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With the left’s recent electoral successes in Peru and Bolivia, and previously in Mexico and Argentina, does this mean that there is a second so-called “Pink Tide” in Latin America? If so, how do we make sense of the first Pink Tide, its successes and failures, and what might Latin America’s left have learned from the first tide, as it gets ready to take power in several countries? René Rojas, professor at SUNY Binghamton, and Hilary Goodfriend, of Jacobin Magazine Latin America, argue that while the left needs a clearer economic plan, it is at an advantage at the moment because of the right’s disarray across the region.
Welcome to theAnalysis.news, I’m Greg Wilpert.
With the left’s recent electoral successes in Bolivia and in Peru and a few years earlier in Mexico and in Argentina, it is tempting to think that perhaps a second so-called pink tide is coming in Latin America at the moment. At the same time, however, the extreme right, whether in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, or Venezuela, is making itself felt more strongly than ever before. What does all of this mean for the future of Latin America? Has the resurgent Left learned from the first pink tide? And how can the far-right and neoliberalism be confronted?
These are crucial questions to examine at a time when people around the world are rethinking the nature of the capitalist welfare states in light of the ongoing but hopefully soon-to-be-over coronavirus pandemic.
Joining me to discuss the future of the Latin American Left and what can be learned from its successes and failures are two guests. I’m joined today by Rene Rojas, assistant professor of human development at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and by Hilary Goodfriend, a doctoral student in Latin American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a contributing editor with Jacobin Magazine and Jacobin Latin America. Thanks, both of you, for joining me today.
Thank you, Greg.
So, as I mentioned in the introduction, it looks like the pendulum is swinging back again from the right towards the left in terms of governments elected in Latin America. Now, clearly, each country has its own fairly unique context, but there are also some developments that they have in common, I would say. So to understand this recent development, however, I think we need to go back first at how and why Left governments were elected in the first so-called pink tide, which included practically all governments of South America except for Colombia and Peru, plus several countries in Central America that had Left governments such as El Salvador and Nicaragua and perhaps Honduras.
Now, let’s start with you, Rene. You actually wrote a series of very interesting articles for the Jacobin Journal, Catalyst. Why would you say that Latin Americans elect leftist or center-left in the first decade of the 21st century, that is between 2000 and 2010 for the first pink tide?
I think in general terms, the reason that these reform governments were elected during the first decade of the new millennium was because of the breakdown of neoliberalism across the region. I think, during those years, what occurred was what I would call the first very kind of large and deep crisis of the neoliberal order across Latin America. And in very basic terms, the neoliberal project and model of accumulation in most of the region just could not deliver in terms of material goods and well-being for the masses of the population.
And at the same time, I think these neoliberal regimes lost legitimacy because of their crisis of representation. And the vast majority of the people not only felt that their livelihoods were being threatened, but they felt they had no say in the politics and running the governments of these countries. And so those things converged rather powerfully and led to cycles of mobilization that increased in intensity over those years, really beginning in the last years of the previous century, in Argentina, later in Venezuela, and then a bit later in Bolivia.
And what those cycles of mobilization, in those intense periods of protesting- was they brought down a ruling, neoliberal governments, and opened the way for these reform governments to be voted into office by the same social constituencies, the same bases that had mobilized this protest wave in the first place.
I could go on or we can discuss more later, but one thing I would say — this is where we can begin to part some of this stuff out. I think there was a pink tide, for sure there was a wave of left reform governments that came into power. But, even in that first iteration of it, I think it was not as widespread as we tend to kind of depict, both the way we depicted it than the way we continue to describe it now. For instance, in my view, the pink tide certainly included — because of the features that I just described — these key characteristics, certainly included the countries I named Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador, but I would exclude countries where left reformers ruled that often get lumped into the pink tied countries such as Chile, Brazil, and the Central American cases as well. We can go, later, further into why I would make this differentiation.
