Around the turn of the 21st Century, South America was in crisis. Widespread poverty and economic collapse had created an angry backlash against the dominant free market policies of the 90s. Out of this rose the “pink tide,” a series of left wing movements that swept to power across the continent. They promised to build fairer societies, lift people from poverty and strengthen democracy. For a while they were celebrated around the world for doing just that. Then it all collapsed.
Of all the parties and figures that have been lumped into the so called “pink tide,” a broad term referring to a general shift to the left in South America during the 2000s, two men came to embody it above all others.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was the defiant anti-imperialist, determined to use his countries vast oil reserves to create a beacon of socialism on the continent. A charismatic leader and hugely popular amongst the working class, Chavez was the most outspoken and radical of the “pink tide” leaders. He also became a darling of the global left, celebrated in films by director Oliver Stone and acclaimed in section of the the press for pioneering a radical new course for South American politics.
The other was the more moderate but no less popular, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, universally known as “Lula,” the president of Brazil and the man credited with implementing social policies that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty. A former trade union activist who had fought to end Brazil’s military dictatorship, he married a pro-business approach to an emphasis on social welfare. His presidency was praised by both the Obama administration and the IMF as a model of inclusive growth.
When Lula stepped down in 2011 and Chavez died in 2013, both passed the project they had begun to their hand picked successors. The tide rolled inexorably on.
Skip forward to the present and that tide seems not so much to have stalled as to be rapidly retreating into the horizon. Venezuela has become a tragic real world example of the principle that things can always get worse. For six weeks, mass protests have taken place across the country in response to a failed economy and a society increasingly descending into lawlessness. The country’s capital, Caracas, is amongst the most dangerous cities in the world with a staggeringly high murder rate.
The agonising effects of a contracting economy where inflation is predicted to soon surpass 700% is obvious. The country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves appears unable even to provide sufficient food or medical supplies for its population. The Venezuelan health minister last week declared that there had been a 66% increase in deaths during pregnancy over the last two years. The minister was subsequently dismissed.
Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, was elected but with 39 protesters killed since the unrest began, the government looks increasingly prepared to resort to outright repression to protect its power. Maduro lacks the charisma or popularity enjoyed by Chavez while both his handling of the crisis and the use of violence against protesters has attracted condemnation. Former Uruguayan president José Mujica, himself once identified as part of a surging pink tide, dubbed the embattled Maduro “mad as a goat.”
Meanwhile, in Brazil, Lula found himself giving testimony in front of Sergio Moro, the judge heading the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, a seemingly endless inquiry into corruption amongst the nation’s political and business elite. The ex-president stands accused of selling favours to a construction company. Lula vehemently denies all charges, which he says is the continuation of a crusade against his Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) by the Brazilian elite.
Last year, his successor, Dilma Roussef, was impeached and PT thrown out of power by the senate. Roussef has not been accused of wrongdoing but there was widespread anger in the country at the system of endemic graft that was unveiled by Operation Lava Jato. Her government was also blamed for Brazil’s plunge into economic crisis, the worst the country has seen since the 1930s. Inflation and unemployment have soared as a result.
End of an era?
Commentators have pointed to the dramatic decline of the popular left in Venezuela and Brazil as part of a continental trend. Fellow leftwing governments fell at the ballot box in Paraguay (2013) and Argentina (2015). Contradictorily however, socialist candidate Lenin Moreno did win election in Ecuador in April, but only by a narrow margin.
These defeats represent a stunning blow for a movement that until just a few years ago was dominant and hugely popular amongst voters. So what happened?
As tempting as it is to come to simple conclusions that x caused x, the answer is more complex. While right wing commentators have rushed to declare the chaos in Venezuela and Brazil the natural consequence of socialist policies, this seems to ignore the major differences between the two. Lula pioneered large-scale social programs but he also embraced the free market and foreign investment. The pragmatic, “third way” approach favoured by him and others has more in common with Blair or Clinton than Venezuelan “Chavismo.”
It also doesn’t explain why the left wing Broad Front in Uruguay, has been able to preside over one of the strongest economies in the region since 2005. The phrase “pink tide” was basically used to refer to any left wing group in South America but that covers a huge array of ideologies and circumstances.
