Excerpts from the Introduction by Steve Ellner of Latin America’s Pink Tide: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings, to be released in October by Rowman & Littlefield
Underlying the confrontations between progressive Latin American governments of the twenty-first century, known as the “Pink Tide,” and the opposition was the clash between two visions. Two conflicting visions corresponded to the outlooks of two distinct social blocs. While support from the popular sectors was essential for the survival of Pink Tide governments, the opposition as a whole had close ties with privileged sectors. Class cleavages manifested themselves in Venezuela in 2014 and 2017, when disruptive protests designed to achieve regime change were concentrated in wealthy municipalities governed by opposition mayors but failed to resonate in the barrios. In Venezuela and elsewhere, most of the major parties and leaders of the opposition had governed the nation prior to the emergence of the Pink Tide. Their return to power promised to signal the restoration of the old order in which business groups, traditional political parties, the church hierarchy, and media owners would regain their position of hegemony. There was also considerable evidence that if the old elites regained power, they would deliver heavy blows to Pink Tide leftists as well as to the social movements that supported them. The jailing of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and the judicial proceedings against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, as well as the continuous pronouncements of Venezuelan opposition leaders at all levels that the Chavistas would be prosecuted for their alleged crimes, all pointed in that direction.
The pressing economic and political problems facing progressive Latin American governments and the resultant setbacks in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and elsewhere over the recent past call for a critical analysis of the Pink Tide phenomenon. Some who analyze the governments from a leftist perspective put forward an all-encompassing critique of what they consider to be deviations from acceptable political practice, including those with negative structural consequences. In doing so, they coincide with movements on the far left—such as Ecuador’s Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, CONAIE) and Venezuela’s Marea Socialista—which follow a “plague on both your houses” approach with regard to the Left in power and the opposition to its right.
Analysts in a second group on the left are more balanced in their critiques and follow a more nuanced approach. On the one hand, they acknowledge the inability of progressive governments to overcome the patterns and structures that hold back economic development, such as dependency in its multiple forms and rentier capitalism. On the other hand, they reject the charge that leftist governments have flagrantly and systematically violated democratic principles. At the same time, they recognize the seriousness of certain democratic shortcomings (such as party centralism) but in some cases consider them to be the result of pragmatic responses, or overreactions, to the aggressive tactics and disruptions of the opposition. They also reject the assertion that progressive government social programs in their entirety are expressions of crass populism. These writers underline the importance of programs engendering empowerment and participation among the underprivileged, even while they view certain practices as amounting to doles that in no way contribute to the eradication of poverty (crass populism). In line with this second, nuanced approach, the chapters in this book—as its title indicates—point to both breakthroughs and shortcomings and errors.
A critical evaluation of progressive or “Pink Tide” governments from a leftist perspective needs to place their performance in political and economic contexts. A logical starting point is an assessment of the degree of aggressiveness and hostility originating from opposition groups. Certainly, opposition to Pink Tide leaders was more intense than in normal times. In many cases opposition leaders represented a “disloyal opposition” in that by questioning the Left’s democratic credentials, they refused to recognize the government’s legitimacy, sometimes with the intention of achieving regime change at any cost
Furthermore, disinvestment by the private sector generated scarcities and unemployment. In the case of Ecuador, for instance, the radicalization of the opposition was backed by the financial fraction of the bourgeoisie, whose interests were particularly undermined by Correa’s policies.
The most extreme case was Venezuela, where opposition to the Chavista governments nearly from the outset was unyielding and took diverse forms: business-supported general strikes that led to a coup in April 2002 and ongoing street violence in 2003, 2007, 2013, 2014, and 2017; nonrecognition of electoral results in 2004, 2005, 2013, 2017, and 2018; an “economic war” that consisted of a general strike in 2002–2003, disinvestments, and the decision by various US multinational corporations to shut down operations in the nation; the diplomatic campaign designed to isolate Venezuela internationally carried out by Washington, the Organization of American States, and Mercosur; harsh economic sanctions imposed by the Donald Trump administration and its threats to intervene militarily; and systematic condemnation by the local and foreign corporate media as well as the church hierarchy.
Challenges of this nature pressured progressive governments into making concessions and carrying out certain policies that in the long run undermined economic and political stability as well as the achievement of stated goals. Specifically, the governments reacted by implementing pragmatic strategies to win over or neutralize members of the private sector and populist initiatives, including social programs, to meet the short-term needs of members of the popular sectors, and to rein in dissidents. Populist measures, as defined in this chapter, do not directly further, or are unrelated to, economic development and may include efforts that promote paternalism and hold back economic progress (“crass populism”). An example of crass populism is inordinately subsidized prices for public services and goods that encourage waste and discourage local production. These sets of policies in many Pink Tide countries, while politically successful in the short run, eventually backfired in the form of corruption, bureaucratic waste, and economic sluggishness.
