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Is the ‘Pink Tide’ turning in Latin America?

Published 22 Mar 2016
Sophie Gulliver

Since 1998, a so-called ‘Pink Tide’ of popularly elected left-wing governments has swept across Latin America, winning 23 elections in nine countries. However, recent elections in Argentina and Venezuela have bucked this trend. On the 22nd November 2015, right-wing opposition candidate Mauricio Macri won the Argentinean Presidential election, ending twelve years of populist leftist politics embodied by former Presidents. Two weeks later – on December 6th – the centrist Democratic Unity Roundtable defeated the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in parliamentary elections, destroying their sixteen-year legislative majority but leaving socialist President Nicholas Maduro in power. The defeat of the left in these two elections, coupled with falling approval ratings for other regional leftists governments, led commentators from publications including The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and BBC to declare the end of the ‘Pink Tide’ and the death of the Latin American left.

Indeed, the defeat of the left in Argentina and Venezuela has temporarily weakened the ‘Pink Tide’ and revealed some important vulnerabilities. Yet to ring the death knell of the ‘Pink Tide’ and leftism more broadly based on these electoral losses is premature, especially given the overall perseverance of left-wing governments and the complexity of the ‘Pink Tide.’ Various ‘Pink Tide’ governments are suffering depressed approval ratings, however it remains to be seen whether these will translate into further electoral losses, given that most elections will not be held until 2017 or later when circumstances will have changed. Furthermore, if subsequent elections do propel more right-wing governments into power, these governments must maintain their influence and authority to prove that the ‘Pink Tide’ has truly ‘gone out.’

While the electoral future of ‘Pink Tide’ governments is uncertain, there is little doubt that their political legacy will endure. Redistributive policies, state-administered social services and regional integration strategies remain popular with Latin American voters. To be electable, right-wing parties will have to retain these policies, as has happened in Argentina with President Macri promising to continue some Kirchner initiatives.

 The ‘Pink Tide’

A common assumption that underpins the ‘Pink Tide in decline’ thesis is that the ‘Pink Tide’ is a uniform wave that rises and falls together, with one electoral loss creating a political domino effect across the continent. This portrayal obfuscates the diversity of the ‘Pink Tide’, which is comprised of many contextually different governments that utilise a range of styles and strategies. Common aims and antecedents loosely bind these governments together, but this does not mean they necessarily share a common fate. Before examining some of the challenges that left-wing governments face in Latin America, it is therefore important to understand the history and heterogeneity of the ‘Pink Tide.’

Hugo Chavez’s landslide election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998 is generally considered as the beginning of this era. The victory of the left in Venezuela continued the leftward trend in government already underway in Chile, and was followed by a wave of successive left-wing electoral victories in Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2005), Bolivia (2005), Ecuador (2006), Paraguay (2008), and Peru (2011). This diverse group of left and centre-left governments became known as the ‘Pink Tide.’

 This phenomenon emerged from the socio-political and economic flux that gripped Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. Many countries during this period were undergoing difficult transitions from dictatorships to democratic, civilian governments. In addition, the continent was living under rigid neoliberal structural adjustment programs promulgated by the ‘Washington Consensus’ and suffering debilitating debt crises. These saw growth rates plunge to their lowest levels in a century, with income per person dropping by 3.1 per cent. [1] Inequality and poverty soared, with many blaming neoliberal economic structures.

Widespread discontent towards neoliberal policies pushed by right-wing incumbents primarily drove the election of left-wing governments in Latin America. [2] Voters were tired of the economically austere ‘oficialismo.’ The left offered a novel approach, promising a more equitable, redistributive economic system and a shift away from the political stranglehold of the U.S. towards a more regional, autonomous outlook. Democratisation and the formation of viable opposition parties across Latin America, the rise of new social movements including Indigenous and workers’ movements, and the end of the Cold War’s ‘real socialism’/capitalism binary, further enabled left ascendancy. [3]

For many, the ‘Pink Tide’ became synonymous with ‘populism’ and ‘radical leftism,’ evoking images of Venezuelan ‘Chavismo.’ Overall, however, the ‘Pink Tide’ is more moderate. All ‘Pink Tide’ governments, even those with fiery, socialist rhetoric like Venezuela, have undertaken social reforms while preserving, to varying degrees, key elements of the neoliberal package including foreign investment, international trade and free market economics. It is a ‘pink’ diluted version of a ‘red’ socialist tide. [4]

The approach of each of these countries was shaped by their own domestic political, social and historical factors. The ‘Pink Tide’ became a term that encompassed a variety of political styles and strategies, describing the more radical politics in Venezuela of nationalisation and price controls, to the moderate reforms in Chile that largely maintained neoliberal policies. While ‘Pink Tide’ countries do share similarities regarding their political goals and strategies, and face comparable economic, political and social challenges as discussed below, the heterogeneity of the movement must not be forgotten.

Indeed it is this heterogeneity that makes it difficult to predict the future of the ‘Pink Tide’, given the vast array of situational factors at play.