There are however some common themes that can identified. The two most obvious factors are depressingly familiar in South American history; economic incompetence and massive corruption.
Palaces built on sand
Economically, the pink tide governments seemed happy to lean on a few booming commodities markets, leaving them dangerously exposed to falls in prices. Noam Chomsky identifies this failure to develop more balanced economies as a key reason for the dire situation in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. Fears were being voiced about over reliance on commodities in the region as early as 2010.
The PT led Brazilian governments bet the house on Chinese demand for commodities. While demand and prices were rising this fuelled spectacular success. Unfortunately, it proved just as dramatically disastrous when demand went into reverse.
But if Brazil’s economy was dangerously imbalanced, Venezuela’s was in another league. No other country in the world is so vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices. 95% of the nation’s total export earnings come from oil. This dependence on such a volatile market helps to explain just why Venezuela has been cast so deep into the abyss.
Washington Post journalist Francisco Toro summed up the Venezuelan Government’s approach; “You sell oil, you get money, and you buy stuff abroad. You just import your way out of the crisis. Oil prices fall and suddenly the basic lunacy of trying to run the country this way comes home very clearly.”
The pink tide in general showed an over eagerness to build up without strengthening the foundations of the economy. When the earth beneath began to shift beneath it, things began to crumble.
The other issue is the corrosive effect of corruption on a massive scale. In Brazil, Lava Jato has produced a steady stream of allegations involving extensive plundering of public funds. Chomsky, while he praised many of the developments made by PT in government, expressed dismay at the levels of graft; “Regrettably, the Workers’ Party, Lula’s party, which had a real opportunity to achieve something extremely significant, and did make some considerable positive changes, nevertheless joined the rest—the traditional elite in just wholesale robbery.”
It should be stressed that accusations of corruption are in no way restricted to PT. Lava Jato has implicated all of Brazil’s major parties and many if its most prominent political figures. Ironically, one of the only high profile politicians not to have become embroiled directly in the allegations is Dilma Roussef, though this did nothing to save here from impeachment. Lula too, denies any impropriety.
But regardless of personal involvement, corruption appears to have been rampant throughout the political system during PT’s time in power. The giant, partially state owned oil company Petrobras became a conduit for a network of corruption between leading politicians and powerful construction companies.
PT’s own treasurer was sentenced to 15 years in prison for arranging payments to the party from Petrobras. Authorities claim that a total of 4.2 million Reais (around £700k) was “donated” to the party by the company.
Venezuela, meanwhile, ranks amongst the ten most corrupt countries in the world according to the Corruption Perceptions Index. Recent investigations have suggested that high-level officials are actively involved in the drug trade. Just this week, a cooperating witness in the Lava Jato investigation claimed that President Maduro himself had paid her $11 million from Brazilian construction companies to run election campaigns.
The stench of corruption has eroded faith in many of South America’s major political parties and goes well beyond just those identified as part of the pink tide. But for a movement that came to power promising to sweep away self serving elites, it seems to have become as fatally compromised by misconduct as those that came before.
Claims of the pink tide’s demise may prove premature. For all the dark clouds of Lavo Jato, Lula has made clear his intentions to stand in the 2018 presidential election and, if the polls are correct, would be amongst the front runners (whether he will be allowed to enter is another question). In Ecuador and Bolivia, left candidates have successfully fended off strong challenges from the right. In Venezuela the situation for Maduro looks increasingly unsustainable. But while he controls the military and the faith of government loyalists there is nothing to suggest that his downfall is imminent.
However, it is inarguable that a situation that once looked so hopeful now looks increasingly grim. Outside South America, though, the analysis is, as usual, stranded in ideological squabbles. Commentators in the UK and US love projecting their own political biases on South America, often ignoring the underlying issues that make stablility so difficult to achieve there. The continent has long been used as a Petri dish for western political theory, often with unfortunate results for those who have to live through the experimentation.
The right is crowing over Venezuela as the failure of socialism just as the left crowed in the late 90s about the death of neo-liberalism in the region. But for normal people watching their countries once again plunge into crisis the result is essentially the same; instability, uncertainty and misery. Until the issues of economic mismanagement and corruption are dealt with, the calamitous cycle will continue regardless of rhetoric.