Some two years ago I was invited to contribute to a volume on Latin American Extractivism that Steve Ellner has edited and is about to come out. In my contribution I set to explain why resource nationalism receives mass support as the engine of development projects in Latin American countries ‒ a question that, unfortunately, has been often neglected or misrepresented in academic debates on extractivism. In pursuing my goal I undertook a critique of theoretical preconceptions that have so far set extremely rigid boundaries to debates on resource nationalism ‒ thus precluding an adequate explanation of this phenomenon. While working on that critique I grew more and more convinced that some of those same preconceptions have pervaded (and conditioned) broader assessments of Latin American politics over the past two decades. Eventually, in that chapter I argue that the political assessments of the Pink Tide have been often distorted by the same analytical preconceptions that set boundaries to debates on resource nationalism.
I am writing this as I read reports on the electoral results of the Bolivian election. I believe this is a good opportunity to give more scaffolding to an argument that I have outlined in previous posts in the PPE blog, and which I presented in more depth and with more context in the chapter I contribute to Ellner’s new edited book. Here is a simplified excerpt of the section of that chapter that identifies the roots of the analytical limitations in the Pink-Tide-is-Over thesis:
As 2019 dawned, the thesis that presents Latin America’s Pink Tide as a vanished movement had few opponents. The factual pillars that sustained that thesis were seemingly robust: since 2015, rightist forces had secured a succession of electoral victories in several Latin American countries. Analysts diverged in the interpretation of the factors that had led to that scenario, but for those who supported the thesis the interpretative corollary was unquestionable: those right-wing victories had changed the orientation of governance in the continent, removing any shades of red from it.
However, the thesis was grounded in questionable premises. From the outset, its advocates failed to recognize and characterize the social forces that sustain and support Pink Tide governmental orientations. They minimized or ignored the mass support that these policy orientations received—orientations that were made possible through the adoption of resource nationalist principles. Electoral support was sustained over time and remarkably strong even when it did not amount to absolute majorities. Several Pink Tide governments completed successive terms backed by significant majorities, while the electoral victories of rightist candidates were obtained by very narrow margins. Beyond elections, expressions of support have included mass mobilizations in support of sovereignty, against parliamentary coups, and against neoliberal governments. These were already evident in 2015, but became even more prominent during 2019.
Proponents of the Pink-Tide-is-over-is-Over thesis (PTIO thesis, from now on) never granted much importance to evidence that countered their contentions. For instance, Venezuela and Bolivia, countries that remained identified with the more radical currents of the Pink Tide, were still in 2019 led by governments with post-neoliberal orientations and committed to supporting the structures of regional integration that had become another distinctive trait of the Pink Tide. But for advocates of the thesis those cases did not amount to much. Bolivia could be presented as an exception and, furthermore, lacked the financial muscle and the international projection that Venezuela had enjoyed under the governments of Hugo Chávez at the peak of the Pink Tide. In addition, a variety of political commentators, particularly from conservative outlets, predicted a defeat of Evo Morales in the presidential elections due later in the year. In short, Bolivia could soon lose its status of exception and therefore, in the view of its advocates, the PTIO thesis would be reinforced.
As for Venezuela, its profound economic crisis was used as evidence for the idea. By 2019 the country was an easy target for critics of post-neoliberal economic orientations. Maduro’s government could not flag the positive indicators of socioeconomic development that had previously illustrated the success of Pink Tide orientations. In addition, Maduro’s support base seemed to be weakening—an appreciation that was widespread even among commentators who nonetheless identified the self-proclaimed “interim” presidency of Juan Guaidó (launched in those days) as part of a United States–supported plan to destabilize Maduro’s government and facilitate an international blockade of it.
Beyond the cases of Bolivia and Venezuela, the PTIO thesis proved impermeable to other sources of evidence that weakened its validity. The turbid circumstances under which some rightist candidates had won elections were never taken into account when it came to testing the substance of the thesis (the background of Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil was one instance). The instability of the governments that implanted orthodox neoliberal agendas after defeating left-leaning candidates seemed not to affect the acceptance of the thesis, either. Macri’s government in Argentina illustrates this case: it was incapable of gaining popular support or economic stabilization, as the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund in 2018 came to demonstrate.