Yeah, I want to get into also what the nature of this difference is, which I think is very interesting. But before we do that, Hilary, what do you think? I mean, do you have anything to add to what Rene was saying in terms of how and why there was a pink tide and whether you would agree with that?
I think I’d broadly agree with Rene’s characterization. And I’m curious to hear his explanations for the exclusion of the Central American governments because I agree that they’re quite different. But I do think that they are similarly responding to the crisis of the neoliberal model as it was implemented in that part of Latin America. So, I think I think I’d like to hear a little bit more before going further into that.
Go ahead. Rene do you want to say some more about the pink tide?
Sure, I’ll elaborate a bit on this. And it really, again, it has to do with how I define the key features of the pink tide, to begin with. And within those characteristics, for me, this mass popular mobilization is critical. That is propelled by and in turn, propels the crumbling of the existing neoliberal regimes in these countries. So, in Venezuela, the Puntofijo regime, as you know, probably better than all of us, Gregory, went into a process of decay beginning in the 80s, especially, after the Caracazo. And so the regime is disintegrating.
You could say the same thing about the neoliberal regime, the post corporatist neoliberal regime in Bolivia, for instance, certainly in Argentina during the 90s under Menem [Carlos]. So the existing party system and regime in these countries is disintegrated. And meanwhile, you have this intensification and escalation of popular protest, and that’s what brings these existing neoliberal regimes down and as I described earlier, brings to power these new reform governments.
That’s not quite the case. Again, what I view as the most salient features of the pink tide — that’s not — you don’t see them replicated. For instance, I’ll get to Central America later, but let’s deal with Brazil and Chile for now. And I’m kind of saying that because I know those cases a bit less, but in terms of Brazil and Chile in 2002, the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores] comes to power —with Lula [Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva]. The PT remains in power for almost 15 years. In Brazil [misspoke: in Chile], it happened earlier the Concertación, the center-left, the coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists, come to power in ’89 and remain in power uninterrupted until 2010. They come to power not riding a wave of popular mobilization, nor do they come to power as the existing neoliberal regimes in these countries are disintegrating — it’s quite the opposite.
They come to power and they themselves help consolidate the post-authoritarian neoliberal regimes in these countries. The Concertación in Chile, first under the Christian Democratic presidents, but later under socialist presidents, Lagos was first, then the socialists — he was kind of a darling of progressives across the world, Bachelet. What they do is actually manage, very successfully, and with high levels of stability, neoliberalism in these countries. So, they’re very different scenarios and although nominally you have left progressives in power, they come to power following very different trajectories and once in power, they’re tasked with doing something quite different in terms of managing the political economy of these countries.
I think you can extend some of what I’ve described to the Central American cases as well. In Nicaragua, Sandinistas returned to power again not — I think it’s more mixed, not so much riding a wave of popular mobilization. It is true that they do come to power after years of disintegrating liberal governments. And so I think they share that with the pink tide countries as I’ve categorized them. And I think in El Salvador, you see something, something quite similar. The Frente, the FMLN [Former Armed Rebel Movement] comes to power, right, as there’s a sort of exhaustion of the right-wing model. But again, they’re not reaching power as the old regimes are crumbling, nor are they propelled into power by mass mobilization.
No, I think that’s correct. I also think there’s the question of these shifting timelines in the sense that- not necessarily Nicaragua, but you have the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front] coming to power in El Salvador, for example. And also Manuel Zelaya’s kind of leftward turn, is sort of coinciding with the grand crisis of neoliberalism, right? I mean, this is after the financial crisis has sort of hit and we’re entering a recession, globally. And so I think that there’s a way in which Central America, just because of the nature of its political economy, you know, its dependent insertion in the global economy is, vis-à-vis the United States, is always sort of looking north, more than south.
And there’s a way in which I think the crisis, the economic crisis in the U.S. is also sort of a catalyst for some of the changes, that you see in Central America in a way that’s not quite the same in South America. And so there’s, I think you could argue that — at least looking more at like Honduras, El Salvador, there’s a way in which those governments are enabled in the context of this broader crisis of neoliberalism.
