With the narrow victory of socialist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s presidential election, almost the whole of Latin America — from Mexico in the north to Chile in the south — is back in the hands of the political Left. Socialism, which lost steam after the first pink tide subsided and gave way to conservative regimes a decade ago, now has a second lease of life. Progressive politicians across Latin America are promising to restore their countries on the path of social equality and economic recovery. Lula’s vow that once he retakes charge of Brazil, “the people will eat steak, drink beer again, and be happy again”, encapsulates the hopes of poorer sections of society, who have been hammered by the pandemic, global inflationary pressures and economic slowdown.
Memories of an earlier uplifting era, when Leftists such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and Lula of Brazil stormed to power and pursued policies to empower working classes and indigenous people, have played a central role in ushering in the current pink tide 2.0.
However, domestic and global conditions that made Chavez, Lula and others successful two decades ago were starkly different from today’s outlook. Internally, countries in the region are more sharply polarised along identity and ideological lines. Lula’s razor-thin win by 1.8% mirrors similar close outcomes in Peru (where socialist Pedro Castillo won by just 0.25%) and Colombia (where former Leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro won by 3.07%).
Even in Chile, where youthful former student leader Gabriel Boric won the presidential race by a comfortable 11-point margin, his ambitious plebiscite to endorse a socialist Constitution was resoundingly rejected by voters who deemed it too radical.
Like in the United States, where almost half the electorate is hostile and inimical to the other half, many Latin American societies lack consensus on basic questions of what role the State should play in the economy, how to reduce whopping inequalities of wealth and status, and which model of public health and environmental policies to adopt.
Lula has proclaimed that “there are not two Brazils. We are a single country, a single people.” But if President Joe Biden’s lacklustre performance in the polarised US is any indicator, it is likely that his opponent, Jair Bolsonaro’s hardcore followers will never accept the new dispensation that tries to overturn the conservative agenda of “beef, bible and bullets”. Acute divisions and conflicts can stymie pragmatic socialists such as Lula to rule from the centre of the political spectrum.
Internationally, pink tide 2.0 faces a recessionary environment. China’s new normal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of barely 3% and slumps in the US and Europe are bad news for Latin American Leftists because they can no longer rely on booming exports of agricultural products and minerals to fund their social re-engineering projects. The so-called commodities super cycle (2000 to 2014) was a windfall bonanza for then Leftist governments to design targeted public policy programmes and lift tens of millions out of poverty.
The prospects of another super cycle are low and structural weaknesses in the world economy may drag Latin America down. Credit rating agencies project the region’s six major economies, led by Brazil, to expand by just 0.9% in 2023. Without the magic wand of strong public finances, Lula and his fellow Leftists cannot repeat their past miracles.
So, one should not be surprised if the second socialist wave falters sooner than its earlier avatar. A long-term perspective shows power is cyclically alternating between Left-wing and Right-wing every decade or so in Latin America, with people desperately searching for alternatives because their aspirations are left unfulfilled no matter which ideological force steers the ship.
English poet Alexander Pope’s maxim, “for forms of government let fools contest, whatever is best administered is best”, remains far more relevant than asking whether socialism is staging a grand comeback through the gateway of Latin America. Lula and his fellow Leftist presidents will be judged by their deeds, not past laurels. The Left has been given another sweeping chance, but it could be a fleeting one if rulers fail the basic democratic test of meeting people’s expectations.
Sreeram Chaulia is professor and dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed are personal