Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Latin America’s Pink Tide Is an Opportunity for Washington

With Lula’s victory in Brazil, the Western Hemisphere is now dominated by left-of-center governments.

By , an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Lula wins in Brazil
Lula wins in Brazil
Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva raises a fist to supporters after winning the Brazilian presidential election in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Oct. 30. Mauro Horita/Getty Images

With Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returning to Brazil’s presidency after his narrow victory over Jair Bolsonaro in the country’s Oct. 30 election, left-of-center leaders will now be governing a majority of Latin American countries, including all the most populous states. The trend, widely described as a new “pink tide” by the media, inspires cheer among progressives in the United States and around the world. Given Washington’s legacy in the region, it’s understandable for there to be mutual suspicion between Latin America’s new left and the United States. But unlike in the past, their interests are aligned in many ways today, presenting a unique opportunity for cooperation.

This is not the first time left-of-center leaders have swept to power across much of Latin America. Sixteen years ago, Mexican political scientist Jorge Castañeda wrote about “Latin America’s Left Turn” after left parties had taken power across much of the region—including Lula and his Workers’ Party. With the term “left” covering a huge spectrum of Latin American politics, the idea was as fraught then as it is now. Castañeda sought to differentiate between the “good” left (moderate, democratic) and the “bad” left (radical, authoritarian). At the time, it was a message to Washington that it could still have partners in the region despite a long and troubled history of U.S. interference.

Lula, as he is widely known, will rule alongside a few leaders who were in power during the previous pink tide, including some on Castañeda’s “bad” side. Some of them, like Lula, are back in power (Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, widely seen as calling the shots), or they never left (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega). Others continue to rule from behind the scenes (former Bolivian President Evo Morales) or seemingly from beyond the grave (Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez).

With Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returning to Brazil’s presidency after his narrow victory over Jair Bolsonaro in the country’s Oct. 30 election, left-of-center leaders will now be governing a majority of Latin American countries, including all the most populous states. The trend, widely described as a new “pink tide” by the media, inspires cheer among progressives in the United States and around the world. Given Washington’s legacy in the region, it’s understandable for there to be mutual suspicion between Latin America’s new left and the United States. But unlike in the past, their interests are aligned in many ways today, presenting a unique opportunity for cooperation.

This is not the first time left-of-center leaders have swept to power across much of Latin America. Sixteen years ago, Mexican political scientist Jorge Castañeda wrote about “Latin America’s Left Turn” after left parties had taken power across much of the region—including Lula and his Workers’ Party. With the term “left” covering a huge spectrum of Latin American politics, the idea was as fraught then as it is now. Castañeda sought to differentiate between the “good” left (moderate, democratic) and the “bad” left (radical, authoritarian). At the time, it was a message to Washington that it could still have partners in the region despite a long and troubled history of U.S. interference.

Lula, as he is widely known, will rule alongside a few leaders who were in power during the previous pink tide, including some on Castañeda’s “bad” side. Some of them, like Lula, are back in power (Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, widely seen as calling the shots), or they never left (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega). Others continue to rule from behind the scenes (former Bolivian President Evo Morales) or seemingly from beyond the grave (Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez).

Castañeda’s simple categories of good and bad leftists were far too simplistic, but they had a certain logic in translating the region’s complexities for the George W. Bush administration, which pigeonholed countries as either “with us or against us.” Today, the Biden administration has a more nuanced understanding of the region and has experience dealing with many of the figures. But the region is different today, as are the voters, parties, and politicians—even the holdovers from the last left turn. Washington should therefore avoid the pitfall of viewing the region through the prism of the first pink tide or outdated political categories.

Countries in the region almost universally express a desire for more U.S. engagement, not less—they just want it to be on fair and equal terms.

Left-right classifications are everywhere increasingly muddled as leaders make political alliances based less on ideology than on political expediency. But they have long been a hard fit in Latin America, not least because of the region’s long history of ideologically fluid nationalist populism, from Peronism in Argentina to Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. How should one classify Nicaragua’s Ortega, who rules under the banner of a left party that he has purged of leftists and whose regime has among the harshest anti-abortion and most investor-friendly laws in the region? Or Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, the self-described “coolest dictator in the world,” who broke with a leftist party to run for president with a right-wing one and whose allies include criminal gangs and bitcoin speculators?

Seeing a resurgence of the left also conflates cause with effect. It is less a turn to the left than a turn against incumbents, most of whom happened to have been on the right. Right-of-center governments ruled during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, and most failed catastrophically. Bolsonaro’s loss in Brazil, where 688,000 people died of the disease, marks the 15th national election in a row in which the incumbent party was swept from the presidency. That, of course, can happen only in democracies; Latin America’s left turn would not be nearly as uniform if Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela had truly competitive multiparty elections.

