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From the First “Pink Tide” to the Second: What Lessons for Today?

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In the late 1990s and early 2000s, propelled by mass movements of the working class and rural poor, a wave of left-wing electoral victories swept across several countries in Latin America. While many of the new heads of state called themselves socialists, in reality, they were “reformists,” advocates of a reformed or regulated capitalism, combined with greater national independence from imperialism. Thus this wave became fittingly known as the “Pink Tide,” a watered-down red, historically the color of socialism and working-class. Beneath this pink tide at the top of society, and in many ways holding it up, was mass struggle of the working class, at times reaching revolutionary or near-revolutionary proportions.

What merely one year ago remained as speculation about a “second pink tide” has turned into reality. After Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Brazilian Workers’ Party narrowly defeated arch-reactionary Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential elections last October, the six largest economies in Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Peru) were ruled by left or center-left governments. This, in addition to Honduras, Bolivia, and Venezuela makes the spread wider than the first pink tide. Speaking exactly to the highly unstable nature of this second iteration, however, less than six weeks after Lula’s victory the list decreased, at least temporarily, to the five largest economies following the right-wing coup in Peru against the now-former president, Pedro Castillo.

This second wave of reformism in power is already proving to be anything but a repetition of the first. To understand the prospects for the second pink tide, it is first necessary to understand the history of the first — how it came into being, how it evolved, how it declined, and what replaced it — and the exact terrain on which the second is emerging. In the context of a global economic downturn, the beginnings of a resurgence of the workers’ movement globally, and the right and far right on the move, the new pink tide will be quicker and more explosive than the first, and the stakes are even higher.

Onset of Neoliberalism in Latin America and the World

The first neoliberal experiment took place in Latin America, in Chile. A U.S.-backed coup in 1973 overthrew democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and installed a right-wing, military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet who, with the support of the U.S. government and economic advisors from the University of Chicago known as the Chicago Boys, assisted Pinochet in carrying out the first national neoliberal program.

In brief, neoliberalism can be defined as a set of economic and political policies that prioritize privatization and cuts to government and social spending, the deregulation of the private sector, free trade deals and corporate globalization, and an ideological offensive that the market fixes all to accompany it. In the 1980s after the defeat of decisive working class struggles in several key countries, neoliberalism became the dominant model of the capitalist ruling classes across the world, including Latin America where it had some of the most devastating effects.

In the height of the neoliberal era, between 1980 and 2003, unemployment across the region rose from 7% to 11% and 84 million more people entered poverty. Debts drastically increased, to a point where Latin America’s cumulative debt to the U.S. alone amounted to 50% of the entire GDP. The 1980s are known as the “lost decade” in Latin America due to the enormous economic hardship the region faced, with the working class, poorest, and most oppressed in society suffering the worst consequences.

The First Pink Tide Begins

The global economic downturn from 1998–2002 led to a series of mass movements and uprisings breaking out in several countries across Latin America against right-wing neoliberal governments. In three countries — Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador — these movements brought down more than one president. Between 1998 and 2008, left and center-left governments came to power, mostly on the back of mass movements of the working class and indigenous people in nearly a dozen countries.

In Venezuela and Bolivia in particular, far-reaching change was won in the early years of the new governments, but only as a result of continued mobilization and mass pressure from the working class even after the left-wing governments took power. In Venezuela, this didn’t come about immediately, but only after an attempted coup against Hugo Chávez spurred the masses to action, defending Chávez while at the same time pushing him further to the left. Between 1998 and 2011, no country in the world reduced income inequality, as measured by the GINI coefficient, more than Venezuela. In Bolivia, poverty fell from 66% in 2005 to 39% in 2014. In Ecuador, poverty fell from 38% in 2006 to 23% in 2014.

The election of these left-wing governments coincided with a global economic upswing and commodity boom, fueled mainly by developing export economies and particularly China. During the neoliberal era, western capitalist countries began to deindustrialize and outsource to China and other mainly former-Stalinist countries for cheap labor. Chinese capitalism, which developed rapidly in the ‘90s and early 2000s, has now become the top competitor and enemy of U.S. and western capitalism, leading to an inter-imperialist “New Cold War” between the U.S. and China in which Latin America is an important battleground. Anti-imperialism, long a central component of the class struggle in Latin America, will take on an even increased and more challenging importance in this context. There are no “lesser evils” when it comes to imperialism, and all imperialist powers must be equally opposed by the workers’ movement.

