The Volatility of US Hegemony in Latin America – The Pink Tide Surges, 2018-2022

Latin America and the Caribbean are once again beginning to take on a rosy complexion, all the more so with June’s historic electoral victory in Colombia over the country’s long-dominant US-backed right wing and a similar reversal in Brazil in October. These electoral rejections by the right followed leftist victories last year in Peru, Honduras and Chile. And these in turn came after similar ruins in Bolivia in 2020, Argentina in 2019 and Mexico in 2018.

By Roger D. Harris

This electoral wave, according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who spoke at the climate summit in November, “open[s] a new geopolitical age for Latin America.” This “Pink Tide” challenges US hemispheric hegemony whose pedigree dates back to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine.

The tidal wave

The metaphor of “Pink Tide” aptly describes the ebb and flow of the ongoing class conflict between the henchmen of imperialism and the popular forces of the region. Back in 1977, the region was dominated by the “rule of the generals”. The infamous US Operation Condor supported explicit military dictatorships throughout South America, except Colombia and Venezuela, and in large parts of Central America.

Then the tide began to turn with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998. By 2008, almost the entire region was in pink with the notable exceptions of Colombia, Mexico and a few others. A decade later, a conservative backlash left Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and a lonely handful of other states on the progressive side. But that was to change in mid-2018.

Mexico

The first blush of pink for the current wave dates back to July 1, 2018, with Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s landslide victory in Mexico. Many believe that his two previous runs for the presidency were stolen from him. Affectionately known by the acronym AMLO, his broad coalition under the newly formed MORENA party swept national, state and municipal offices, ending 36 years of neoliberal rule.

Mexico’s list on the left was significant. It is the second largest economy in the region and the thirteenth in the world. Mexico is the second largest US trading partner after Canada and ahead of China.

AMLO has made important foreign policy initiatives independent, indeed defiant, of the United States. He conspicuously invited Venezuelan President Maduro as guest of honor to a major Mexican holiday. When Biden called a “democracy summit” for the hemisphere last June but did not invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, AMLO bravely led a boycott that largely sabotaged the affair. And AMLO has been a strong advocate of regional integration to promote CELAC and other multinational institutions.

Argentina

A year after AMLO’s takeover, right-wing Mauricio Macri was replaced by left-wing Peronist Alberto Fernández on 27 October 2019. The shift from right to left was a repudiation of Macri’s subservience to the IMF and economic austerity policies, which had created mass opposition.

Bolivia

Two weeks after the elections in Argentina, the left suffered a major body blow on November 10, 2019, when a coup overthrew leftist President Evo Morales in Bolivia. The coup was supported by the United States with the complicity of the Organization of American States (OAS) under the leadership of Luis Almagro, a sycophant for the Yankees.

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Evo, as he is popularly called, was the first indigenous president in the majority’s original country. He narrowly escaped the violence of the coup when a plane provided by AMLO brought him to safety in Mexico.

Evo’s vindication came a year later on October 18, 2020, when his fellow Movement for Socialism (MAS) party member Luis Arce won back the presidency in a landslide. Evo then returned from exile and has since played an international role as an advocate for climate change, regional integration, indigenous rights and other left-wing issues.

Peru

Then, seven months later, someone from a Marxist-Leninist party assumed the presidency of Peru on June 6, 2021. When rural school teacher and strike leader Pedro Castillo emerged as one of the two candidates in the first round of presidential elections, he was virtually unknown. The international press even struggled to find a picture of the future president.

Castillo won the last election round against the hard-right Keiko Fujimori. Castillo’s victory marked the end of the Lima Group, a coalition of anti-Venezuela countries. Strategically, the Pacific Rim of South America, which had previously been entirely populated by right-wing American allies, now had a leftist in its midst.

Nicaragua

The leftist trend was further consolidated five months after the success in Peru, when the ruling Sandinista Party (FSLN) in Nicaragua swept the national elections on November 7, 2021. A year later, on November 6, 2022, the Sandinistas were further confirmed with a celebration of the municipal elections.

Nicaragua was recovering from a violent failed coup attempt in 2018 involving the Catholic Church and other right-wing elements. After failing to achieve regime change by helping to instigate and support the coup, the US has since tightened the economic screws on the hemisphere’s third-poorest nation by ramping up unilateral coercive measures.

Despite the illegal US sanctions designed to punish its people, the socialist government has done so much with so little. Nicaragua’s economic growth of 8.3% during the pandemic is among the highest in the region and indeed in the world.

Nicaragua is the safest in the entire region and among the safest internationally. Education and health care are free. With the best roads in Central America, the previously overlooked and isolated Caribbean coast is now more fully integrated with the rest of the country. And an unmatched 30% of the national territory is in autonomous zones for indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. Contrary to US propaganda, opinion polls show that President Daniel Ortega is popular among his voters.

Venezuela

So two weeks after the leftist electoral confirmation in Nicaragua, the same was repeated in Venezuela. The ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) swept the regional and legislative elections on 21 November 2021.