Unlike in the 2000s, there is no unifying ideological project for the current left turn. Then, Venezuela’s lavish oil rents fueled Chávez’s vision, under the banner of anti-imperialism, of a Bolivarian Alliance, a Bank of the South, and other regionwide integration projects. Today, Venezuela is broke, intraregional trade is on the decline, and new governments are too busy trying to hold on to power as they face hostile opposition legislatures and the crises inherited from their predecessors. The 2000s pink tide was sustained by an unprecedented boom in commodity prices brought on by China’s growth, which produced a gold rush in copper, iron ore, soybeans, and hydrocarbons, allowing state oil companies to subsidize lavish social spending. Today’s left turn has no such favorable market climate and instead comes amid rising inflation. As governments from Chile to Haiti have learned, protests over rising transportation costs easily spiral into much bigger problems for any government, no matter its political orientation.

Today’s left turn is precarious. The narrow margins of victory for many of the new left governments—only 2 percentage points in Brazil, 3 percentage points in Colombia—underscore the resilience of Latin America’s right, particularly among social conservatives and the growing number of evangelical Christians. Left-wing leaders who once took office with strong mandates have seen them evaporate; Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who won with 56 percent of the vote, now has a mere 27 percent approval rating. Others face a right opposition that is committed to using any means necessary to take back power. Peru’s leftist president, Pedro Castillo, has been in office just over a year and has already faced two impeachments. He may not survive much longer.

Given the checkered history of U.S.-Latin American relations, it is natural for progressives throughout the Western Hemisphere to fear covert or overt interference by Washington to secure friendly governments. The problem with this view is that it denies agency to Latin American countries, seeing them only as objects of U.S. policy. It also obviates the need to understand how each country’s domestic dynamics have driven voters’ rejection of right-wing incumbents: a corrupt narcostate in Honduras, a failed neoliberal education system in Chile, a hated cult of former strongman Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Those who look only at the past might also keep in mind that countries in the region almost universally express a desire for more U.S. engagement, not less. They just want it to be on fair and equal terms.

It’s also imperative to understand how regional dynamics have changed since the Bush administration and prior U.S. governments. Rather than hostile, Washington has been cautiously supportive of the new left governments. In Brazil, the Biden administration rushed to congratulate Lula moments after the results were announced. The call capped months of coordinated efforts to stave off a potential coup by Bolsonaro’s military allies, including warnings from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the CIA. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently toured Chile, Peru, and Colombia, whose governments are not merely center-left but socialist. New Honduran President Xiomara Castro, a self-described democratic socialist, received a succession of U.S. delegations, including Vice President Kamala Harris and the chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power.

In part, Washington’s accommodating attitude is a recognition of the far weaker position it now occupies in the region. China is already the top trade partner to the largest South American economies, though the United States still leads with Mexico and much of Central America and the Caribbean, not least because of geographical proximity. The loss of U.S. economic hegemony was most starkly—and embarrassingly—on display at June’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where the United States faced a boycott by Mexico, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The action was ostensibly to protest the United States disinviting Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the summit over their authoritarian records, but it soon encompassed a laundry list of complaints of U.S. pressure. The noninclusion of Cuba has increasingly become a point of contention within the Organization of American States.

Washington has also found shared interests in climate policy with the newer generation of leftist leaders, notably Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who recognize the unsustainability of an economic model based on resource extraction, whose profits buttressed the first pink tide. Washington’s outreach to new left governments in the region—including those whose stances on Venezuela and Russia conflict directly with U.S. policy—demonstrates a belated recognition that the United States can’t afford to place ideological conditions on engagement. And while much of Washington’s Latin America policy has been distorted by the bizarre politics of South Florida, that state’s transition to a solidly Republican state—as well as Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential win without it—opens a window for new approaches to the region by the Biden administration.

The new left turn is thus a moment of opportunity both for the left and for Washington—one that might not last long. The United States is at once less hegemonic, more open to negotiation, and more idealistic about rights and governance in the region. Recent measures to lift restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba and moves toward sanctions relief for Venezuela show that there is space to push for less confrontational policies. New left governments are vulnerable and need both economic and political support. Smart leaders will find ways to play the United States against China, as Costa Rica and Ecuador have done. They will also recognize that Washington wants and needs partners in the region. And following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, there is growing awareness of the shared threat posed by the global authoritarian axis and a recognition that for safeguarding democratic institutions, the left, on balance, may be a better bet.

Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Twitter: @MPaarlberg

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.