The commodity boom created a huge demand for raw materials from Latin America and countries across the region saw real economic growth. This gave the new left-wing governments economic space to make reforms and, under pressure from below, grant concessions to the working class without having to fundamentally challenge capitalism.

Economic Crisis, Reformism Caves, and the Right Regains Power

But as long as capitalism has existed, booms have been followed by busts. Economic crises are built into the very DNA of capitalism and in 2008, the U.S. housing market crashed, kicking off a global recession. The commodities boom coming to a close in the early 2010s and, consequently, the sharp decline in demand for raw materials and natural resources from Latin America brought the progressive governments of the first pink tide face to face with a harsh reality. As long as capitalism remains in existence, gains for the working class will always be temporary, subject to the chaos of the global market economy and the ruling classes’ unrelenting drive to push the costs of crises onto ordinary people to protect their profits.

The reformist and center-left governments were faced with a choice. Go head to head with the ruling elite, imperialism, and the IMF by refusing to pay predatory debts, nationalizing key industries to take them out of the private hands of both foreign and domestic capitalists, and making the capitalist class pay for their crisis; or stay within the confines of capitalism and push the costs of the crisis onto the working class by caving to imperialist interests and ramping up neoliberal policies. In country after country they took the latter road. Top bank executives were appointed finance ministers and anti-austerity protests were crushed by police. In some cases, such as Lula’s first presidency in Brazil, governments caved to big business and betrayed working class interests long before the economic crisis.

Disappointment, anger, and demoralization set in among big sections of the working class, opening up the space for the right and far right to regain power in the middle of the decade in almost every country with a pink tide government, either through electoral defeats like in Argentina and Chile or parliamentary coups like in Brazil. The right-wing governments solved absolutely nothing, however, and the multitude of crises facing the working class worsened.

In 2019, eight Latin American countries spent more on debt payments to the IMF and other international creditors than they did on healthcare, part of what set the stage for Latin America to be one of the hardest hit regions in the world by the coronavirus pandemic just one year later. From 2019 to 2020, average debt levels for Latin American countries rose from 69% of GDP to 79%. The crisis was pushed even more onto the shoulders of the working class. As always under capitalism, women, indigenous people, LGBTQ, and Black people suffered the worst consequences.

Revolts of 2019–2021 Set the Stage

These are the conditions, only then further exacerbated by the pandemic, which led to the wave of revolts that swept Latin America from 2019 to 2021, part of a broader upsurge in struggle across the world. The movements and rebellions over these three years were at the root of the repudiation on a mass scale of neoliberal policies that favored the interests of big business, the big banks, and imperialism over those of ordinary people. These movements showed the undermining of neoliberal ideology in the minds of the masses that International Socialist Alternative has pointed to as one indication of the neoliberal era coming to a close. This global wave of revolts showed ruling classes the world over in no uncertain terms that neoliberal policies were becoming harder and harder to enforce.

In Ecuador, a general strike in 2019 forced President Lenín Moreno, elected as a social democrat in 2017, and his government to flee the capital city of Quito and abandon his cuts to social spending after the mass movement began to take control of the city. Democratic assemblies of working-class and popular power began to form in several parts of the country, posing embryonic elements of what Marxists call “dual power,” where the ruling class and organizations of the masses compete for authority over society. But the leadership of the movement had no plan or strategy for the working class to take power, which would have required expanding these assemblies and using them as the base of a new democratic system of government based on public ownership and democratic workers’ control of the economy.

Instead, they took part in mediated negotiations with the government, leading to a quelling of the struggle in the streets and workplaces and allowing Moreno to return to Quito and the right wing to recuperate and reorganize. Conservative businessman and banker Guillermo Lasso, who lost to Moreno in the 2017 presidential elections, won in 2021, showing just how disillusioned with the left this process left the masses. What was missing in 2019 was a revolutionary leadership capable of providing an organized alternative to Moreno’s government of betrayal. In the absence of this, the right is now back in power and has faced new powerful mass movements.

In Chile, what started as a youth revolt against metro fare hikes in 2019 quickly transformed into a widespread rebellion with four million people taking to the streets, one-fifth of Chile’s entire population. The working class put its stamp on events with two general strikes that shook the right-wing regime of president Sebastian Piñera to its foundations. The government was forced to revoke the fare hikes and make several other concessions including reducing energy costs, increasing pensions, capping prescription drug costs, implementing new taxes on the rich, and reducing salaries of top government officials — a serious package of reforms won on the basis of a mass uprising. Nevertheless, the heroic determination displayed by Chilean workers and youth was not matched with the organization, leadership, and program necessary to kick out Piñera.

