South America’s “Pink Tide” is Ebbing; Will Pragmatism Surge in the Storm?

The so-called “Pink Tide” of leftist democratic victories that swept across South America at the turn of the century has lost ground, in light of the outcomes of recent high-stakes elections for President in Argentina (October and November 2015), Parliament in Venezuela (December 2015), and Mayor in Bogotá (October 2015). These elections furnished an unorthodox breed of pragmatists promising to solve their countries’ deteriorating management regimes and stagnating inequality. Given the historical dialectic of South American politics between ideological opponents, the pendulum is now swinging towards a new promise of “change.” Nevertheless, independent of their ideological makeup, political leaders across South America must respond to their voters’ growing calls for a new form of government that is both socially inclusive and well managed.

In 1999, Hugo Chavez ascended to the Venezuelan Presidency, lambasting the historic inequality of his oil-soaked nation and promising radical transformations under the motto of “21st century socialism.” The leftist Peronistas retook Argentina’s government in 2003, while the Colombian left has controlled Bogotá since 2003, using the metropolis as a springboard to further the movement’s own greater national aspirations. The message from early 21st century South Americans was clear: from the “favelas” of Rio to the “laderas” of La Paz, South Americans were disenchanted with the neoliberal economic model that had failed to drive rapid and inclusive growth and had instead only exacerbated some of the starkest levels of inequality in the world.

Presently, a new, less clearly defined “change” looms on the political horizon across South America. The campaign slogans of recent winners suggest as much: “Venezuela Wants Change,” “Change Has Arrived,” “Let’s Recover Bogotá.” Meanwhile, the leftists’ collective message has remained largely unchanged for decades. Not unlike their 20th century populist predecessors, recent leftist campaigns have relied on the tried and tested media strategy of highlighting charismatic leadership as a bulwark to internal and external enemies alike. [1] The most theatrical case is that of Venezuela’s President Maduro, who, in the first week of December 2015, tweeted 271 textual references and hundreds of pictures of Chavez in an attempt to rub off on his mentor’s flamboyance and popularity. One such image shows Maduro pontificating: “A SHOWER OF LOVE: With the rain Chavez always comes.”

Similarly, the leftist incumbents’ rhetoric in recent elections suggests that political enemies are omnipresent. To varying degrees, incumbents have relied on confrontational discourse along ideological, class, and civilizational lines in order to polarize the public and ignite a base of supporters among the working class. Chavez famously mocked George W. Bush as the “devil,” a “donkey,” and a “drunkard,” while Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waged a long campaign against external debt holders, whom she described as “vultures.” Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogotá, launched personal battles against both foes and allies at the forefront of his campaigns.

In the aftermath of the left’s first electoral loss in Bogotá in 12 years, Petro offered a telling indictment of his movement’s difficulty in responding to evolving public priorities: “[the] new middle class is no longer interested in the street dwellers, the prostitutes, the handicapped, or the marginalized neighborhood. It’s not a discourse they get as representative to them because they stopped being poor.” For many Bogotanos, such a statement illustrates Petro’s class warfare mentality and his dismissal of criticisms regarding his capacity to manage public office. However, just seven years before, Petro had criticized the traditional left for “its dogmatic, sectarian, and anti-democratic spirit” and instead proclaimed: “I belong to the left of the 21st century.” Regrettably for him, like Chavez’s “21st century socialism,” a bulk of the public has failed to discern such distinctions between leftist politicians, instead critiquing them for failing to evolve.

So who are the emerging political leaders in the region? That is a particularly puzzling question in Venezuela, where voters, increasingly disenchanted with President Maduro and his Chavista administration, mobilized to punish Chavismo without inquiring about the identities or platforms of those they voted into Parliament. The elected coalition of moderates and radicals are united in their opposition to what they see as an authoritarian and ineffectual regime, but have struggled to agree on a concrete agenda. As such, a balancing act between castigating Chavismo and instilling a more pragmatic government will likely emerge in the legislature.

Curiously, whereas leftist incumbents fiercely attack their contrarians as “right-wing” in the media, their opponents – including Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, Argentine President-elect Mauricio Macri, and Bogotano Mayor-elect Enrique Peñalosa – have refused to label themselves right-wing.

Yet, despite this, the winners exchanged congratulations and critiqued each other’s incumbent governments over social media, suggesting that the three politicians, to a degree, have overlapping political sensibilities.

The difficulty in classifying the emerging crop of political leaders in South America rests partly in the enduring stigma linking the political “right” with notions of military dictatorship, economic polarization, the racial exclusion of indigenous, afro-descendent, and other populations, as well as with political intolerance and violence. In contrast, these emerging political leaders seek to characterize themselves as class-blind pragmatists that have transcended the trappings of the 20th century dichotomies of left and right. Their agendas promise an inclusive and technically sound administration, which is especially attractive to voters in the aftermath of ideological polarization and mismanagement. Peñalosa, in particular, exemplifies the blurring of political boundaries in his experience and leanings – which combine an internationally respected urban planning record and socially liberal inclinations with seemingly incongruous affiliations. The most puzzling of his associations came about in 2012, when he aligned himself with radically conservative Colombian ex-president Álvaro Uribe, who stands as the staunchest critic of the peace process between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas.

With Latin America’s economy slowing down, the political landscape ahead will be difficult to maneuver and will afford few easy successes to newly elected leaders. The well has dried for the high oil prices that enabled the Chavez administration to splurge at home and abroad; no longer can Venezuela provide hyper-subsidized oil for its citizens, preferential trade deals to friendly neighbors, and charity heating programs to the U.S.

Instead, due to mismanagement and unfavorable external conditions, Venezuela’s new parliamentarians must legislate under collapsing oil prices and declining crude exports, depleted public coffers and unsustainable subsidies, astronomic inflation, and rampant crime. Argentina’s economic woes may be less dire, but reforms are sorely needed to overcome its economic stagnation and 2014 debt default. Bogotá has a relatively thriving economy, but its transportation system is dysfunctional, security remains a major concern, and urban projects demand more capable execution.

These landmark elections indicate preliminary lessons for both the victorious and the defeated. Across South America, voters have been largely unswayed by divisive or grandiose rhetoric and are instead prioritizing practical concerns, such as employment prospects, access to basic staples, improved public transportation, and street crime. However, new political forces would be ill advised to ignore the socioeconomic inequality and the detachment between governments and their constituents – issues the left put squarely on the map. If the left hopes to reassert itself, it must re-engage with the socially democratic values of inclusion, uphold pragmatism over dogmatism, and prove its capacity to responsibly manage public office, lest the rising tide of reform carry them further adrift.



[1] This and other observations result from social media analysis conducted by the author on the most recent 3,000 tweets published as of December 15 through the official accounts of each key political figure discussed here.