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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, May 1, 2020

In early 2019, it seemed as if the “pink tide” of leftist governments that swept across Latin America in the early 2000s had all but retreated. The wave of conservative governments that replaced them owed their rise in part to the region’s economic difficulties following the end of a decade-long commodities boom in 2014. But they also took advantage of the failure by many of the leftist leaders to translate that economic boom into sustainable advances for the lower and middle classes. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, after a campaign spent vilifying women as well as marginalized and indigenous communities, was a particular blow to the region’s progressives.

More recently, the South American left has shown signs of a revival. Argentina’s center-left Peronist candidate, Alberto Fernandez, ousted the market-friendly incumbent, Mauricio Macri, in that country’s presidential election in October 2019. Macri had won office in 2015 pledging to remedy the economic missteps of his Peronist predecessor, but his austerity measures and heavy borrowing triggered an economic crisis that cost him the presidency. And massive protests in Ecuador and Chile forced the governments in those countries to backtrack on austerity measures, calling into question in the case of Chile the country’s longstanding neoliberal economic model.

Nevertheless, the fall in early November of Bolivian President Evo Morales after a disputed election left Venezuela’s regime as the last survivor of South America’s earlier leftist transformation. 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. Now much of the region, with Washington’s backing, has coalesced around an effort to push him from office by supporting what some skeptics have called an attempted coup.

Major advances in the region are also in danger. Colombia’s fragile peace process was threatened after President Ivan Duque dragged out the establishment of a tribunal to judge and punish war crimes. Meanwhile, the illicit drug trade across the region is booming, as is organized crime, even as corruption continues to flourish. Now the coronavirus pandemic has added another immense challenge to the region’s public health systems and economies, with implications for leaders, like Bolsonaro, who failed to take the threat seriously.

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.

WPR has covered South America in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will attempts to unseat the Maduro regime succeed, and will that be enough to pull Venezuela out of its humanitarian crisis? Will right-wing governments strengthen their grip on the continent, or face a new backlash? 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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Four years after Colombia’s peace deal with FARC rebels, there is still an alarming level of political violence in the country’s rural areas, where hundreds of activists and indigenous leaders have been killed in targeted attacks. Little has changed in these neglected regions, it seems, despite the promises of peace.

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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 had 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. But he was forced to resign and flee the country after accusations of fraud in last year’s first-round presidential election. Now, the coronavirus has consumed the political and economic agenda across the region.

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 has been 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.

Venezuela

The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is deepening, even as the political situation grows more intractable. The standoff between Maduro and the opposition has grown increasingly violent, with neither side willing to back down. The opposition leader and self-declared president, Juan Guaido, is backed by much of the continent, along with Washington, while Maduro, who oversaw the country’s economic freefall, has been able to rely on the support of the Venezuelan military—and Russia.

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. Four of Peru’s former presidents have been charged with or jailed for corruption, including Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned in 2018 when it was revealed he had accepted a lucrative consulting contract from Odebrecht before seeking office. 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.

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.