South America’s Left Turn is Far From Over

Despite the headlines, South America’s Pink tide is still maintaining its grip across the continent

The 21st century so far has belonged to the left in Latin America. Disillusioned with the stagnating living standards brought about during the neoliberal years of the Washington consensus in the 1990s, South American voters brought a series of socialist leaders to power in what has come to be known as ‘the left turn’ (or alternatively ‘the pink tide’). The polemic Hugo Chavez enjoyed huge support within Venezuela although not abroad and amongst his country’s elite. Evo Morales was elected in Bolivia after a wave of strikes and protests surrounding mass privatisations that brought two governments to their knees. Luiz Lula da Silva rose from a union background to lead his Brazilian workers party to power and, from 2003 until last month, the husband and wife team of the Kirchners governed Argentina.

However, today the left turn seems to be faltering. Chavez’ successor, Maduro, lacks the charisma of his predecessor and recently lost control of the national assembly. Lula and his successor Rouseff have been linked to a series of corruption scandals and there have recently been attempts to impeach her due to her involvement in the scandals. In Argentina, the age of Kircherismo is over as Cristina left office on the December 10 and the electorate chose a right wing successor over her party’s candidate. These events have led to a string of articles proclaiming the end of the left turn. Corruption and economic mismanagement have revealed these governments for what they are – rooted in populism and unable to sensibly manage modern global economics – so the critics claim.

Is this really the case though? Scratch the surface and it becomes apparent that, although suffering setbacks, the political mood still favours the left-turn movement and the people of South America are not yet trying to take over the wheel and drive the car right.

 

The State of the Left in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina

The problems faced by leftist leaders in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina are the results of unique circumstances within each country rather than a failure of socialist policies.

In Venezuela for example, the Chavista government has faced a long and concerted campaign of opposition from the traditional elites that have lost out thanks to its policies of wealth redistribution. At least part of the blame of the food shortages and queues – often cited as evidence of economic mismanagement – could easily be placed at the feet of this elite which using its large pool of resources (such as the ownership of shops and much of the media) has been accused of tactics such as hoarding goods or smuggling them abroad in order to inflate prices and create an economic crisis. The attempted – and allegedly US backed – coup against Chavez in 2002 shows a willingness on this group’s part to use underhand tactics such as these to achieve their aims.

That said, there are reports of excessive force being used to crack down on protest and coupled with a high crime rate, the economic insecurity seems to have rattled Maduro’s government. While still enjoying popularity amongst Venezuela’s poor majority, the instability has hurt the government and it is unclear if it will be able to retain power.

In Brazil, the workers party founded by former president Lula, is facing crisis with impeachment proceedings being started against current president Rousseff. With popularity ratings that most politicians could only dream of, until recently the government looked untouchable however just one year into her second term, it is uncertain how long Rousseff will remain in power and her popularity is at a record low.

Has this been dramatic turnaround been brought about by the failure of government policy? A one-word answer would be ‘no.’ It is corruption that has undermined the government after a series of scandals revealed that the state owned energy company, Petrobras, was being used to launder money and fund political campaigning. It is a mistake to think that anger at these illegal activities translates into a desire amongst the Brazilian electorate to move the country to the right and, instead should be interpreted as part of the country’s rise in global and economic standing. As Brazil becomes a global power, its people are becoming increasingly assertive and are no longer willing to tolerate the corruption and political misbehaviour that has long plagued the country and indeed the whole continent.

Scandal has also had a part to play in the downfall of Kircherismo in Argentina. As well as allegations of corruption, last year Alberto Nisman – a federal prosecutor – was found dead in suspicious circumstances hours before being due to give evidence to Congress that was set to implicate the president and members of her government in attempting to hide evidence relating to the bombing of an Israeli museum in 1994. The death remains unexplained and hurt the image of Kirchner’s government in the eyes of many Argentinians.

It can also be argued that Argentina is a place where normal political rules don’t apply. The country has become known as an economic basket case, and while fairly prosperous in relation to the region, failed to live up to the predictions of the early 1900s that thanks to its population, size and resources it become one of the most powerful countries in the world. Politically, it has been defined not so much by left and right, but by its leader’s adherence to Peronism, the ideology founded by president Peron which blended authoritarianism with socialism and nationalism. Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum claim to represent his legacy making it hard to label them as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’. The recent election of Macri appears to be a move to the right for Argentina, but the nation’s media has instead been concentrating on his relationship to Peronism.

 

The Rest of the Continent

While Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela make up three of the continent’s most populous and economically powerful nations, a quick glance at the rest of the region reveals a continuation of the left turn. Evo Morales – one of the most revolutionary of South America’s leaders – is still going strong in Bolivia. In Uruguay, Tabare Vazquez was recently re-elected to a second stint as president after his popular predecessor Jose Mujica left office. He looks set to continue the socialist policies that made his party the first ever to win power in the country from outside the traditional two centrist parties. Despite some turbulent periods Rafael Correa shows no sign of falling in Ecuador, and in Chile, traditionally one of the least left-wing countries in Latin America Michelle Bachelet – the daughter of a dissident and the survivor of a period of imprisonment during Pinochet’s infamous and brutal military junta – was elected as head of a socialist government last year. A left left-wing government remains in power in Peru, leaving only Colombia, Paraguay and now Argentina controlled by centrist or right-wing governments.

 

The Left Turn Continues

Far from being over, the left turn in South America continues to be the prevailing political feature despite recent setbacks. South America’s history is defined by outsiders taking the continent’s wealth and resources aided by local elites who grow rich through participating in the process. When the neo-liberal policies of the 1990s failed to bring about the promised rise in living standards (while allowing multinational companies to grow rich and extract the continent’s resources), long held ideas such as neo-colonialism and the theory of dependency found expression at the ballet box. While often dismissed as popularism, the socialist governments of the left turn are a result of this discontent, and for a large amount of South America’s population the results have been concrete improvements in their lives and prospects. While undeniably suffering from problems, such as the prevalent corruption and the social legacy left over from the region’s colonial past, the left turn will continue as long as the alternative is a return to the ‘sensible’ economics that see outsiders benefit from the resources and hard-work of ordinary South Americans.

 

 



Max Serjeant is a journalist and photographer from the uk but based in Australia. He is particularly interested in politics, travel writing and Latin America. More of his work can be found at www.maxserjeant.com


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