The U.S. State Department’s declaration of neutrality ahead of the 2009 El Salvador election, was the first time they’d ever stated that they wouldn’t intervene or that they would work with the leftist government, were it elected. And I think that has a lot to do with the sort of the different face, of empire under the Obama administration, in that context. And so I think that the different timelines, of the governments in Central America, are responding to a different political-economic moment as well. But it’s certainly the case that they’re not really ridden into power with the same constituencies that you’re describing in the south. I think that’s true.
I think it’s interesting, this distinction, that you’re making Rene and I guess that I’d have to see it, to what extent it also applies to the Central American cases. But the distinction between these progressive neoliberal regimes and I guess you and one of your articles also put Mexico into that category, and that is before AMLO [Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador] got elected under the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution], I guess, and sorry, I mean, the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] and so that includes Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. And I guess it could include perhaps other countries as well. I’m not sure.
So, those come into office more through a kind of- like you say, I guess, a traditional electoral process and not this kind of social upheaval and social mobilization, which was the case in Venezuela, Bolivia, I guess you could say Ecuador definitely, too. And that led to different kinds of policies, presumably, around Argentina, of course. And also there was a big upheaval with the economic crisis and the piquetero movement, and so on. So those led to different policy outcomes as well. Can you just kind of characterize that difference in terms of policies also and why there was that difference?
Yeah, I think, I don’t want to overstate the different policies that resulted from these different trajectories and these different kinds of paths to power for the reformers and reform parties in each. But I would say that the social reforms that were enacted in the pink-tied countries, that at least the countries that I consider to be properly pink-tied countries — and the main ones, again, just to reiterate, Argentina, Venezuela, and Bolivia, I think really. I think they’re more far-reaching- the reforms. They were bolder in many respects, starting with the renegotiations in Venezuela and then in Bolivia with major hydrocarbon multinational firms. It took a tougher stance and even though they didn’t totally overhaul the property regime, right. They were getting a lot more out of the contracts with these firms in terms of drilling, distribution, exploration, what have you. And so that laid a material foundation for more revenue to redistribute to the popular masses that supported these regimes that brought them to power.
Of course, this coincides with the commodities boom and the high prices of these natural commodities. But had it not been for the more aggressiveness and assertiveness with which these governments confronted international capital, they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did in terms of redistributive social programs. Of course, we’re talking about mostly cash transfer programs and conditional cash transfer programs. And this is where the similarities start to, I think, come into play.
The social reforms were more ambitious, but qualitatively they were pretty similar. They involve distributing revenue to the impoverished masses and what happened in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia and Argentina is that they were able to do this in larger amounts, larger sums. Whereas the redistributive social reforms, for instance, in Brazil and Chile were also conditional cash transfers famously in Brazil, it’s also Família. And as touted as programs like that were, they were really pretty measly in terms of what families got- how much money was distributed to impoverished families. And again, I think the root of that difference, which is more quantitative than qualitative difference, has to do with the force with which these new left and reform governments came to power in the pink tide versus the more routine institutionalized ways in which Lula comes to power in Brazil, the Concertación comes to power in Chile, which again forces them to just manage a neoliberal program and accumulation model, rather than challenge it in any meaningful way.
What do you think, Hilary? Do you see any kind of parallels in Central America with this or do you have any other things to add to this?
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think that certainly, the question of the material base for redistribution is really important, but I do think that I would certainly place the progressive governments of Central America from the mid-2000s on a continuum with the pink tide. In part, because I think that their governance, their rise to power is impossible without the pink tide because — which provides a diplomatic context and material base as well in the sense that these are countries that don’t have the same commodity dependency to the same degree and so they’re not — especially a country like El Salvador and even Honduras to a certain degree, they’re depending a lot less on commodity exports.