However, as 2019 went on, the PTIO thesis seemed to generate less firm adherents. Halfway through the year it became more common to hear commentators referring to Latin America as “a continent in dispute”. The conceptual shift that took place during 2019 was an indirect recognition that the certification of the Pink Tide as defunct had been a precipitous act.
A succession of political events obliged commentators to reconsider their assessment of the political scenario in the continent. In October, Alberto Fernández won the Argentine presidential election at the head of a left-leaning platform (Frente de Todos) strongly associated with the legacy of Pink Tide governments—indeed, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was a key figure in the formula that facilitated the victory of the Frente de Todos candidate. Elsewhere, rightist governments faced the results of their sustained failure to combine economic growth with social inclusion. Furious protests exploded in Chile, bringing Piñera’s government, an active promoter of an anti–Pink Tide agenda through both rhetoric and foreign policy, to the verge of collapse. In Colombia, a national strike revealed the depth of accumulated discontent with governments that had shown an incapacity to reduce marked inequality levels even under favorable macroeconomic conditions—gross domestic product growth of 3.7 percent between 2010 and 2018 and a four-point decline of the Gini coefficient. President Iván Duque, openly supportive of a United States–backed international agenda in the continent (including the sanctions on Venezuela), had to backtrack on some of his proposals for neoliberal economic reform, among them pension reform that incidentally replicated key aspects of the “Chilean model,” with privately owned funds administering the system.
Finally, the 2019 presidential election in Bolivia provided yet another instance of a political phenomenon that had been granted little importance by proponents of the thesis that the Pink Tide is over: rightist forces unable to defeat consolidated leftist candidates at the ballot box pave their way to government through parliamentary maneuvers (often called “parliamentary coups”), “lawfare” strategies, and/or direct military interventions. Seizing power for these forces seems to depend on neutralizing electorally legitimized leftist leaders. The case of Morales in 2019 epitomized this phenomenon: he won the election but was eventually forced to leave the country by an elite-led rebellion backed by commanding sectors of the army. It replicated the cases of other Pink Tide leftist leaders who were prevented from completing their terms or from competing in the electoral arena.
In Brazil, Lula da Silva’s controversial conviction for corruption prevented him from competing electorally with the rightist Bolsonaro, who furthermore emerged as a national figure only in a scenario of institutional crisis marked by the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff (like Lula a leader of Partido dos Trabalhadores) through a questionable parliamentary impeachment in 2016. In Paraguay, Fernando Lugo had been subjected to a similar process four years earlier (ominously, Lugo’s impeachment was in its day labeled a “coup” by Rousseff, among other Latin American leaders). The Honduran President Manuel Zelaya (2006–2009) was also ousted from office through a military-backed coup, cutting short a term that included some pro-poor policies and sought to incorporate the country into the new Latin American regionalism that emerged with the Pink Tide. Most recently (April 2020), amidst increasing signs that he could return to play a direct active role in the Ecuadorian political arena, Rafael Correa, president for 10 years (2007–2017), was convicted of corruption after a controversial trial that would ban him from holding political office for more than two decades.
In sum, 2019 provided instances of three types of evidence that weaken the thesis that the Pink Tide is over: electoral victories of pro-leftist candidates associated with the Pink Tide kept occurring (e.g., Argentina, Bolivia); right-wing politicians reached government by sidestepping direct electoral competition with qualified leftist counterparts (e.g., Bolivia); and mass extrainstitutional collective action took place on the streets of countries with right-leaning governments, mobilizing demands for socioeconomic enfranchisement (e.g., Chile, Colombia). These diverse types of evidence are interconnected by a common factor: they all reveal the existence of mass social forces that, channeled through different streams of collective action (electoral politics, extrainstitutional mobilization), support the governmental orientations that characterize the Pink Tide and oppose neoliberal governance. This evidence revealed the inadequacy of the PTIO thesis’s premises, which were always impervious to the signs of the social forces that Pink Tide governmental orientations helped to crystallize, with resource nationalism as one of their drivers.