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Latin America: Why predictions of an ebb in the 'Pink Tide' proved premature

On October 26 Brazilians re-elected Dilma Rousseff as president, ushering in a fourth consecutive Workers’ Party administration.

By Federic Fuentes

December 7, 2014 -- first published in TeleSUR English, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- Since the start of the year, numerous newspapers have dedicated article after article to predictions of a looming demise of the so-called “Pink Tide”. The term is used to refer to the wave of left-of-centre governments elected to power in Latin America during recent years.

A number of these governments were up for re-election this year, and pollsters and commentators alike argued that for many, their time in government was up.

Instead, on October 26 Brazilians re-elected Dilma Rousseff as president, ushering in a fourth consecutive Workers’ Party administration. That same day, voters in neighboring Uruguay handed the incumbent Broad Front (FA) a majority in both houses of parliament, and FA candidate Tabare Vasquez went into the second round of the presidential elections as hot favorite after winning 49.5% of the vote in the first round (compared with 32% for his nearest rival).

These victories come on the back of the thumping win for Evo Morales (his third in a row), with more than 60% of the vote in Bolivia’s October 12 national election.

In fact, they cap off a period of 16 years of almost interrupted victories by centre-left and leftist forces in South America, starting with the election of Hugo Chavez in December 1998.

What’s more, the “Pink Tide", which at first appeared to be limited to countries south of Colombia, has quietly leaped over into Central America, with new victories earlier this year to left-of-centre forces in Costa Rica and El Salvador.

What conclusions can we draw from all this?

The first is to never trust the corporate media and their pollsters. Without a doubt, the campaign of dubious polls and accompanying articles predicting electoral defeats were largely aimed at bolstering the chances of rightist opposition candidates deemed to be more favourable to the interests of the corporate elite. The media combined this with stories about how, under the current governing parties, everything from the economy to crime levels had worsened, or would worsen if they were returned to power.

The second deduction we can make is that, while the corporate media may continue to exert a lot of power, it is far from invincible. Most people were able to see that a complete disjuncture existed between the negative stories the media was telling them and the improvements they have experienced in their everyday lives.

Not surprisingly, distrust in the corporate media has tended to increase, with many turning to social and community media for their information.

A third feature worth noting is that the Latin America of 2015 is very different to the Latin America of 1998. Gone are the days where a corporate background or ties to elite power circles are seen as positive features for a candidate.

Voters today are not only more likely to accept the idea that a woman, a trade unionist, an indigenous person or a former guerilla can be president, they positively identify with the current crop of leaders who they view as being “one of us".

It is not just because the candidates look different; they also speak a different language and, most importantly, propose concrete alternatives that mark them out from the traditional political class, who insist there is no alternative to free-market neoliberalism.

Many of the traditional right-wing parties have yet to fully grasp this. In Bolivia, Morales’ main opponent was Samuel Doria Medina, a white businessperson who owns local Burger King franchises and was a minister in a previous neoliberal government. He failed to get even half the number of votes Morales did.

Alternatively, the right has done best in those countries where it has tried to adapt to this new reality by presenting fresh, young faces, with few visible ties to the old elites.

New right

Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is a case in point. You know things have dramatically changed in Venezuela when even candidates such as Capriles attend campaign events dress down in t-shirts and baseball caps, and run on slogans such as “Vote down below and to the left.”

Capriles went as far as to claim that he was the person to continue Hugo Chavez’s legacy, despite having run against him only months before he died.

That the main challenge to the current wave of governments is largely coming from this new right that has attempted to adopt the language and look of their opponents, also reflects the failure of the “left-of-the-left” to mount any serious alternative of its own.

'Left-of-the-left'

Where this “left-of-the-left” has run against incumbent governments, it has consistently failed to win any sizeable support.

Such candidates' discourse, based on the idea that nothing has changed and that the new governments are just like the old ones, combined with their lack of concrete and tangible alternative policies or programs, has arguably left them more marginal than they were nearly two decades ago.

Critics put this down to the ability of “Pink Tide” governments to co-opt and neuter protest movements, and their ability to serve out one or more terms in government – something that only a decade ago seemed an impossible feat -- would seem to back this assertion.

However, this viewpoint is far too superficial.

The reality is that there are far more protests today in most countries governed by “Pink Tide” governments than there were in the years leading up to their election. What is interesting is that these protests themselves are also a reflection of the changes that have occurred in the region.

Unlike the anti-neoliberal protests of yesteryear, few pose a direct challenge to the new post-neoliberal model that, while far from having broken with capitalism, represents a shift towards greater state intervention and wealth redistribution.

Instead, the protests tend to revolve around particular differences over the shape of new model. The emergence of new demands also reflects important demographic shifts that have occurred as a result of these changes in the economic policies.

This includes, for example, the rise of the “new middle class”, made of millions who have been lifted out of poverty. Today, their demands tend to focus less on having access to basic services and more towards seeking improvements in services that cannot cope with the increased number of users.

Then there is the “new proletariat", comprised of young people who have benefitted from better access to education, but are unable to obtain better incomes (in relation to their parents), due to the highly precarious working conditions left behind by neoliberalism.

The lives of millions have been affected by the important political and economic changes that have occurred over recent years. At the same time, they continue to confront limitations imposed by the shadow cast by neoliberalism and shortcomings or weaknesses of existing governments.

Overcoming these challenges will require the active participation and mobilisation of those who first brought these “Pink Tide” governments to power. Harnessing the energies of the current wave of protests will be crucial not only to holding back the right, but also progressing a process that is still largely defined by how it differs from neoliberalism, towards the construction of a different, and better world.

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