These are just two of many examples, and it wasn’t just countries touched by the first pink tide that saw revolts. Colombia, for instance, historically the headquarters of U.S. imperialism in the region and which for decades had a series of relatively stable right-wing governments that were a reference point for the rest of the Latin American right, was hit with an uprising of near-revolutionary proportions. In the most dangerous country in the world to be a union member, where only 4% of the workforce is unionized, the unions played a central role in this struggle, showing the key role that the organized working class has to play in broader society, beyond just their own workplaces and industries. As in Ecuador, elements of working class self-organization emerged in the form of neighborhood assemblies, but a revolutionary leadership with a program to expand them and a strategy for taking power did not.

The Second Pink Tide Emerges…

Similarly to what gave rise to the first pink tide, after the struggles of 2019–2021 died down, the same underlying mood began to find expression in the electoral arena with a new wave of left-wing victories over the last two years. This includes countries that weren’t part of the first pink tide like Mexico, Peru, and Colombia.

The recent wave of left electoral victories were victories for the mass movements of the last three years. Yet, in different ways, they also were a result of left and center-left forces channeling the enormous desire for change that fuelled successive revolts into safer institutional channels. While these victories showed the massive support these movements enjoyed, they also served to temporarily stabilize the situation, taking the center of gravity of the masses’ anger out of the streets and workplaces, where the ruling elite have the least control.

With these contradictory features, these electoral victories for the left still left the key questions open. Whether tangible victories for the working class are able to be achieved out of these victories relies wholly on the balance of class forces in broader society. Which class — the working class or the capitalist class — is exerting more pressure and power over the other? How well organized, and unified behind a common economic and social program, is the working-class movement? The key determining factor for social processes, whether progressive or regressive change, is never decided by elections alone.

The second pink tide will in no way be a repeat of the first. It contains several highly consequential differences that are crucial for the working class and organized left to understand if it is not to end with a wave of reaction like the first. This is especially important today with a right wing that is even bigger and with more institutional ties than a decade ago.

… In Opposite Conditions to the First

The most important difference between the first pink tide and the second is the economic context in which they’re taking place. With the world economy submerged in a maelstrom of overlapping crises — intensified inter-imperialist rivalry, the war in Ukraine, inflation, supply chain crises, staggering debt — the situation today is the polar opposite from the commodities boom and overall upswing that formed the backdrop to the electoral victories of the first pink tide. Inflation in Mexico currently sits at 8%, Chile and Colombia at 13%, and Argentina at 94%, its fourth consecutive year above 50% inflation. The IMF has forecasted a slowing of growth in virtually every country in the region, and a question of a global recession is still on the table.

The debt crisis in Latin America is at its worst since the “lost decade” of the 1980s. 25 million people lost their jobs during the pandemic and many of those who have been reemployed are now working in lower-paying and more precarious jobs. Depending on the country, between 25% and 85% (like in Honduras and Bolivia) work in the informal sector, an increase from pre-pandemic times.

There is some demand for raw materials and a slight commodities boom but this is due to supply chain disruptions elsewhere in the world as a result of the war in Ukraine, not stable underlying conditions. As such, this temporary boom has nothing in common with the prolonged, structural boom of the early 2000s. The current “boom” will be short-lived, and more easily affected by quickly changing and unpredictable geopolitical and economic events. As well, any increased export revenue will be offset by shortages in other areas and higher prices for imports due to supply chain issues and inflation. After the 2008 crisis, China’s recovery helped increase demand for Latin American raw materials again over time, but China is presently headed for its worst crisis in 30 years and will not recover at the same speed as it did after 2008.

All of this means that the governments of the second pink tide will not be able to deliver gains for the working class, poor, and oppressed without fundamentally challenging capitalism the way the governments of the first pink tide did temporarily. They will be faced with the same fundamental question, only more quickly: lead the working class in taking capitalism and imperialism head-on with a revolutionary program and strategy, or adapt their programs to what is acceptable to the ruling class (few if any gains in the current economic climate) and betray the movements that propelled them to office. Because they will be tested and forced to choose a path much more quickly, the new pink tide will not be a drawn out, decade-long cycle like the first. As in the first pink tide, it appears that the governments of the second are preparing to take the latter road, and in some cases already have. But the intervention of the masses can, and will, influence events as Peru is already showing.

