The recent inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil signaled a political shift in South America, ushering in a new generation of left-leaning governments. Widely termed a “new Pink Tide” in Latin America, the shift was welcomed by progressives and leftists seeking to redefine the global order. But on Jan. 8, 2023, any hopeful illusions were shattered when supporters of Jair Bolsonaro ransacked Brazil’s Supreme Court, Congress, and the presidential palace. The desecration of Brazil’s seat of power by Bolsonaristas points to the immense challenges ahead for the region. The optimism of a “new Pink Tide” in Latin America already appears to be fading.
The new Latin American leaders include voices of the past: In Brazil, Lula, a former trade unionist and two-term president, Colombian president Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerilla, and in Bolivia, Luis Arce, a longtime ally of former Bolivian president Evo Morales. The moment also heralds the new left: Chilean president Gabriel Boric, a former leader of student protests, and Honduran president Xiomara Castro, the first female president in the nation’s history.
South America and the Caribbean have long been an ideological and physical battleground for US contests with foreign adversaries. But Washington cannot expect its neighbors to fall in line in its global contest between democracy and autocracy any more than it can hope to enlist partners to combat China’s influence in the region.
Lula’s inauguration in early January highlighted this independent streak, as the ceremonies featured a wide array of visiting delegations. Among them were competing emissaries from Ukraine and Russia, representatives of Maduro’s Venezuela, Cuba’s vice president, and the foreign minister of Palestine. Lula may be the region’s most prominent non-aligned politician, however, he is not the only one.
Latin America’s leaders face a difficult future, bedeviled by debt, flagging commodity prices, and devastation in the wake of Covid-19. But despite a grim outlook, many of its leaders still espouse some of the rhetoric of past optimism: of a world beyond US hegemony, with South American regional integration and inclusive economic development. Whether these dreams can be realized and whether Washington will hold the region back remains to be seen.
THE PINK TIDE
The first wave of left-leaning governments — commonly referred to as the Pink Tide — reached its zenith in the mid-2000s following the end of the Soviet Union and the success of many social democratic movements that sought to challenge a Western, neoliberal consensus. Beginning with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the continent’s governments began to shift against the stale policies of austerity and privatization that had left many of Latin America’s citizens hungry and cold. The Pink Tide also brought down a number of anti-communist autocrats who had enjoyed political stability more through American patronage rather than electoral legitimacy.
The victories notched by left-wing parties coincided with the commodity boom of the early 2000s and created enormous potential for leaders seeking to reduce extreme poverty and inequality. Lula’s first stint as president of Brazil successfully lifted 20 million people out of poverty through direct redistribution of government revenues.
Most of the region’s governments share an acceptance of multipolarity and a search for something beyond a US-dominated system.
But even referring to all of these governments under the same label obscures their notable differences. Lula’s first presidential victory came after a string of failed campaigns, and it was only after moderating and accommodating certain business interests that he was able to knit an electoral coalition together. This model was more palatable for Washington than the more aggressively statist policies pursued by the “bad” left during the 2000s. Morales and Chavez were often publicly pitted against leaders of more market-friendly governments, a sign that the United States had never given up opposing what it considered to be too radical.
Transformation of the continent was not limited to domestic politics. These leaders sought an alternative to Western multilateral bodies through the creation of competing organizations, including the Bank of the South, which sought to displace the International Monetary Fund. Brazil became a notable broker on the world stage, including in efforts to curb Iranian nuclear aspirations.
The record of the Pink Tide is still hotly contested, as many governments found themselves mired in corruption scandals, and some leaders stuck around much longer than expected. But it is unquestionable that for a time, governments were able to transfer some of the benefits of commodity extraction and high foreign investment to the most marginalized.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The domestic and international context that the current generation of Latin American leaders finds themselves in is decidedly less hopeful than the early 2000s. The region is still recovering from the ravages of Covid-19 — Latin America experienced an outsized number of fatalities, with Brazil suffering over half a million deaths. Commodity prices continue to stagnate and most Latin American leaders can no longer rely solely on extractive policies to boost social spending. Many new leaders campaigned explicitly on addressing the impact of climate change and must balance a delicate fabric of social movements that often include Indigenous communities, social justice groups, and traditional labor fronts.
In Chile, Boric shot to power through an overwhelming rejection of a Pinochet-era constitution, but the process of forming a new one seems to be stalled after the most recent referendum. In Colombia, Petro may have promised to move on from drug wars that have destroyed decades, but peace agreements are tricky to sustain. Peru and Bolivia face raging protests, from the left and right respectively, that threaten their stability.
This does not mean that every country is doomed to infighting, but it does suggest that interior strife may stifle the regional cooperation that the first Pink Tide dreamed of. The resurgence of BRICS — a term used to describe the growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — is most likely doomed due to Russia’s invasion and flaring tensions between China and India. The 2000s efforts to form cooperative infrastructure or joint development banks are really more of a wishlist at the current moment.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE US?
Despite President Joe Biden’s reference to South America as the United States’ “front yard,” there is no real expectation that Washington has the time or attention to engage seriously with Latin America. The Summit of Americas last summer highlighted the inability of the Biden administration to produce any development proposal, and the boycott by some of the region’s more prominent countries was an embarrassment. The United States has no vital interests that implicate its survival or territorial integrity in the region, but the United States can — and should — offer something to its closest neighbors beyond rhetorical posturing.
