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

With a Resurgent Left, What’s Next for South America?
Chilean President Gabriel Boric shakes hands with Colombian President Gustavo Petro at a news conference at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 8, 2022 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).

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 a 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. Earlier this year, Gabriel Boric, a former student protest leader and leftist legislator, became the youngest president in Chile’s history after taking office in March, while Gustavo Petro became the first leftist president in Colombia’s modern history. And former Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva defeated the country’s far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro in October, in a contest in which many observers feared Brazilian democracy was also on the ballot.

The conservative wave that followed the Pink Tide, beginning with Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil in 2018, has not yet entirely receded, though. 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. And conservative Guillermo Lasso won Ecuador’s presidential election in May 2021, while 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 original 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 former President Ivan Duque’s hostility to the deal resulted in half-hearted implementation of its measures. Petro has promised to revive the deal with the FARC while seeking a broader peace with other insurgencies and armed groups that still operate in the country, but mistrust among the Colombian security forces could hamper his ability to implement his agenda. 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. The U.S., 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 most 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’s ahead in efforts to address Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crises? And how will Washington approach relations with the region’s new wave of leftist leaders to counter Russian and Chinese influence? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Latin America’s Left Is Paying the Political Price for Security Failures

In the countries where they have gained power, Latin America’s left-leaning leaders have usually won by campaigning on economic and social issues. Now that they are in power, they must deal with the region’s security challenges—and the political fallout for the failures that occur, whether or not they are to blame for them.

Politics

Right-wing and center-right governments still control Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay. In part a reaction to the years of leftist rule, the right’s rise in the late 2010s was also 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 after 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 while Lula’s return in Brazil has captured worldwide attention, for many, Chilean President Gabriel Boric and his Colombian counterpart, Gustavo Petro, represent 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 also took 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.

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

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