Gabriel Leonardo Guerrero

World News


Rose-Colored Glasses: Learning from the Last Pink Tide

On June 19, Gustavo Petro, Bogotá’s former mayor, made history as the first leftist elected president in modern Colombian history. The former guerrilla fighter and economist won with a margin of nearly three percentage points, in the process dealing a severe blow to the traditional right-wing establishment that has governed the country for decades.

Petro’s victory is certainly notable and bound to have consequences for the country’s economic development, internal stability, and its relationship with the United States, its traditional ally. However, it also fits into a larger picture, one of Latin America’s pivot to the left – a new so-called “pink tide.”

The pink tide refers to a trend, beginning in the late 1990s before intensifying in the 2000s, in which many countries were headed by left-wing governments. From Lula da Silva in Brazil to the Kirchners in Argentina to Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the era was characterized by a strong shift to social spending in most major Latin American countries, with the notable exceptions of historical U.S. allies Colombia and Mexico.

Following a conservative turn in the mid-late 2010s, the left appears triumphant in entering the new decade, starting in Mexico. The 2018 arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the subsequent election of Alberto Fernández in Argentina the following year, heralded a new era in which the left dominates, as seen in recent elections in Chile, Peru, and, naturally, Colombia.

Colombia's President Gustavo Petro
Gustavo Petro in 2015. (Gustavo Petro)

When Petro takes office in the Distrito Capital in early August, six of the seven largest Latin American countries – Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile – will be run by left-wing governments. The region’s largest country, Brazil, will hold its own election in October, with Lula da Silva, the former leftist president, currently leading most polls by double digits.

The factors driving this string of victories for the left are fairly apparent. Latin America is the most economically unequal region in the world. Colombia’s poverty rate neared 50% last year, while almost 10% of Mexicans live in extreme poverty. Late 2020 saw over half of Brazilians living in food insecurity, more than double the 2013 figure. Naturally, the pandemic, which has ravaged the region worse than anywhere else in the world, has exacerbated much of this inequality.

As with the first pink tide, the current generation of leftists has been put into office on a mandate of ensuring that the benefits of the region’s economic growth – the region’s total GDP grew by nearly 250% in the first two decades of the 2000s – are more equitably dispersed among the people. And they’re well aware, if the rhetoric of Petro as well as other leaders such as Chilean President Gabriel Boric is any indication.

That so many voters are turning back to the left following the catastrophic past few years is little surprise. After all, memories of the 2000s, in which millions were lifted out of poverty and the region seemed to truly come into its own in a major way, remain in the minds of many. This was a decade of major social programs and economies quadrupling, a nostalgic contrast to the collapse of Venezuela and the Brazilian recession.

But this was also a decade marked by a massive commodities boom, driven primarily by the demand for raw goods from emerging Asian economies, especially China. This boom powered the explosive growth of countries like Argentina and Brazil in the years leading up to 2014 – and was responsible in large part for the dominance of the Peronists and Workers’ Party, respectively, in those countries.

So while leaders such as Boric or Fernández may promise a boost in social spending and a turn away from neoliberalism, they cannot count on the same explosive revenues, given the global economic situation and in particular China’s slowing growth in recent years. In the specific case of Gustavo Petro, he has the additional challenge of reducing inequality while also trying to maintain economic growth despite weaning Colombia off its chief export.

And with political polarization and democratic backsliding gripping the region, the stakes are high for this generation of left-wing leaders. As seen in Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, or even Brazil in the mid-2010s, there are significant risks – past simply electoral defeat – for leftist leaders with slipping popularity in countries historically dominated by right-wing governments.

On the flip side, the left has its own skeletons. Hugo Chávez, who arguably kickstarted the first pink tide with his surprise victory in the 1998 Venezuelan presidential election, radically changed the country with his social programs paid for with strong oil exports. Following his death and a collapse in oil prices, the country has melted down into a corrupt autocratic petrostate and economic disaster.

While the likelihood of the new pink tide leaders falling into the same trap as Chávez is low, it is key that they learn from the mistakes of the 2000s, forging regional consensus on matters of democratic norms and respect for human rights. The region does not need more regimes like those in Venezuela and Nicaragua – or Cuba for that matter.

After all, the last pink tide ended in the economic crises of the 2010s and the rise of wealth inequality across Latin America. Given this time there’s no commodity boom coming to resuscitate the region’s post-pandemic economies, the leaders of the new pink tide must find more sustainable ways to deliver for their people.