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The Year the 'Pink Tide' Turned: Latin America in 2015

A new right wing president in Argentina and the gathering force of the opposition in Venezuela has left the longtime dominance of leftist governments in Latin America looking shaky.

by Andrea Noel
Dec 29 2015, 9:00pm

Photo by Victor R. Caivano/AP

Bolivia's President Evo Morales said earlier this month that he's been feeling "a little lonely." 

"It's painful for me to watch this regional political panorama," he told Argentine newspaper Página 12 hours before the inauguration of Argentina's new right wing president, Mauricio Macri, on December 10. "But we're not frightened…. Cuba was alone for decades in Latin America."

When Morales took office nearly a decade ago, the region was dominated by leftist leaders like him in what became known as the Pink Tide.

The trend began with the 1999 election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The left then won elections in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Paraguay, and eventually Peru. Two Central American countries — Nicaragua and El Salvador — are currently governed by political parties that started life as guerrilla movements.

This year the Pink Tide began to turn.

Of eight presidents and one former president gathered at a 2010 summit of the South American Union of Nations, only one was not identified with the political left. (Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

The newly inaugurated Macri milked the moment in Argentina, dancing across the balcony of the Casa Rosada — the presidential residence coincidentally known as the Pink House — to a cumbia song sung by Vice President Gabriela Michetti in front of a throng of thousands of supporters.

A few hours earlier, the former businessman who is beloved by the markets had promised a "new era" for Argentina. Whether he manages that remains to be seen, but his victory has already marked the end of 12 years of Kirchnerismo, the left wing populist movement headed first by President Néstor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007, and then by his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Related: Privilege, Trauma, Political Opportunity and Luck Mark Argentina's New President

"This is, historically, the first time that [Argentina's left] haven't been taken out by a military coup," said David Shirk, the Latin America program director at the University of San Diego. "It's the first time they've shown themselves to the door, and let themselves out. That's a huge step forward for Latin American politics."

Although this was the Argentine left's smoothest exit yet, it was not easy for Kirchnerismo to give up its hold on power.

An interim president had to be selected to serve for a half-day when the outgoing Fernández refused to attend Macri's inauguration ceremony or go to the Casa Rosada to hand him the presidential sash. And while she may have let herself out the door, she stole the virtual keys to the castle, permanently hijacking the presidential palace's official Twitter account in a successful online coup. The account was renamed @CasaRosada2003-2015 to commemorate the Kirchners' legacy, forcing the new Argentine government to quietly launch a new official Twitter account last week.

President Evo Morales of Bolivia and President Cristina Fernández on her last day in office, just after she unveiled a bust of her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner. (Screenshot via YouTube)

After unveiling a bust of her late husband the night before it all ended, in the presence of the visiting Morales, Fernández made no effort to hide the nostalgia she felt for the days when the Pink Tide was swelling. In a farewell speech she said that Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela, and Workers' Party founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil had "recognized that the history of South America deserved to take a different direction." They were, she added, "the three musketeers."

In an interview just prior to Macri's inauguration, Morales — the last musketeer standing — pointed to President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela as his last real ally in the region. He did not mention that Maduro is looking shaky these days.

Though handpicked as a successor by the dying Chávez, Maduro lacks the charisma of his predecessor and Venezuelans have never embraced him with the conviction that they did the Comandante of Venezuela's so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Maduro narrowly won elections in 2013 and has struggled with low approval ratings ever since.

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro. (Photo via AP)

The Socialist government has also been crippled by the falling price of oil, leading to plummeting currency values and crippling shortages of basic goods, ranging from food and medicine to toilet paper and condoms. The capital Caracas was named the world's second most violent city last year, up one spot from the previous year. This insecurity and scarcity of basic goods fueled an outbreak of violent protest in 2014, which resulted in 43 deaths and more than 3,000 arrests.

This year those troubles helped a fractious opposition gather steam as they sniffed the weakness of the regime. In December, the opposition United Democratic Roundtable coalition trounced the governing Socialist party to win a two-thirds supermajority in the next National Assembly to be inaugurated in early January. Their victory marked the first time Chavismo has lost control of the legislature since 1999.

"Our people have voted to change a system that oppresses and humiliates them," Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López told Venezuelan media from his cell in a military prison, where he has been held since being arrested in those protests nearly two years ago. He called the December election results a "weakening of the dictatorship."

'What we're seeing in South America is a generational earthquake.'

Venezuela's new parliament is expected to push for the release of López and other imprisoned opposition figures. And they already have an important new regional ally in Macri, who used his first speech as Argentine president in an international forum to demand the release of the prisoners.

"To a certain extent, I think the left has exhausted itself in many parts of Latin America," Shirk said. "The citizenry has begun to see the excesses we saw in Argentina, the stagnation we are seeing in Brazil, or, in the case of Venezuela, the absolute failure of an incumbent party."

