Hunger), which included the much celebrated </span><a href=""><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Bolsa Família</span></i></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (Family Allowance) initiative &#8211; a cash transfer program to provide aid to poor Brazilian families, the largest program of its kind in the world. By the end of Lula&#8217;s government (2003-2010), poverty had fallen by almost 50 percent, the minimum wage had doubled, and Brazil cut its GINI coefficient (which measures inequality) by five points. </span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-7613" src="" alt="pink tide south america inequality" width="1024" height="648" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1360w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The third of the so-called &#8220;Three Musketeers&#8221; of the Pink Tide came into power in 2006. At the beginning of the 2000s, Bolivia was the scene of constant protests. In Cochabamba, tens of thousands protested plans to privatize the municipal water supply, resulting in violent confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement which became known as the Cochabamba Water War. This was followed by the so-called Gas Conflict, another massive protest movement against the exploitation of the country’s natural gas reserves. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Behind much of these demonstrations was the left-wing Movement for Socialism party, and its leader, indigenous activist Evo Morales. When the gas protests eventually led to the resignation of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, Morales won the 2005 election with an absolute majority.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Pink Tide reached its apex in 2010, with almost the entire South American continent led by center-left and left-wing leaders. Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Rafael Corrêa in Ecuador, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, and Hugo Chávez in <a href="">Venezuela</a>. Peru would later elect left-leaning centrist Ollanta Humala, leaving Colombia as the only major South American nation to have no involvement in the Pink Tide.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-7610" src="" alt="" width="857" height="571" /></p> <hr /> <h2>The breaking of the wave</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As mentioned previously, South America&#8217;s Pink Tide was backed by the commodity boom of the 2000s, itself a result of the <a href="">rapid growth of China</a>. With exports through the roof, governments had money to invest in vast social projects. As a result of the reformist and not traditionally socialist nature of the Pink Tide governments, throughout this period there was no attempt to seriously challenge traditional elites, nor threaten to curb their privileges or power.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Once the bottom fell out of the commodities boom, the financial crises of 2008 and 2011 hit the global economy and the Pink Tide leaders were forced into a rethink. With economies struggling, traditional elites (whose power and influence were not reduced during the 2000s) demanded austerity, and the pushback against the tide began. &#8220;No political cycle lasts forever,&#8221; says Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a columnist of </span><b>The Brazilian Report</b><span style="font-weight: 400;">. &#8220;The Pink Tide leaders made a lot of mistakes, including widespread corruption.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Brazil, the response was to move away from the left. Already in Lula&#8217;s second term, the Workers&#8217; Party made alliances with the center-right and financial elites as a way of consolidating their governance. By the time the crisis hit, Dilma Rousseff (Lula&#8217;s appointed successor) controversially appointed Chicago school economist Joaquim Levy as Finance Minister and introduced unpopular austerity policies, alienating the party&#8217;s support base.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Santoro shares the belief of many Brazilians that a lot more could have been done during the country&#8217;s Pink Tide period. &#8220;At his best moments, Lula had the trust of industrial sectors, the financial markets, and he was backed by 80 percent of voters. He had a perfect chance to push for reforms of the pension and tax system, as well as changing the political system.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Pink Tide lost its first member in 2012, when Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo was ousted in a <a href="">parliamentary coup</a> dressed up as an impeachment process. Centrist vice president Federico Franco saw out Lugo&#8217;s term before right-wing conservative Horácio Cartes took over in 2013.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner was unsuccessful in her attempt to amend the constitution to allow unlimited re-elections and was forced to stand down in 2015. The Kirchnerite candidate Daniel Scioli was <a href="">defeated at the polls</a> by the center-right Mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, making Argentina the second Pink Tide country to fall.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Brazil, growing uncertainty and a severe recession eventually saw Dilma Rousseff removed from office in 2016, the result of an impeachment process orchestrated by the center-right politicians her party had allied itself with during Lula’s second term. Echoing Lugo’s ouster in Paraguay, a survey carried out in May by the National Institute of Science and Technology showed that 47.9 percent of Brazilians believe Dilma Rousseff’s removal constituted a coup, as opposed to 43.5 percent who believed it was a normal democratic procedure.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Coupled with the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 and the subsequent collapse of the Venezuelan state under Nicolás Maduro, as well as the rapprochement of Ecuador and Bolivia with neoliberalism, the Pink Tide had lost all momentum in South America by 2017.</span></p> <h2>What’s next for South America?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There is a general feeling that the Pink Tide has ended in South America, though this might be a premature analysis. Left-wing or center-left governments still rule in Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and embattled Venezuela, while, according to opinion polls, the Brazilian electorate would give Lula a third term in October&#8217;s elections, were it not for the fact that he is in jail and unlikely to make the ballot. However, the Workers&#8217; Party strategy of transferring Lula’s votes to his understudy, former Mayor of São Paulo Fernando Haddad, could prove successful, meaning a return of center-left governance in South America’s largest country.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Furthermore, rejuvenation for the Pink Tide may come from the other side of the Panama Canal, in Central America. Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have all been led by left-leaning governments since at least 2014, while Mexico made history in July by electing Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a landslide, making him the country&#8217;s first left-wing president in decades.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In terms of Brazil, Mr. Santoro is less optimistic about the country&#8217;s chances to reclaim these glory days any time soon. &#8220;Brazil is a more fractured country, and uniting different political forces over a given project will be no easy task.&#8221; </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If there is to be a second Pink Tide in South America, or a continuation of the original movement, the hope on the continental left is that lessons would be learned from the financial crises of 2008 and 2011, and the conservative backlash of the early 2010s. In a boom/bust economy largely based on exports and with <a href="">little diversification</a>, the implementation of social welfare programs and inequality-reduction measures which are reliant on a favorable financial climate have, by definition, a <a href="">short lifespan</a>.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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