South America's 'Pink Tide' yet to ebb

October 31, 2014
Supporters of El Salvador's left-st Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front celebrate an electoral win.

Since the start of the year, many newspapers have dedicated article after article to predictions of a looming demise of South America's so-called “Pink Tide”

The term “Pink Tide” is used to refer to the wave of left-of-centre governments elected in South America in recent years.

Several such governments have recently been up for re-election. Pollsters and commentators alike argued that for many, their time in government was up.

Instead, on October 26, Brazilians re-elected Dilma Rousseff as president, ushering in a fourth consecutive Workers’ Party administration.

That same day, voters in neighboring Uruguay handed the incumbent Broad Front (FA) a majority in both houses of parliament. FA candidate Tabare Vasquez goes into the second round of the presidential elections as hot favorite after winning 49.5% of the vote in the first round, compared with 32% for his nearest rival.

These victories come on the back of the thumping win for Evo Morales (his third in a row), with more than 60% of the vote in Bolivia’s October 12 national election.

In fact, they cap off a period of 16 years of almost uninterrupted victories by centre-left and more radical leftist forces in South America. This phase began with the election of Hugo Chavez in December 1998.

What is more, the “Pink Tide”, which at first appeared to be limited to countries south of Colombia, has quietly leaped over into Central America. Earlier this year, left-of-center forces won elections in Costa Rica and El Salvador.

The first conclusion to draw is to never trust the corporate media and their pollsters.

Without a doubt, the campaign of dubious polls and accompanying articles predicting electoral defeats were largely aimed at bolstering the chances of right-wing opposition candidates deemed to be more favourable to the interests of corporate elites.

The media combined this with stories about how, under the governing parties, everything from the economy to crime levels had worsened ― or would worsen if they were returned to power.

The second conclusion is that, while the corporate media may continue to exert a lot of power, it is far from invincible.

Most people were able to see the disconnect between the negative media stories and improvements in their everyday lives.

Unsurprisingly, distrust in the corporate media has tended to rise, with many turning to social and community media for their information.

A third feature worth noting is that the Latin America of 2015 is different to the Latin America of 1998.

Gone are the days where a corporate background or ties to elite power circles are seen as positive features for a candidate.

Voters today are willing to accept a woman, a trade unionist, an indigenous person or a former guerilla as president. More than that, they positively identify with such leaders as “one of us”.

It is not just because the candidates look different; they also speak a different language. Most importantly, they propose policies that mark them out from the traditional political class, which insisted there was no alternative to free market neoliberalism.

Many of the traditional right-wing parties have yet to fully grasp this. In Bolivia, Morales’ main opponent was Samuel Doria Medina, a white businessperson who owns a local Burger King franchise.

Medina was a minister in a previous neoliberal government. Unsurprisingly, he failed to get even half the number of votes Morales did.

Alternatively, the right has done best in those countries where it has tried to adapt to this new reality by presenting fresh, young faces, with less visible ties to the old elites. Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles is a case in point.

You know things have dramatically changed in Venezuela when even candidates such as Capriles, the opposition's candidate in last year's presidential election, attend campaign events dressed down in t-shirts and baseball caps ―and run on slogans such as “vote down below and to the left”.

Capriles went so far as to claim that he was the person to continue late revolutionary socialist president Hugo Chavez’s legacy ― despite having run against him only months before he died.

That the main challenge to the current wave of governments is largely coming from this new right, which has tried to adopt the language and imagery of their opponents, also reflects the failure of the “left-of-the-left” to mount a serious alternative.

Where this “left-of-the-left” have run against incumbent governments, they have failed to win sizable support.

Their discourse is based on the idea that nothing has changed and the new governments are just like the old ones. Combined with their lack of concrete and tangible alternative policies or programs, this has arguably left them more marginal than they were nearly two decades ago.

Critics put this down to the ability of “Pink Tide” governments to co-opt and neuter protest movements. Their ability to serve out one or more terms in government ― something that only a decade ago seemed impossible ― would seem to back this assertion.

However, this viewpoint is too superficial. In fact, there are far more protests now in most countries governed by “Pink Tide” governments than there were in the years before their election.

What is interesting is that these protests themselves reflect the changes that have occurred in the region.

Unlike the anti-neoliberal protests of yesteryear, few pose a direct challenge to the new post-neoliberal model. Far from having broken with capitalism, this model nonetheless represents a shift towards greater state intervention and wealth redistribution.

Instead, protests tend to revolve around differences over the shape of the new model.

New demands have emerged reflecting important demographic shifts caused by changes in the economic policies.

This includes, for example, the rise of the “new middle class”, made up of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty. These demands tend to focus less on having access to basic services and more about seeking improvements in these services, which often cannot cope with the growing number of users.

Then there is the “new proletariat”. This is made up of young people who have benefited from better access to education, but are unable to obtain better incomes in relations to their parents, due to the highly precarious working conditions caused by neoliberalism.

The lives of millions have been affected by important political and economic changes in recent years. At the same time, these people continue to confront limitations caused by the impact of neoliberalism and shortcomings and weaknesses of the new governments.

Overcoming these challenges requires the active participation and mobilisation of those below who first brought these “Pink Tide” governments to power.

Therefore, it is necessary to harness the energies of the current wave of protests. This is not just crucial to holding back the right, but also to moving forward in processes still largely defined by differences with neoliberalism, towards building a different, and better world.

[A version of this article first appeared TeleSUR English.]

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