On the (Putative) Ebb of the Pink Tide: Doing What Tides, Time, and Politics Do

“Marcha 24 Jun” by    Carlos Rodriguez/Andes    is licensed under    CC By 4.0

“Marcha 24 Jun” by Carlos Rodriguez/Andes is licensed under CC By 4.0

By Eric Selbin

Pundits, politicians, and policy-makers in the US and their global and regional allies have been recently gleefully speculating about the demise of marea rosada—the past 20 years or so of popularly elected moderate and radical left political parties in Latin America and the Caribbean. The dominant US frame of thinking seems to be that this inexplicable election of popular, progressive parties has run its course. Thus, ending some bizarre “moment”—none too soon and not to be missed—as confused people misled by “illiberal” leaders were foolishly resisting the salutary (inevitable) neoliberal tide by electing the “wrong” political parties. The impetus was some election results and the predictable socio-political and economic bumps any state and society face. It largely reflects a combination of conscious and intentional misreading, married to the hegemony of certain worldviews: it must be this way; there is no alternative; finally they are getting it right. Why let the continued dominance of pink tide parties, policies, and practices across the region disturb grandiose (vaguely desperate) neoliberal domination fantasies? 

Revolutionary imaginations and sentiments, a radical imaginary, can be found most places at most times. At times these coalesce into revolutionary situations, and more rarely, revolution is made. Across an impressive array of times and places, people have been hungry and poor, watched their children suffer and die, and seen land, goods, and services unjustly accorded to the wealthy and powerful, and not made revolution.

Today, state and capital have created interconnected crises defined by Earth-destroying, militaristic, patriarchal, racially inflected authoritarian-capitalism—generating mind-numbing inequalities and dangers. As the bonds between capitalism and Global North liberal bourgeois democracy fray further, there is both economic fear (the end of state welfare functions, the destruction of stable employment) and social dread as communal bonds (identities, social protections, and a sense of place and identity) are destroyed. Still people harbor dreams and passions for justice, equality, and freedom and seek to be the makers of their own lives, of history.

Over the last two decades, millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean articulated their desire to change the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives through the ballot box. “Pink tide” is the turn to the left voters chose after the carnage of a generation of U.S.-sponsored, military-elite, bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes (1964-90). Broadly, the pink tide commitment is twofold: to overcome the immiseration and degradation of the immense majority of people and to enable and ennoble people rebuilding lives and communities brutally and systematically destroyed under intense pressure from the region’s elites (and their global allies)—elites who adopted neoliberal policies inimical to the needs and desires of ordinary people.

Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr - Agência Brasil

Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr - Agência Brasil

The “pink tide” is most commonly associated with elections in Venezuela 1998 (to today), Brazil 2003 (disrupted by an anti-pink tide impeachment), and Bolivia 2006 (to today). The pink tide washed ashore in 1994 in Chile, followed quickly by the Dominican Republic 1996 and in both cases, with a four year interval, remains. This was followed by Argentina 2003-15, Brazil 2003-16, Uruguay 2005-today, Honduras 2006-9 (ended in an anti-pink tide golpe d’estado), Ecuador 2007-today, Nicaragua 2007-today, Guatemala 2008-12, Paraguay 2008-12, El Salvador 2009-today, Peru 2011-2016, and Costa Rica 2014-today. At one point the vast majority of people in Latin America had elected and lived under left and socialist governments. If not for Brazil’s specious impeachment proceedings, over half the region’s population would still be

To this day, some hundred million people—a quarter of the region’s population—have moved out of poverty, received health care and housing, and acquired an education. Indeed, they have joined the new middle class…with new demands of their own. Some of the military and their minions, though not their elite backers, were brought to justice and reconciliation was fostered in societies shattered by cruelty. For most people in the region, a pink life was far better than any life they had previously known. So what has changed—if anything? Far (far) less than it might appear.

A reasonable person might expect that the high tide is slowly receding, but the claims seem exaggerated. The primary focus has been on the 2015 Argentine election of a business-friendly center-right party to the Presidency, the decision of Bolivian voters not to allow a fourth term for the current president (though party support remains high), Peru’s idiosyncratic 2016 presidential election, and recent events in Brazil and Venezuela.

Clearly, pink tide parties, policies, programs, and practices are alive and well; if the tide is slowly going out, it is in part because of the great successes.

Yet in Argentina the pink tide parties retain a dominant position in the legislature. The center-right presidential candidate’s coalition included pink tide parties and the platform promoted them as being best able to consolidate and extend the gains made under pink tide policies. Bolivia’s repudiation of continuismo seems a victory for pink tide ideology, and the pink tide party remains dominant. Peru’s 2016 presidential and legislative races produced a strong center-right majority in a peculiar race involving a former dictator’s daughter as a candidate. In Brazil, the center-right/right, unable to defeat the left at the ballot box and with a highly popular two-term former pink tide president poised to make a comeback, opted to impeach the current pink tide president. Venezuela, often (mis)read as the forefront of the pink tide, may be where it is most under duress, beset with serious economic issues and arguably bad political judgments. Yet particularly outside of the major cities, most Venezuelans remain grateful for the ways in which the pink tide policies, programs, and practices changed their lives for the better.

Clearly, pink tide parties, policies, programs, and practices are alive and well; if the tide is slowly going out, it is in part because of the great successes. Indeed, given that the pink tide has been largely predicated on state-centered political change, is it possible that people in the region are less concerned about government-driven change and starting to make their everyday lives more permanently pink? The institutional defeat (legislative golpe d’estado) in Brazil may signal to people the importance of changing their lives, their worlds, outside of power. Horizontalidad, horizontalism, may offer a path, so too greater workplace democracy, worker self-management, indigenous rights, and more.

Writing at another ominous juncture in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin argued that the “state of emergency” in which they were living was the rule, not the exception, and that people needed to create their own states of emergency to create the possibility for and bring about change. If most of us do not live in states constricted and constrained by explicit “states of emergency,” such threats are never far away; most of us find ourselves in a time and places of basically permanent “states of emergency,” one event or threat, real or perceived, away from the imposition of security and order to “protect us.” The Security State stepping in alongside the Austerity State and (conveniently) reminding us where power—and the weapons—lies. Those providing us with such protection are also those who seek to maintain structures and institutions at the expense of those who are disenfranchised, quashing people’s dreams and desires, forestalling their efforts to bring about meaningful change. Elites and their minions stop at little to defend the socio-political economic order they benefit from. But when people begin to imagine, begin to believe, they can and do create (im)possibilities. The pink tide may be ebbing, but like any tide, it will be back.

Eric Selbin is Professor of Political Science and Holder of the Lucy King Brown Chair at Southwestern University. His research interests are in the areas of resistance, rebellion, and revolution, theories of revolution, and socio-political change. Selbin is the author of Revolution, Resistance, and Rebellion: The Power of Story (2010), Modern Latin American Revolutions (1999/1993), and a variety of articles and book chapters primarily on matters revolutionary. He has co-authored with Meghana Nayak, Decentering International Relations (2010). Selbin is co-editor of the New Millennium Books in International Studies series, Associate Editor of International Studies Perspectives, and was the founding editor of Southwestern University’s Brown Working Papers in the Arts and Sciences.