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Although the US and a handful of its most sycophantic allies still recognize Trump-anointed Juan Guaidó as the “interim president” of Venezuela, the vast majority of states accept Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate president. The hapless Mr Guaidó has the highest approval rating among potential opposition candidates for the 2024 presidential election, while polls show that if a snap election were called, Mr Maduro would win.

Meanwhile, Biden, under pressure to ease fuel shortages of his own production, is relaxing a bit on Trump’s draconian sanctions. Chevron is resuming limited operations in Venezuela, and some of Venezuela’s $20 billion in “kidnapped” assets in foreign banks are being released for humanitarian projects.

Honduras

Just a week after the elections in Venezuela, the sweetest left triumph was achieved. Xiomara Castro became the first woman elected to the presidency in Honduran history on December 1, 2021. Her husband, Manuel Zelaya, had been overthrown in a coup on June 28, 2009, orchestrated by US President Barak Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Castro replaced over twelve years of “nacro-dictatorship”, a well-deserved charge confirmed by the US government itself. Back in 2009, the facts were so clear that even the complicit Obama had to admit that Zelaya was ousted in a “coup”, although he said it was not a “military” coup.

The United States then supported a series of illegitimate presidents, including most recently former president Juan Orlando Hernández, with generous military, economic, and political support. Even the OAS, which is essentially an arm of the United States masquerading as a multinational body, questioned the validity of his election. So when Castro won, “JOH” was quickly extradited to the US and thrown in jail for importing huge amounts of cocaine into the US.

Formerly known as the “USS Honduras” for its role as America’s surrogate in Central America, the new Castro presidency will chart a new course for Honduras.

Chile

Less than two weeks after the defeat of the right in Honduras, Gabriel Boric won the Chilean presidency on December 19, 2021, campaigning under the slogan “neoliberalism was born in Chile and here it will die.” He replaced the right-wing Sebastián Piñera, who was also the richest person in Chile.

A former student leader turned politician, the 36-year-old Boric emerged from the mass anti-neoliberal protests of 2019 and 2021, which mobilized a significant portion of Chile’s population. Boric had beaten the Communist Party’s candidate in the Progressive Apruebo Dignidad coalition primaries and went on to defeat José Antonio Kast in the presidential election.

To call Kast a far-right would be an understatement. Sometimes left-wing rhetoric too loosely accuses opponents of being fascists. In the case of Kast and his politically active brothers, however, the expression is completely apt. Their father came from Germany and was an actual member of the Nazi Party.

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Colombia

What happened next was truly historic. Former left-wing guerrilla (since moderated to the center-left) Gustavo Petro and his vice president Francia Márquez, an Afro-descendant environmentalist, were the first progressives ever to win in Colombia on June 19th of this year. Their Pacto Histórico the coalition had emerged from the massive popular protests of 2019 and 2020, which included the participation of indigenous and Afro-descendants.

Colombia, formerly known as the “Israel of Latin America,” had long been the leading U.S. regional client state and the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere. This election promises to disrupt that role and break with the influential right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe and his successors.

Outgoing right-wing president Iván Duque also made history as Colombia’s least popular president. He immediately joined the right-wing Wilson Center in Washington, changing job titles but not really employers.

Brazil

Colombia was a big splash in the region, but what followed in Brazil was a crashing tidal wave of global proportions.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known colloquially simply as Lula, was first elected in 2003 and left the presidency in 2010 with rising popularity. He was succeeded by Labor Party colleague Dilma Rousseff, who was re-elected in 2014. Two years later, the right-dominated legislature used “law enforcement” to remove her from office.

At the time, Lula himself was a victim of the law. Although he was the most popular potential presidential candidate, he spent April 2018 to November 2019 in prison. This allowed Jair “Trump of the Tropics” Bolsonaro to assume the presidency. Then, in a spectacular comeback, Lula beat Bolsonaro in the next presidential contest on October 31, 2022.

Sea Change in Latin America and the Caribbean

The progressive election victories decisively tip the regional geopolitical balance towards the port. The ranking by size of the largest regional economies is Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Peru – all of which are now on the left side of the ledger. Brazil’s is the eighth largest economy in the world.

Brazil’s entry into the BRICS transcontinental alliance heralds a burgeoning international multipolar independence from the West. Originally including Russia, India, China and South Africa, BRICS+ can be expanded to include Argentina, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and others.

Lula campaigned to create a regional currency, SUR. Maduro has also called for a regional currency that would challenge the dominance of the US dollar.

Lula, Maduro and their fellow travelers promise to be advocates for the poor at home, for regional integration (reviving UNASUR and strengthening MERCOSUR), and internationally for multilateralism (addressing climate change and possibly even helping to bring peace to Ukraine).

To be continued…

Part II deals with the explicitly socialist countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua), the experiences from Haiti and China’s new role.


Roger D. Harris is with the human rights group Task Force on Americafounded in 1985.

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