While this shift to the right became crystal clear only this year, there were already signs it was beginning before. In Paraguay in 2013, leftist leader Fernando Lugo was replaced by a rightwing business tycoon who made his money in ventures such as cigarettes, soda, and meat.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the shine started rubbing off Lula da Silva's successor, Dilma Rousseff, soon after she took office in 2011.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (Photo via EPA)

Economic growth was 7.6 percent in 2010. Today Brazil in struggling through a recession, with the government's image also damaged by one of the worst corruption scandals the country has ever seen, centered around the state-run oil company Petrobras. Rousseff, whose approval ratings have fallen as low as 10 percent, is now also facing impeachment proceedings based on allegations that she diverted public funds to benefit her reelection last year.

The left is also in trouble in Peru, the world's top cocaine producer, where more than 115 of the winning candidates in last year's midterm elections were under investigation by the country's anti-narcotics police. Soft-left President Ollanta Humala's popularity has dramatically dropped since his election in 2011. The current runaway favorite to win first-round presidential elections in April is Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of Alberto Fujimori — the former hard right ruler of Peru who is currently in jail for embezzlement, directing death squads, and bribing journalists to smear his opponents.

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Despite it all, it is still premature to say that the pink tide is truly receding, according to Santiago Baruh, from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. For that to be clear, he says, he would need to see both the continued success of right wing parties and a shift in the whole political ideology of the region.

"An increased anti-Americanism, or a skepticism regarding the relationship between the US and the countries of Latin America, was a defining characteristic of the Pink Tide," Baruh told VICE News. "We'll have to see how those perceptions change."

Lula da Silva could also stand again for election in Brazil in 2018, and Fernández de Kirchner could do the same in 2019 in Argentina. Ecuador also amended its constitution this month in a way that would allow the current leftist populist president, Rafael Correa, to return to office in 2021 indefinitely.

Baruh also points to differences in the shades of pink involved. He emphasizes how the "light pink" left in Uruguay has avoided both political extremes and the kind of corruption scandals enveloping political elites across much of the region, maintaining high legitimacy levels as it has implemented left wing social policies.

Uruguay moved away from its traditional center-right parties by electing Tabaré Vázquez of the center-left Broad Front party in 2005. He was followed by José Mujica, who maintained the country's open economy but pushed through progressive reforms such as legalizing on-demand abortion.

"It's sad that a nearly 80-year-old man has to come in to plant a youthful openness in a conservative world," Mujica said in an an interview with VICE News last year after Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. "Makes one want to cry."

Vázquez is back in office again with a relatively healthy economy bucking the regional trend and poverty rates now 12.4 percent — 40 percent lower than they were when the center-left took power a decade ago.

Morales in Bolivia appears to occupy the reddest end of the spectrum. According to the BBC, two-thirds of South Americans lived in countries governed by left-leaning presidents in 2005, the year he was elected.

"For me, it's either imperialist or anti-imperialist," Morales said earlier this month. "Some countries, just to win elections, become part of the center-right or center-left."

An Aymara Indian who cut his political teeth as a leader of coca-leaf growers fighting eradication, Morales is disliked in Washington but is popular among Bolivia's nearly two-thirds indigenous population.

About 60 percent of Bolivians lived in poverty when Morales first took office; social programs helped slash poverty to below 40 percent in 2013. During the same period, life expectancy in Bolivia increased by three years, the middle-class was strengthened by vastly improved wages, and the size of the economy tripled to $33 billion. Last year, Bolivia followed Cuba and joined socialist-led Nicaragua, becoming the third Latin American country to be declared illiteracy-free by UNESCO.

Morales is already Bolivia's longest-sitting president, and a February referendum will determine if he'll be allowed to return for a fourth term in 2019. "Morales still controls many resources that are bringing in foreign currency reserves," Baruh said. "He is positioned to stay in power."

But while Morales still consistently pounds the anti-imperialist drum and cries death to neo-liberalism, he is also a pragmatist. The Bolivian government has been applauded by international financial institutions as economically prudent. And while Morales made his support for outgoing Argentine president Fernández clear, he also not only attended Macri's inauguration — in contrast to Venezuela's Maduro, who stayed away — he even played a friendly soccer match with him a few hours before the ceremony.

"[Macri's election] is importantly illustrative of the fact that today young people are going to make their decisions based not on decades-old loyalties to an iconic figure," Shirk said. "Rather, they will make choices based on policies and programs presented by political parties and candidates."

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The political analyst predicts that left and right will trend toward moderation. He expects the left to let go of some of its anti-imperialistic rhetoric and the right to commit itself to conserving social programs ushered in by the governments of the Pink Tide.

"What we're seeing in South America is a generational shift," he said. "This time, the pendulum might not swing as far."

Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter: @MetabolizedJunk

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