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

With a Resurgent Left, What’s Next for South America?

Friday, June 17, 2022

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. In October 2020, Bolivia returned the Movement Toward Socialism to power in the first presidential election since Evo Morales was ousted, and last year Pedro Castillo, a far-left teacher with no previous experience as an elected official, won Peru’s presidential election. And most recently, Gabriel Boric, a former student protest leader and leftist legislator, became the youngest president in Chile’s history after taking office in March.

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 undermined the country’s democratic norms. In Uruguay, conservatives took control of the government in 2019 from the leftist Broad Front coalition that had been in power for a decade and a half. More recently, conservative Guillermo Lasso won Ecuador’s presidential election in May 2021, and Argentina’s ruling Peronist government suffered a major setback in midterm elections in November of the same year.

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. The attempt to dislodge Maduro and replace him with Juan Guaido in 2018 gained the support of the U.S. as well as governments across the region and the world. But that effort flagged, and 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 President Ivan 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. The coronavirus pandemic added another immense challenge to South America’s public health systems and economies, with implications for leaders who failed to take the threat seriously. And now the spike in food and energy prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is poised to introduce further economic upheaval, with potential political consequences.

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. But if the recent Summit of the Americas, which ended up being a diplomatic fiasco, is any indication, President Joe Biden will struggle to advance U.S. interests in a region that quite simply no longer depends on Washington any longer.

WPR has covered South America in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. How will the health and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic affect the region’s political landscape? What will flagging international support for Guaido mean for Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crises? And what steps will Washington take to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Latest Coverage

The War in Ukraine Is a Ticking Timebomb for Latin America

Jair Bolsonaro’s and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s goodwill toward Vladimir Putin is illustrative of a broader challenge for Latin America’s political class. Regional leaders may attempt to dodge the political ramifications of the war in Ukraine, but the invasion is likely to rock Latin American economies for the coming year.


[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 12 weeks for just $12 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]



Politics

Right-wing and center-right governments now control Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay. 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. But the left has demonstrated resilience as a political force. In Bolivia, for instance, the party of former President Evo Morales regained power in the first elections since his ouster. Peruvian voters also opted for the far-left candidate Pedro Castillo in that country’s presidential election last year, although for many it was due to a lack of other acceptable options. And for many, Chilean President Gabriel Boric represents a “new” new left, combining a progressive vision with a pragmatic willingness to compromise.

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.

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 former 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, South American economies, already hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, are in for more turmoil due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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 his claim to the presidency was backed by much of the continent, along with Washington, 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.

Corruption

Corruption scandals, which proliferated under the left-wing administrations of the Pink Tide, 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. Corruption remains high on the list of voters’ grievances, even as the pandemic has increased both the opportunities for and the costs of graft and impunity. Unless it is brought under control, corruption might ultimately undermine the region’s democratic institutions.

Read all of our coverage of South America.


[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 12 weeks for just $12 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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