So the possibility of the associations with ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America] and the material support that they were able to achieve through their relations with Venezuela, the ALBA Block, and also diplomatically with Cuba, the resources that they were able to receive through those articulations are really important, I think, in that context. And so I think, like trying to really dissociate those would be very challenging.
You know, I think that’s a very interesting key point, the kind of role that the overall, regional dynamic plays in every country, and I’m also thinking not just economically, but too what you’re saying, for example, when the coup happened against Rafael Correa, when was that 2009? I can’t remember the year exactly, 2010, I think it was. The UNASUR [Union of South American Nations] ended up playing an important role and I think also before that, also in Bolivia, UNASUR who ended up playing an important role in trying to prevent a coup against Morales, Evo Morales in Bolivia. And those are kind of things that you don’t see now with the new coup, the 2019 coup in Bolivia, where UNASUR has been decimated because of the rightward swing in Latin America. So there isn’t that kind of protection against, so to speak a regional protection against, essentially the right-wing forces in favor of coup regimes, essentially. And now you potentially also have, I guess, Peru — we don’t know, yet, exactly what’s going to happen. And so far, the OAS [Organization of American States] has kept its distance, unlike in 2019 in Bolivia.
But anyway, my point is that the regional dynamic, I think, definitely plays an important thing that we have to take into account as well. But I just want to go a little bit further than, in terms of looking at what have been the successes of these left and center-left governments and what would you consider to have been their failures? Let’s start with you at this time. Hilary, what do you think? How would you characterize their successes and their failures just in general terms? And, you know, you can go into details and give examples to if you want.
Sure, well, there’s a lot of debate- it’s a big question, but I think that certainly the redistribution and the attention, both discursively but obviously materially to historically marginalized populations, communities, and classes, in the countries where the pink tide governance is undeniable by any metric and certainly really important. And I think that there’s also really the revival of left imaginaries and the sort of capacity to think beyond the total defeat of the lost decade and whatnot, is also really important.
I think that there’s a lot to be said about the shortcomings, certainly of pink-tied governments. A lot of attention has been paid to the role of extractive industries and the inability to move beyond dependency on fossil extraction, but other commodity exports. And there are structural reasons for that and also political reasons for that as the cases very. But I think that the achievements of that first pink tide were sufficient to create the base for continuities that we’re seeing today, the restoration of certain governments in the south.
At the same time, I think that the turn that we’re seeing, or rather I would argue that the expressions like the constituent assembly that we’re seeing in Chile is something different. And while we can get into that, I guess.
So what do you think, Rene? I mean, how would you characterize the successes and failures?
I think I would echo a lot of what Hilary just laid out. The countries that I focused on, in that first essay like Venezuela and Bolivia, and Argentina. They had undergone a process of what some scholars have called disincorporation of popular masses. That’s what the market turn did. That’s what the neoliberal revolution did, is cut off just huge swaths of the population from basic social protections. And these governments were quite successful at reincorporating big chunks of these masses, not to the same degree. But certainly gave impoverished and working families a measure of social protection that they had lost over the preceding 20 or so years. And that can’t be overlooked, that’s what Hilary was focusing on. And the second thing Hilary pointed out, just to add to it, I think these countries did a very successful job at political democratization as these kinds of sectors are being socially reincorporated. And again, I don’t want to overstate how the degree to which- this wasn’t like social democracy or anything like it. But as they were doing that, I think they were also bringing in chunks of the population back into political deliberation, into the political process in ways that hadn’t happened over the preceding two decades.
Now, in terms of the shortcomings, the major shortcoming, in my view, was the inability to push beyond the overall contours of a neo-liberal market economy. When Hilary talks about dependency on commodities and natural resources and foreign markets for these- and on these contracts with big energy companies, et cetera. I mean, I think that reflects that they didn’t turn to a different form of developmental models- the way the left had tried to do so in the 60s and 70s across the region. And I think that’s the main shortcoming of these governments. And I think the reason is that they lack the social power from their bases, from their constituencies to push them in that direction, we can get into that later.
