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The presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Chile at La Moneda presidential palace Santiago. The presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Chile at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, March 22, 2019 (AP photo by Esteban Felix).

After the End of the 'Pink Tide,' What’s Next for South America?

Friday, Jan. 15, 2021

It may not be a return of the “Pink Tide” of leftist governments that swept into power across South America in the early 2000s—and were largely swept out again amid a conservative backlash in the mid-2010s. But the region’s left has been showing signs of revival.

In Argentina’s October 2019 presidential election, the moderate-left Peronist candidate, Alberto Fernandez, ousted the market-friendly incumbent, Mauricio Macri, whose austerity measures and heavy borrowing triggered an economic crisis that cost him the presidency. Also in 2019, violent protests erupted in Colombia in September against mounting police brutality under law-and-order President Ivan Duque. And both Ecuador and Chile saw massive demonstrations that forced Ecuador’s government to backtrack on austerity measures and challenged Chile’s longstanding neoliberal economic model. More recently, in October 2020, Bolivia returned the Movement Toward Socialism to power in the first presidential election since Evo Morales was ousted.

The conservative wave that followed the Pink Tide is far from ebbing, though. The 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil was a particular blow to the region’s progressives, and he has justified their fears. His administration has curbed the fight against corruption and downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, even as he has continued to denigrate the country’s Indigenous communities. And in Uruguay, conservatives took control of the government last December from the leftist Broad Front coalition that had been in power for a decade and a half.

With most of the continent turning away from the extremes and toward more pragmatic approaches to the persistent challenges of poverty, inequality and economic development, Venezuela’s regime remains as the last holdout of South America’s Pink Tide. But the Bolivarian revolution that began under former President Hugo Chavez has transformed into an economic and humanitarian disaster under his successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro managed to eke out reelection in 2018 amid complaints of voting irregularities. Much of the region, with Washington’s backing, coalesced around an effort to push him from office by supporting opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president. But the attempt to dislodge Maduro flagged, and the opposition’s decision to boycott December’s elections due to fears they would be as rigged as Maduro’s 2018 reelection cost it control of the legislative body that had been the legal foundation of Guaido’s claim to legitimacy as interim president. Guaido is now struggling to keep his movement from fading into irrelevance.

Major advances in the region are also in danger. Colombia’s fragile peace process faltered after Duque’s hostility to the deal resulted in half-hearted implementation of its measures. Meanwhile, the illicit drug trade is booming, as is organized crime, even as corruption continues to flourish. Now the coronavirus pandemic has added another immense challenge to South America’s public health systems and economies, with implications for leaders who failed to take the threat seriously. It has already claimed one victim: Suriname’s longtime strongman President Desi Bouterse was voted out of office in May, in part over dissatisfaction with his response to COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, Russia and China sought to deepen trade ties with countries across the region. America, threatened by Moscow and Beijing’s newfound interest, has accused them of propping up corrupt governments and is taking steps to shore up its own partnerships in South America. How prominent a role the region will play in President-elect Joe Biden’s Latin America policy remains to be seen.

WPR has covered South America in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will the December election results spell the end of Guaido’s claim to power, and what will that mean for Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crises? Will anger over the response to the coronavirus fuel a backlash against some of the continent’s conservative governments and contribute to a leftist revival? And what steps will Washington take to block Russian and Chinese influence in the region? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Politics

Right-wing and center-right governments now control Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay and Peru. In part a reaction to the years of leftist rule, the right’s rise has also been fueled by the emergence of major corruption scandals that tainted politicians and parties across the region. Bolivia has been one of the few exceptions. Its economy flourished under leftist former President Evo Morales and his deft management of the country’s natural resources exports. Although Morales was forced to resign and flee the country after accusations of fraud in last year’s first-round presidential election, his party regained power in the first elections since his ouster. Now, however, the coronavirus has consumed the political and economic agenda across the region.

Venezuela

The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is deepening, even as the standoff between Maduro and the opposition seems to have been won by the Chavista regime. Though backed by much of the continent, along with Washington, opposition leader and self-declared President Juan Guaido failed to dislodge Maduro. Now Maduro, who oversaw the country’s economic freefall, appears to have decisively sidelined Guaido, in part due to the support of the Venezuelan military—and Russia.

Security and Drugs

The drug trade is booming, particularly in Colombia, where cocaine production is at an all-time high. That has fueled violence and put state legitimacy at risk across swathes of the continent. Some leaders, desperate for a solution, are responding with growing militarization. Meanwhile, labor advocates, Indigenous leaders and civil society remain vulnerable to political violence.

Corruption

Corruption scandals, which proliferated under the left-wing administrations, helped drive the ascent of the right. But the scandal involving payoffs by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht across the region has also taken down center-right politicians. Five of Peru’s former presidents have now been charged with or jailed for corruption, including Martin Vizcarra, who was the second in a row to be removed from office over corruption allegations. And in addition to being “ground zero” for the Odebrecht scandal, Brazil has been embroiled in another corruption scandal involving the state-owned oil company since 2014. Unless it is brought under control, corruption might ultimately undermine the region’s democratic institutions.

Trade and Economic Development

Moscow and Beijing have been eager to increase their economic ties to South America, leveraging the unease that was caused by President Donald Trump’s mixed messages to the region. Washington has pushed back, warning that the two powers are looking to sow disorder on the continent. Meanwhile, there is evidence that South American economies will not emerge unscathed from the U.S.-China trade war, despite growing trade with Asia and Europe. And all that was before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Read all of our coverage of South America.


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.