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The staunch resistance to the Left in power by defenders of the status quo was predictable, as were, to a certain extent, Pink Tide government countermeasures, some of which ended up creating multiple social and economic problems that undermined the plans and goals of leftist movements. Examples include tacit alliances in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and elsewhere with select business interests—and in some cases multinational ones—resulting in concessions that were conducive to corruption and obstructed the process of change. In reaction to the opposition’s aggressiveness, Pink Tide governments also implemented certain populist programs that held back economic development and fostered paternalistic relations.
Certain specific junctures in each one of the Pink Tide presidencies were favorable for the correction of these shortcomings. During their peak years of rule, the leftists in power had the political capital to take bold and necessary moves against certain entrenched groups within the state and the governing party and against the short-term interests of the popular sectors. Pink Tide presidents during those instances could have afforded to pay a political price for controversial and risky actions that promised to have positive long-term effects—such as energetically clamping down on corruption and bureaucracy, democratizing the party, and deepening the process of change. In contrast, progressive twentieth-century governments such as those of Salvador Allende and the Sandinistas were under constant siege, generally lasted for shorter period, and thus had fewer options.
Pink Tide governments retained power for extended periods, during which time they consolidated their political influence as a result of electoral and nonelectoral triumphs. In Venezuela, the opposition suffered demoralizing defeats in the 2004 presidential recall election and then the presidential election of 2006 when Chávez received 63 percent of the vote, the highest in the nation’s modern democratic period. Similarly, Evo Morales’s grip on power was strengthened after the ratification of Bolivia’s new constitution and then his reelection in 2009 with 64 percent of the vote at the same time that MAS won a two-thirds majority in both houses of the congress. In Brazil, Lula’s reelection as president in 2006 with over 60 percent of the vote signaled a shift in his Workers Party’s social base of support to the nation’s popular northern region, due in large part to the Bolsa Família and other social programs. These instances, as well as the months immediately following abortive attempts to overthrow the government (such as in Venezuela in 2002, 2003, 2014, and 2017 and in Ecuador in 2010), represented (as discussed in various chapters) windows of opportunity for advancing significantly toward the achievement of far-reaching objectives and countering the negative effects of populist and pragmatic policies.
The focus on context, timing, and specificity is at odds with the notion that the downfall of progressive Latin American democratic governments, short of a radical and complete break with the past, was a foregone conclusion. The antideterminist argument is especially applicable to the Pink Tide governments, whose longer duration and periods of relative stability and strength vis-à-vis the opposition provided them with options that were unavailable to their twentieth-century Latin American counterparts.
The central argument, which underpins most of the chapters in this book, can be summed up as follows:
- Pink Tide governments reacted to the opposition’s aggressiveness by adopting pragmatic strategies toward business groups and populist policies toward the popular sectors.
- A correlation exists between the relative strength and aggressiveness of the opposition and the deviations of the Left in power, specifically pragmatic policies and practices and ones that fall into the category of crass populism.
- If political factors have forced progressive governments to make concessions and back track, then the political arena was the key locus for creating conditions that would allow the process of change to significantly advance. The taming of opposition parties and/or the achievement of political gains and inroads at the expense of the disloyal opposition was a sine qua non for long-lasting change.
- Short periods of relative stability when Pink Tide governments had the upper hand vis-à-vis the disloyal opposition represented golden opportunities for them to correct the negative effects of pragmatic and populist strategies.
The achievement of four principal targets and objectives for Pink Tide governments became most feasible during periods of stability and leftist political strength: forceful measures to combat corruption and streamline bureaucracy; deepening of democracy by separating the governing party from the state and creating mechanisms for rank-and-file participation in decision making; structural transformation such as expropriation of strategic sectors; and the striking of further blows at the disloyal opposition.
In short, the main roadblock for Pink Tide governments during their initial stage was political, not the inoperativeness of their proposals for transformation. Progress, therefore, for the achievement of far-reaching goals was dependent on the weakening of the radical or disloyal opposition. Furthermore, the best (and possibly the only) time to correct the negative effects of the compromises and concessions made for the purpose of achieving consolidation and stability was when the Left and the government had the upper hand.
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