Thursday, 18 August 2016

What Happened to Latin America's Pink Tide

Throughout the Late 1990s and Early 2000s, Lain Americas political system seemed to be changing course. Following anti-neoliberal protests, a number of Left leaning governments in countries such as Venezuela and Brazil rose to power. This new kind of politics, mixed with the growth of solidarity alliances and people’s councils, made many on the left excited for the future. As such, it was quickly labelled the ‘Pink Tide’. Indeed, perhaps the biggest victory for the Pink tide project against neoliberalism was the political mobilisations which led to the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005. However, since then, the balance of power has shifted slowly back towards the right, with the popularity of left wing governments rapidly declining. The biggest defeats come in the two largest Pink Tide economies. The election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina represents the first time a government from Latin Americas progressive coalition has been defeated in a presidential election. Also, In Brazil, the opposition has been able to accomplish what it was not able to through democratic process, by launching a coup against President Dilma Roussef. There is no doubt that the US is attempting to take advantage of this crisis. In contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, its efforts to assert dominance in the region are not through Military coups, but through much more covert measures such as economic sabotage alongside propaganda campaigns. All this is paving the way for the right to defeat left wing governments in Latin America. Despite this, it is inefficient to look to imperialism to explain the crisis facing the American left. Previously, when opposition forces have attempted to overthrow left wing governments like the coup d’├ętat in Venezuela in 2002, popular support for these governments was sufficient to defend them. Contrast this with today, when governments cannot rely on support quite so heavily. As such, to understand the current crises the left must look at itself. The crises is a result of the limitations of the Pink Tide, which have increasingly undermined its radical goals.

Challenging Capitalism?

The Pink Tide, which consisted of the governments from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and to a less radical extent Brazil and Argentina, first achieved electoral victory as a result of wide spread discontent about neoliberalism. In response to this, these governments softened the harshest blows dealt by neoliberalism. This included reversing privatisations, promoting growth based on production, wealth redistribution measures and expanding public services such as health care. There is no doubt that many of these programmes significantly benefited the poor and ordinary working people. In fact, these reforms led to ideas amongst the left, that Latin America was capable of building a block that would break with US economic policy. However, the reforms of progressive governments sought only to mitigate the effects of capitalism. They did little to challenge the more fundamental economic rules which define capitalism. In addition to this, there was no significant agrarian reform and major resources like mining, agro industry, finance and mass media remained in the hands of a small sector of elites, who continued to profit. As a result, Pink Tide governance was repeatedly undermined.
The defining aspect of the Pink Tide model was the neo developmenatalist model. This was an attempt to reduce dependence on foreign capital by promoting small business and forging alliances with the ‘national bourgeoisies’. However, subsides to business owners failed to promote investment in ways that could support the goals of national development, leaving these countries to depend more on raw material exports and natural resource extraction to fund social welfare programmes, preventing further progressive change. This model has been linked to a number of anti-progressive developments such as deforestation and soil pollution linked to the use of mining and soil erosion. In addition to this, peasants and indigenous people from rural communities have been displaced as a result of the policy. This has generated a new wave of resistance against extractive projects. What all this means is that, rather than transcending capitalism, Pink tide economies accommodated to it, deepening their dependence on global capital. Also, this reliance on resource extraction and exports have made governments in Latin America vulnerable to boom and bust cycles. Falling commodity prices as a result of declining growth in China, reduced demand for agro fuels and development of forms of substitute oil, have been devastating for pink tide economies, leading to reduced rates of growth, currency devaluations and declining resources. The region now faces its fourth year of economic decline. Meanwhile, very few alternative trade and industrialization goals have been achieved, making the economy even more stagnant.

