Yes, the Left is back in Latin America

In many ways, the new ‘pink tide’ points to a different Left, as Gustavo Petro’s election in Colombia shows

Updated - January 14, 2023 04:17 pm IST

Published - June 25, 2022 12:16 am IST

A campaign banner, of Gustavo Petro, in Bogota

A campaign banner, of Gustavo Petro, in Bogota | Photo Credit: AFP

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of Gustavo Petro’s election as the President of Colombia. For the first time in the two centuries of the independent history of the region’s third largest country (in terms of population), the Left has reached the Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace in Bogotá. It has done so with the highest number of votes of any President (more than 11 million), and after an election with the highest electoral participation rate (58%). This is also with the overwhelming support of the country’s youth. It has also brought to the vice-presidency, for the first time, an Afro-Colombian woman, Francia Márquez, an environmental activist from Cauca, one of Colombia’s poorest and most marginalised areas.

A similarity

Colombia’s unique history, which inspired the magical realism genre in Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, makes it stand out on Latin America’s vast and colourful canvas. The same goes for Mr. Petro’s condition as a former urban guerrilla, a member of M-19, a group that wrought much havoc in a country marked by the dubious distinction of having had the longest armed conflict in the world — that between another guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Colombian government, from the 1960s to 2016. In another sense, though, the story of Mr. Petro’s election and the challenges he faces once he takes office on August 7, are not too different from that of several other countries in the rest of the region.

Fallout of the pandemic

Mr. Petro’s victory comes in the wake of those of Gabriel Boric in Chile, Xiomara Castro in the Honduras, Luis Arce in Bolivia, Pedro Castillo in Peru and the earlier victories by Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Alberto Fernández in Argentina, all broadly on the Left of the political spectrum. Polls indicate there is a good chance former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will win Brazil’s presidential elections in October, which would turn this shift into a wave. Most of these leaders have come to power propelled by the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the region, by far the worst affected by the virus, with 30% of the world’s deaths from it, and 8% of the world’s population. The epic mismanagement of the pandemic by often denialist incumbent right-wing governments, of which Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (the country had close to 7,00,000 deaths), is Exhibit A, had much to do with it.

This has also led to what the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has referred to as the region’s worst crisis in 120 years, as the economy contracted by 7% in 2020, twice the rate of the global GDP. A country like Chile, the most developed in the region, and for long the best performing economy, is projected to grow 1.4% in 2022 and 0.1% in 2023, which reveals much about the depth of this crisis in a region that swings, seamlessly, from one “lost decade” to another.

Does this herald a new “pink tide” in Latin America, similar to the one that came to the fore in the first decade of the new century (only to peter out in the second)? Riding on the commodities boom super-cycle (2003-2013), that period brought prosperity, poverty reduction and some progress towards greater income inequality in the world’s most unequal region. Leaders such as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and Tabaré Vázquez and José (“Pepe”) Mujica in Uruguay showed that it was possible to be on the Left and establish progressive social programmes, while also being fiscally responsible and keeping the house in order. It also led to a flourishing of regional cooperation, with the creation of entities such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Pacific Alliance. In 2012, the troika of CELAC Foreign Ministers (those of Chile, Cuba and Venezuela did something unthinkable today) — held dialogues with China and with India in Beijing and in New Delhi, respectively.

Bogota’s agenda

Are we likely to see something similar in years to come? In other words, are we at the beginning of another “political cycle”, marked by the ascendancy of the Left? Yes, the Left is back. The question is, what kind of Left, and how long will it last?

In many ways, this is a different Left. Mr. Petro, 62, an economist, and a former mayor of Bogotá, is especially attuned to the environmental challenge. His agenda includes weaning Colombia away from its dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and coal (40% of the country’s export revenues come from oil), stopping fracking (a technique used in natural gas and petroleum production), and moving towards an energy transition. Mr. Boric, the Chilean leader, favours gender issues and gender equality (his Cabinet has a larger number of women than men), as well as the rights of indigenous peoples, and has stressed the need to move towards the equivalent of a European welfare state, in another country with some of the highest indices of income inequality in the region, where 10% of the population earns 60% of the country’s income (Chile, like Colombia, has a very unequal income distribution). The issues in Honduras, which former President Juan Orlando Hernández (now under arrest in the United States) built into the Americas’ first narco-state, are of a different sort. Its new President, Xiomara Castro, has her hands full in trying to dismantle the corrupt state apparatus she inherited, to deal with drug trafficking, and to control the endemic violence that earned San Pedro Sula, one of the cities in the Honduras, the title of “murder capital of the world”.

Editorial | Paradigm shift: On Colombia’s first leftist President

In addition to a more favourable international environment, an advantage enjoyed by the previous “pink tide”, was continuity. The Workers Party ruled Brazil for 13 years. The Concertación did so in Chile for 20 years in a row, and then had another go with Michelle Bachelet´s second term (2014-2018) for another four. The Kirchners in Argentina ruled for 12 years. Evo Morales in Bolivia was in power for 13 years, Rafael Correa in Ecuador for 10, and the Frente Amplio in Uruguay did so from 2005-2020. It is a different political environment now; anti-incumbency feelings reign, and the “throw the rascals out” sentiment after merely one term is on the ascendancy.

Ambitious reform programmes without (in most cases) parliamentary majorities, under severe fiscal constraints and a turbulent international environment do not, as a rule, make for a promising combination for incoming governments. A silver lining may be rising commodity prices (which have lifted Colombia’s GDP growth forecast for 2022 to 6.1%), but in several cases they tend to set each other off.

Mr. Petro has referred to his interest in working together with Lula’s Brazil and Boric’s Chile, highlighting a key area where these incoming governments may make quick progress. A first cut at creating a political coordination entity in South America, one that will have learned the lessons from the ultimate failure of UNASUR, should be a priority.

On Active Non-Alignment

As a Second Cold War raises its ugly head, the notion of Active Non-Alignment, which takes a page from India’s concept set forth by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s, but adapts it to the realities of the 21st century, has triggered widespread interest in academic and policy-making circles. It may provide a useful guide to channel the foreign policies of Latin American nations, at a time of a changing international system, and as the region’s need to re-establish its presence in world affairs is especially urgent.

Jorge Heine is a Research Professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a former Chilean Ambassador to India. His most recent book, with Carlos Fortin and Carlos Ominami, is ‘Active Non-Alignment and Latin America: A Doctrine for the New Century’

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