Having said that, the last thing I want to point to is in general terms, in overarching terms, I do think one success that these countries achieved in spite of the shortcoming, was the institution of a certain durability and longevity of the reforms that we described earlier. Now, this seems kind of counterintuitive when you think of [Mauricio] Macri defeating Kirshner’s candidate in Argentina and I think 2015, 2014, I don’t remember exactly, or, of course, the coup against the MAS, a couple of years ago  in Bolivia, or the right turn of Lenín Moreno in Ecuador. That would seem to indicate that the new kind of elite-supported opposition in these countries would have successfully overturned all the reforms. And in my view, they have not been able to do so. I think that some of these reforms, for now, are here to stay. And as much as these right-wing governments try to overturn them, try to roll them back, they weren’t able to do so.
So, under Macri, in Argentina, the basic reforms like labor market reforms or the asignación universal [universal allotment], this conditional cash transfer is pretty generous. Those reforms had to stay in place. Macri couldn’t undo them. And you see something similar, for instance in Ecuador, Moreno tries to immediately reverse some of the subsidies. And the result was a small rebellion on the streets and he had to backtrack. And I think that speaks to the durability of a lot of these reforms and a certain stalemate that came into play in some of the pink tide countries.
I think the issue of the social base, so to speak, of the left governments, really plays an important role in understanding this. And it is a kind of interesting comparison also to previous decades, perhaps. But I mean, the point being, that in Venezuela and Bolivia, it’s most clearly, I guess, in Argentina to- where there is a solid social base that the government can sort of speak, rely on, and can mobilize people with. Whereas in Ecuador, I was there for five years actually during the Correa government, and he didn’t really have a social base. He didn’t even really have a functioning party, you could say. So it leads to very different outcomes. I think one of the reasons why the MAS came back to power, I guess, in Bolivia and why in Venezuela, Maduro has been able to hang on, despite incredible odds, I would say, of economic and political. Now, I don’t want to make a direct comparison between the Maduro government and the Chavez government, but certainly, there is a continuity there in terms of the social base, despite the loss of popularity that Maduro has suffered.
Now, I guess what I want to get to, perhaps, is also the question about the issue of the economic policy that both of you touched on, in terms of what’s often known as extractivsism, our reliance on raw material exports, instead of trying to push forward this kind of industrial policy that was in existence before. Rene, you suggest that also has something to do with the lack of a social base. I just was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that, to what extent that might be the case. Of course, small countries are very different from big countries in that sense, because obviously a big country — and this is well known and the development kind of economics is that, big countries they can diversify more easily and therefore Brazil was able to build up huge corporations that were able to compete internationally, whereas small countries such as those of Central America and even smaller countries, you know, medium size have a hard time doing that, actually. But, and so I guess I’m wondering is to what extent, what alternatives did they really have? And I’m specifically, of course, thinking also of the candidates that I’m most familiar with, which is the Venezuelan one where the government did actually try to diversify but failed totally.
I mean, what I’m specifically thinking of, it’s basically always portrayed that Chavez relied on oil exports, which is true. But actually, I don’t have the percentages in front of me, but aside from funneling a lot of these oil profits to social programs, a huge chunk was also funneled towards other forms of industrial production but they failed mainly for economic reasons, having to do with what’s known in economics as the Dutch disease, that it basically just wasn’t able to compete, so to speak, with the success of the oil industry, which just brought in so much more revenue and brought general prices up and therefore, these other industries weren’t able to function on an economic level properly.
Anyway, but what I want to get back to is this question of what were the alternatives? Were there alternatives for these countries and if so, what were they? I don’t know if you have something else to say about this, Hilary, since you brought that up first, I want to turn to you and then to Rene. What do you think?