Washington’s recent attitude toward Brazil offers a good example. The Biden administration’s public recognition of Lula’s victory, only moments after it became clear, made it nearly impossible for Bolsonaro to develop any credible challenge to Brazil’s democratic transition. Even before the election, administration officials were sent to Brazil to warn against any kind of meddling in the results of the contest. This is the kind of low-cost policy the United States can pursue to actually support democracy without direct interference.
The Biden administration’s full-throated support of the incoming Workers’ Party government in Brazil is actually quite a stride forward compared to the actions of former President Barack Obama. Beginning in 2014, a massive Brazilian Federal Police investigation called Lava Jato endeavored to uncover money laundering, bribes, and other malfeasance by elected officials and state-owned enterprises. During the investigation, which led to billions of dollars in fines, Lula was accused and convicted of inheriting a beachside apartment as a result of favors for the Brazilian-owned oil firm, Petrobras.
Obama’s Justice Department engaged in intense collaboration with the investigating Brazilian authorities, often outside of traditional diplomatic procedures, and stood by as Lula was sentenced to prison for 12 years. Following reporting by The Intercept on leaked messages of the lead judge, Sergio Moro, coaching prosecutors, Brazil’s Supreme Court annulled Lula’s conviction.
To address problematic legacy policies, the Biden administration has made halting steps toward a shift in policy on Venezuela and Cuba. The United States no longer officially recognizes Juan Guaido as the leader of Venezuela. However, the administration continues to insist that current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was not legitimately elected. This sort of doublespeak has made it difficult for Washington to engage with Caracas, although officials have certainly tried when it is in the United States’ immediate interests.
Biden continues to maintain the trade embargo on Cuba, a holdover of the Trump administration that former national security advisor Ben Rhodes has called “gaslighting.” These policies appear especially ridiculous when considering the list of challenges the Biden administration outlined as the most urgent of this year. With the war in Ukraine, a growing threat in Asia, and climate change, there is no shortage of problems, and resources are stretched to address them. The United States should consider the inefficacy of long-term sanctions — something it has recently shown itself willing to do — and make an effort to curb their use.
The Biden administration should ensure that policy toward the region remains one of respect for sovereignty and support for governments facing compounding crises.
Unfortunately, these changes must all come from the White House, as Congress appears headed for a deadlock. The divided chambers will be unable to pass any accord on immigration policy — both due to the slim margins in each chamber and the doomed prospect of a bipartisan agreement — and there is no appetite for greater foreign aid to South America. This comes despite record migration from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which will only result in more political jockeying rather than a solution.
If bold solutions are off the table and money is not available for development assistance, “doing nothing” may often be a depressingly sufficient policy. Nothing is a weak proposal, but it would be a positive revision of most American foreign policy towards its southern neighbors. The Biden administration should refuse any halfhearted attempts at regime change and ensure that policy toward the region remains one of respect for sovereignty and support for governments facing compounding crises. Latin American leaders should not be punished for their attempts to address rampant economic inequality, public health infrastructure, and divided societies that often seem as ready to trade blows as groups in the United States often do. Instead, the United States should demonstrate humility when observing nations dealing with intense domestic inequality and its resulting polarization, and offer genuine support where it can.
PARTNERS OF CHOICE?
Finally, the United States should drop any pretense of using countries as a wedge against China in the growing great power competition. Some prominent military leaders have sounded the alarm warning that the continent is a “front line” in the US-China contest. The veracity of such a claim is far from established. There are, for example, no Chinese military bases in South America — and the Biden administration should take great care not to alienate potential partners. China has become the largest trading partner in the region and delivered valuable medical supplies and vaccines during the pandemic.
Although these Pink Tide leaders may not have the same clout necessary for an organized non-aligned movement or regional integration, they have shown signs of bucking the West’s consensus, and it would be a waste of time to try and bring them around. History demonstrates that non-alignment in South America and the Caribbean is often a good strategic choice. Great power rivalry led to calamity for most of South America and the Caribbean. Narratives of the Cold War often center on the fault lines in Europe, but tens of thousands of lives were lost in brutal proxy conflicts throughout the southern hemisphere.
Often brushed off as the cost of doing business, the American record during the Cold War is worth a recitation: attempted or successful coups of left-wing leaders in over half a dozen countries, right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. This was all done in the name of anti-communism, or “preventing another Cuba,” a ridiculously simplistic and cynical dichotomy that massacred innocents and kept millions under the yoke of oppressive governments.
The leaders of the new left in Latin America are well-versed in their history and are once again offering an alternative to black-and-white characterizations of the global system. Boric and Lula have signaled dramatic shifts in their respective country’s policies on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico proffered a peace deal to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which while castigated, demonstrated that many Latin American leaders see a limited role in any Russia-US confrontation. Lula has called for greater cooperation between Latin America and China.
The continent is not a monolith and a unified bloc on any issue is not necessarily forthcoming. Boric has shown a willingness to criticize Venezuela and Nicaragua publicly on human rights, another signal that Pink Tide can be an overly generic description. But ultimately, most of the region’s governments share an acceptance of multipolarity and a search for something beyond a US-dominated system.
Even if the economic and political outlook is dire for the region and the United States has its eyes turned elsewhere, there is still hope for a more integrated Americas. If the United States has the inclination to listen, it may find that its neighbors have some new ideas worth entertaining. At the very least, it owes them the freedom to pursue them without recrimination.
Samuel Gardner-Bird is a Research Assistant at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.