Peruvian Masses Show Potential to Move Beyond Reformist Leaders

Pedro Castillo, former president of the national teachers union, was elected president of Peru in 2021 on a pro-working-class program, pledging to take only the average workers’ wage as his salary, and as a member of the nominally Marxist party, Peru Libre. Shortly after taking office, however, Castillo abandoned several promises such as the nationalization of key industries like mining and the formation of a constituent assembly to adopt a new constitution, and sent in police to crush truck drivers protesting high fuel prices. Peru Libre expelled Castillo, accusing him of enacting a neoliberal program.

But Castillo’s betrayals still weren’t enough to satisfy the right wing in congress and the ruling class. After two failed impeachment attempts, the third succeeded in December. Castillo was arrested and his significantly more conservative vice-president Dina Boluarte was appointed president. Mass protests immediately broke out and several weeks later, road blockades are still disrupting the economy in much of the country, and foreign mining corporations have been forced to shut down. Protests are biggest in the copper-rich southeast of the country where the biggest population of the oppressed Aymara indigenous people live, just one example of the power of indigenous peoples in Latin America. While a section of protesters are calling for the reinstatement of Castillo, the main demands of the movement are for the closure of congress, new presidential elections, and a new constitution from that of the Fujimori dictatorship in the 1990s.

The fact that mass protests are taking place against the coup despite Castillo’s betrayals and that a third alternative beyond just Castillo or the illegitimate coup government — for new elections — is being demanded shows the potential for the masses to move beyond their failing reformist leaders in this period. The working class, and any mass movement that arises, maintaining full independence from left and center-left governments will be absolutely critical for ensuring that the right and far right aren’t seen as the only alternative after betrayals take place. The demand for a constituent assembly points to the urgent need for lessons to be learned from struggles across the region, to ensure this process in Peru isn’t sold out like in Chile by president Gabriel Boric. In Peru, as in every country, new organizations will need to be formed that can carry the struggle forward beyond short-lived explosive uprisings.

There Will be Struggle, But How Far Will it Go?

As Peru is demonstrating, in this period the election of left-wing governments does not mean the masses will just resign themselves to the backseat. There will be struggle in response to progressive heads of state betraying the programs on which they were elected and making concessions to the political right. As has been the case internationally, state repression will continue to act as a “whip of counter-revolution,” throwing further fuel on the fire of protest movements around various struggles, and protests will break out in opposition to coups or other mass mobilizations by the far right, like in Peru and Brazil.

Mass movements for abortion rights or against femicide and sexist violence have been central in numerous Latin American countries over recent years, and have won historic victories for abortion rights in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. The growth of the far right, even when not in power, will bring a further whipping up of machismo culture and lead to increased gender-based violence making critical the deepening of movements like #NiUnaMenos. As the widespread issues of housing, jobs, pay, and others will disproportionately affect women in coming economic crises, women will continue to play a disproportionate role in struggle in Latin America, and feminist movements will continue to act as a catalyst for struggle as a whole.

Another key difference between this pink tide and the last is that the masses of several countries have already been through the experience of the first pink tide, with parties and heads of state who were supposed to be progressive selling them out. Even with many of the current left governments winning their elections by large margins, such as Boric in Chile who won with 57% of the vote at the end of last year, this was done so with more sober expectations than in the past. This means that any “honeymoon period” afforded by the masses to the new left electeds will be shallower and shorter, leading to the outbreak of struggle more quickly.

So the question for the coming period in Latin America is not “Will there be struggle?” It cannot even be ruled out that mass movements can take down some of the progressive governments themselves, going further than those of the 2019–21 wave. But it will be important to understand that in a weak economic period it requires more struggle to win less because the ruling classes are even less inclined to grant concessions than normal. It may require struggle of revolutionary proportions to win even certain basic demands that will decisively improve the living standards of ordinary people, and the development of revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations can’t be ruled out. The question that remains open is whether these movements will adopt a socialist program and revolutionary strategy. This is a question of consciousness, organization, and leadership within the working class, which can only ultimately be resolved by the building of mass revolutionary parties of the working class and the oppressed.