Well, that’s a tough one. I mean, I think that I would first say that it’s important to remember that those processes of sort of state-led import substitution, industrialization, that were advocated by the CEPAL [Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean], et cetera, and implemented in different degrees throughout mid-century Latin America. They also had profound structural limitations. Often a lot of these processes ended up failing, not just because of elite agro-export elite backlash, et cetera, or imperialist intervention, which certainly is the case, in places like, well, like Chile, for example, but I think that there’s also a way in which, these very processes of industrialization ended up depending on foreign imports, which required financing from those same industries that they were meant to overcome, and provoked a whole series of displacements from the traditional exporting sectors of labor that was not able to be incorporated into the new sectors. So I think it’s important to signal the limitations of those processes. That’s not to say that the pink-tied governments should have undertaken something to that effect. But I think that they’re — it’s a difficult question because a lot of the critics of those processes in the 70s came to the conclusion that nothing short of a full communist revolution could extract their region from its dependence, insertion in the global economy. I think to a certain degree, that’s the case, and so it’s a question of what kind of reforms can be undertaken that can create more spaces and openings for a radicalization of those projects. And certainly the global economic crisis, the impacts of which hit the region around, what, 2013-14 really, I think provided a real wall. I think that in the context of that collapse, it’s hard to imagine a different, let’s just say, that the options were far reduced, at that point in the game.
Rene, what do you think? I mean, what were the alternatives?
You know, Hilary is right. It’s really a tough challenge, almost intractable. But I do think any successes for, progressive governments and left governments in these countries, must rely on, and necessitate a thorough modernization of their economies. Until we have a global socialist order, this type of modernization will largely depend on what happens domestically, on what happens in national economies in my view.
Not to say that the types of solidary programs, like those of ALBA, the way that Central America I mean, Venezuela supported Central America, which is not to invalidate those, but overall, especially in the larger countries, it’s going to depend on the modernization of national economies first.
The reason this is, in my view, I mean, even the largest, most modern of these economies, take Brazil, 50% of workers are in the informal economy. They’re just barely scraping by with no kind of real labor protections for themselves or for their families. So I think that requires a massive undertaking to elevate the productivity of these countries to absorb all these people into productive work.
Now, of course, and I do think that means industrialization. It doesn’t mean a 20th-century type of industrialization. It means a green, even more modern reform of production. But we have to, I think, these countries must raise productivity levels, just enormously, to have any kind of a chance. And because these countries do rely on commodity exports, I think that’s where you start. You take those rents and you pump them back into a more modern economy. I mean, the idea of sowing the oil, I don’t think is superannuated. I think that’s still what we have to do. Sow the rents from gas, from soy, from crude to modernize the economies.
I think, Gregory, you’re absolutely right. You know the case better than we do. I mean, Venezuela attempted to do so. But here’s where I do think, if their social bases had, had more leverage, they might have done a better job in confronting the resistance of business elites that are quite happy with the existing model. I mean, they’ve got it made with these rents. They’re getting — even with the redistribution, they’re benefiting the most from this bonanza. And when these countries — when their social bases, their main constituencies come from the informal sector, come from the more marginalized groups in the economy and society, in my view, they’re going to be handicapped. Not that those people don’t matter, of course, they matter. In a democracy, they need to have a voice and to be cared for as any other base of any left, historically. But they don’t have the social power because they can’t really impact elites and the profits of elites the way the old industrial working class used to be able to. Why? Because they’re relegated to the margins of the economy. So, they lack what I call structural leverage. In any effort to move beyond the overall contours of a neoliberal economy that favors elites, that tends towards oligarchy in terms of the politics of these countries, I think will have to depend on constituencies that have more built-in structural power. And that just means that this is a massive challenge. It’s a huge conundrum. And we have to work that out strategically.
So, this concludes part one of my conversation with Rene Rojas of SUNY Binghamton and Hilary Goodfriend a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine, and a doctoral student at the UNAM university in Mexico. Please make sure you tune into part two, where we will continue this conversation, looking more at the most recent developments in Latin America and what lessons the left has learned as some of them come back into power across the region. Thanks for joining theAnalysis.news. And please don’t forget to go to our website to leave a donation.