The Limits of the Pink Tide

There is no doubt that, aside from it being environmentally destructive and acting as a contradiction to left wing politics, the extractivist model provided Pink Tide governments with the money necessary to implement significant welfare programmes. However, unaccompanied by a more radical project for transformation of the economy, the social programmes have only been a tempory solution. The systemic mechanisms which reproduce inequality are left intact.
Firstly, it needs to be pointed out that many social programmes in Latin America have been limited in effectiveness, due to the maintaining of the capitalist economic model. In Argentina, food emergency plans and soup kitchens were set up to provide life support to the most impoverished sections of the population during the economic crises. Despite this, they were unable to tackle the underlying causes of poverty in the long run. After the initial emergency these programmes were never replaced by efforts to organize alternative livelihoods for people beyond the narrow limits of individual consumption. Emptied of their revolutionary potential, social assistance programmes became mechanisms for co-opting social organisations. The Kirchners unemployment scheme was used as a tool to divide the Piquetero movement. ‘Loyal’ activists were rewarded with official positons, while those that were more critical were isolated. Similarly, In Brazil, the rise to power of the Workers Party (PT) resulted with the dissolution rather than the empowerment of left wing movements. The PT’s relationship with movements was primarily defined by the appointment of leaders from unions to public administrative positons. This meant that activists left the ranks of grassroots organising to become part of the elite, resulting in a loss of legitimacy. The left was disoriented and unable to form a coherent political stance.
Across the board, social programmes were not accompanied by new forms of education, mobilisation, unification and political formation. The role of the poor was to act as passive beneficiaries of social programmes, rather than as people who had been put in their financial position by an unfair socio economic system. They were by no means part of a project seeking to challenge neoliberalism. This is what thwarted the possibility of building towards post capitalist societies. What had once been seen as a new political horizon in Latin America, was limited to a tempory increase in consumption capacity for the working poor. The economic stagnation countries like Brazil are now facing has laid bare the contradictions in the Pink Tide project. Governments are no longer able to fulfil their role as both facilitators of higher profits for capital and benefactors for the poor. In the absence of a more radical programme to confront capitalism, governments have retreated to the right, implementing pro market reform. In Brazil, Rousseff cut back social programmes and appointed a liberal finance minister. In Ecuador, Correa increased public debts and exports, and awarded oil concessions to large corporations. Meanwhile, the market friendly policies of Pink Tide government’s created more and more confusion amongst their base of support.


As previously explained, the deliberate curtailing of grassroots activism mixed with a series of broken promises, created division within social movements. They were not able to establish relationship with governments that also allowed them to stick to their principles, whilst also being open to criticism and dialogue when protest arose.
The best example of this is the controversies in Bolivia and Ecuador. In the latter country, popular mobilizations reached a high pint in 2008 when the rights of nature were recognized in the ‘Living Well’ constitution: An alternative vision of development based on principles of helping ethnic groups and maintaining a sustainable environment. However, in practice these goals were always subordinated to the growth strategy, as demonstrated by Bolivia’s recent abandonment of the keep oil in the ground initiative, in favour of opening drilling operations Yasuni national Park. This has heightened tensions between the Correa government, which has become increasingly undemocratic, and popular forms of peasant, indigenous and environmentalist movements. Movements have organised marches and petitions against the governments expansion of agribusiness and mining, as well as the criminalisation of social protest. The government’s hostility towards these protests ended up providing an opening for the right, which took the opportunity to mobilize against higher taxes, with the ultimate aim of restoring the conservative government.
Similarly, in Bolivia the MAS’s appeal to ‘pluriculturalism’ emphasises the issue of identity and values for indigenous people, primarily through legal recognition. Despite this, it pays little attention to the material conflicts arising in these communities. While the Bolivian states brand of Capitalism is supposed to acknowledge the coexistence of diverse cultures within society, the experience of conflict over infrusture, would appear to reassert the dominance of capital. When the Highway proposal for the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) was pushed through despite widespread protest, the Bolivian government was accused of intimidating and criminalizing indigenous organisations. Much like in Ecuador, social movements have been weakened, suffering a loss in autonomy.


Governments too focussed on the economic agenda have lost their relationship with social movements. Mass protests against the PT in Brazil in 2013, started as left wing demands concerning public transport. The party’s complete disregard for this form of organisation however, opened the doors for the upper classes to seize the opportunity to mobilize discontent, which eventually became a major force behind the toppling of the government in 2016. Amongst all of this, it has become evident that the mobilizations which initially bought the Pink tide governments to power, have little continuity. This is partly because they lacked a long term project, but also because they were undermined by the agendas of their own governments. Even if activism has not disappeared completely, the forces on the left are a far cry from building an alternative hegemonic force. Rather, they were completely unprepared for the current economic crisis. While governments made alliances with the right and adopted pro market policies, popular forces lacked the ability to understand what was happening and mobilize for an alternative.  As such, movements criticising the government ended up promoting the cause of the right.
What these experiences make clear is that a project for societal transformation cannot be limited to greater redistribution of wealth, without also seriously confronting deeper power structures and building a radical base. It is not that greater access to Public services and goods is unimportant, but that their effectiveness does not fundamentally alter the reproduction of class and power inequalities. Nor do they necessarily encourage the mobilization necessary for a longer term political project. After all, it is not enough to defeat neoliberalism without also having a strategy towards building a post capitalist society.

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