Fighting the Right and Building the Left are Not Separate Tasks, But the Same

The growth and strengthening of the right and far right globally in the last several years is a direct result of the failures of capitalism to deal with its own crises, its perennial need to prevent the working class from uniting in its common interests by sewing divisions and bigotry, and the left’s failure to provide a viable alternative. Stopping the right is a central strategic question for the left, the workers’ movement and all oppressed people, as is shown especially clearly by the situation in Brazil, though it’s only one example of many.

The January 8 coup attempt by far right ex-president Bolsonaro’s supporters shows that Lula’s defeat of Bolsonaro was a setback for Bolsonarism but by no means a permanent defeat. Despite months of speculation about a potential coup in the event of a Lula victory, essentially an “open secret,” followed by significant attempts by the far right and sections of the military to interfere with the elections, Lula actively discouraged the masses from acting to prevent it. Instead, he pointed to governmental institutions as the force to stop Bolsonarism (the same institutions of course that legitimized the 2016 coup which led to Lula’s arrest and paved the way for the rise of Bolsonaro in the first place) and a section of Lula’s party, the misnamed Partido de los Trabajadores (Workers Party), even advocated amnesty for Bolsonaro’s crimes as a way to pacify the country and restore institutional normality.

As Liberdade, Socialismo e Revolução (ISA in Brazil) argued two months before the January coup attempt, “This is the path to new defeats… The real path to defeat the Bolsonaro threat is the mobilization of the oppressed and the workers based on a program of radical transformations to benefit the majority of the population, together with conscious work on rank-and-file organization and mobilization.” Lula, who has cozied up to Brazil’s capitalist class, making every possible concession to gain their support in the election, will not take this path.

This is why movements of the working class and oppressed must maintain full independence from Lula and his party, the PT. This is currently under serious debate within Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL; a broad socialist party in Brazil), where a section of the leadership is moving closer and closer to the PT, including one well-known leading activist Sonia Guajajara even accepting a position in Lula’s cabinet. As time goes on, Lula will adopt an increasingly conciliatory approach to the ruling class and right wing, and his honeymoon period will begin to wane. If an alternative political force on the left is not already organized and prepared to fill the vacuum, pointing to a socialist program and revolutionary strategy as the alternative way forward, the space will be created for Bolsonarism to make a comeback, potentially even stronger and more virulent than before.

The axiom that fighting the right and building the left are not two separate tasks but the same must be a guiding principle for socialists in Latin America, and the world, in the coming years.

Make the New Pink Tide Red!

If the governments of the second pink tide continue to go the same way as the first, it will open up the space for mass radicalization and historic struggle but can also pave the way for pessimism and demoralization if the working class fails to put the lessons of the first pink tide into action.

As the wave of revolts taking place in every corner of the world between 2019 and 2022 evolved, the working class as a social force in itself began to play an increasing role in many instances. Outside Latin America this was seen most clearly in Belarus and Myanmar, and within Latin America, Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile all saw general strikes as part of their uprisings. Within the framework of capitalism, general strikes are the highest expression of the power held by the working class, and the coming years will undoubtedly see this power exercised even more frequently in Latin America. General strikes, however, only pose the question of power in society; they alone cannot solve it. For that we need revolutionary parties with mass authority in the working class, capable of uniting all the struggles and sectors of the working class and oppressed behind a full socialist program.

At the current moment, such parties do not exist in Latin America, or any region in the world. But the period opening up in Latin America, with reformist governments throughout the region that will likely cave to the pressures of capitalism once in power, presents a more favorable situation for the building of such parties than has existed in many decades. International Socialist Alternative is prepared to do everything we can to help this process along.

Turning the new pink tide red doesn’t just mean pushing the reformist leaders to the left. It will mean understanding the fatal limits intrinsic in their unwillingness to break from capitalism and the need to urgently build an alternative. With such similar economic, social, and political processes taking place across the whole of Latin America, the need for coordination and unity of struggles across borders must be put front and center. Where they break out, revolutionary struggles in one country must be exported across the region, with the ultimate goal being a socialist federation of Latin America. This will be crucial to withstand the inevitable attacks from domestic ruling classes and US imperialist intervention with which the masses of Latin America are all too familiar.

From the anti-colonial independence struggles of the 19th century to the Cuban Revolution of the 20th century, the mass movements of the 21st century, and many more world historic events, Latin America has played an outsized role in world politics and the class struggle than what its present 8% of the world population might suggest. Once again, in the coming years, the masses of Latin America have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of the global class struggle. But to do this, the correct lessons from the past must be learned.

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