Argentina, Venezuela, and the Challenges that Confront the ‘Pink Tide’

The two consecutive losses of the left in Argentina and Venezuela exposed some of the challenges confronting ‘Pink Tide’ governments. Poor economic conditions, corruption scandals, voter fatigue, and the loss of charismatic leaders not only contributed to these recent electoral wipe-outs, but are also feeding lower polling numbers among other regional left-wing governments.

Political scientists Steven Levistky and Martha Lagos link the left’s electoral losses in Argentina and Venezuela to voter dissatisfaction with worsening economic conditions. [5] In Argentina the economy grew 0.4 per cent in 2015 and is forecast to recede 0.7 per cent this year. [6] Inflation is sitting at 16.8 per cent.[7] Meanwhile, Venezuela is experiencing the worst economic downturn in two centuries with its economy contracting 10 per cent in 2015 and an estimated 6 per cent in 2016. [8] Inflation is worryingly high at 159.1 per cent, as is unemployment at 7.9 per cent. [9] Economic growth has slowed across the continent, although it is the Atlantic facing economies like Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil that have been hit hardest.

This economic stagnation can be attributed to poor fiscal management by the left. However, as Levistky posits, most ‘Pink Tide’ governments are not necessarily to blame for these difficult conditions. Worsening commodity prices and greater social service demands from a burgeoning middle class exerted pressure upon left and right governments, although the left is more exposed to this due to higher social spending commitments.[10] Regardless of the cause, this economic decline is fuelling social discontent and poses a problem for the survival of left-wing governments.

Another difficulty the left faces is voter fatigue with corruption and the status quo. Most ‘Pink Tide’ governments have held power for ten years or more. As governments become more entrenched, the potential for corruption grows as stakeholders gain and maintain government influence outside of official channels. [11] In Argentina, the Kirchners were implicated in many scandals including the unexplained death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015, only days after he accused the President of conspiring to suppress Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre. Only weeks before the Venezuelan election, President Maduro’s nephew was detained in Haiti for planning to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine, feeding U.S. accusations that the narcotics trade has infiltrated the Venezuelan government. Voters are wearied by corruption scandals and the well-worn ‘oficialismo’ of the left who are no longer novel reformers. The normal desire in democracies for the alteration of power threatens the ‘Pink Tide’ in the coming years.[12]

A third difficulty for many left governments is the loss of charismatic leaders. In Argentina and Venezuela, Presidents Christina Kirchner and Nicolas Maduro were unable to match the immense popularity of their predecessors – Nestor Kirchner and Hugo Chavez. Similarly, in Brazil, President Dilma Rouseff has received nowhere near the popular support of her predecessor Lula de Silva. In Uruguay, President Tabaré Vázquez sits in the shadow of former President Jose Mujica. As Presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa approach the end of their term limits in Bolivia and Ecuador respectively, it is unclear whether their successors will command the same levels of popular support to gain re-election.

As in Argentina and Venezuela, other ‘Pink Tide’ governments also confront pressing economic and political challenges. In Brazil, President Rouseff is fighting for her political life with an approval rating of 9 per cent. [13] A worsening economy set to contract by 1 per cent and the continuing fallout from the Petrobras scandal and possible impeachment have all contributed to popular dissatisfaction. Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is suffering a 12 per cent approval rating, with over 151 of his members elected in the midterm being investigated by narcotics police. Conservative candidate Keiko Fujimori is polling ahead of opposing candidates for the upcoming Peruvian presidential elections in April.

The Presidents of Chile and Uruguay have both dropped to their lowest levels of support on record. Michelle Bachelet of Chile registered a 24 per cent approval in December following corruption scandals involving her son (although this rating was still higher than that of her right-wing counterparts at 18 per cent). [14] In Uruguay, Vázquez recorded a 29 per cent approval as confidence in the economy continued to decrease. [15] The leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador, though still polling comparatively well, have also slipped in the polls over the past year.

These sinking approval ratings combined with the multifarious challenges confronting left-wing governments in Latin America are concerning. Yet do they really signal the end of the ‘Pink Tide’?

Is the ‘Pink Tide’ Really Going Out?

Whilst the left-wing governments are facing a decline, it is still too early to declare the ‘Pink Tide’ is over based on only two elections and fallible popularity ratings.

Declining approval ratings are given as evidence that the left is heading towards more electoral defeats. However, approval ratings for heads-of-state have fallen by 7 per cent continent wide, including among right-wing governments.[16] For example, Colombia’s centre-right President Juan Manuel Santos recorded approval ratings of 36 per cent in September 2015 [17] and Paraguay’s conservative President Horacio Cartés held a 25 per cent approval rating in July. Cartés was further dealt a blow this November when the left defeated the incumbent right-of-centre Mayor in municipal elections in what was seen as a litmus test for the President. Increasing dissatisfaction is not solely a problem of the left. It may be tied more closely to poor economic conditions, and may not translate into more leftist electoral defeats.[18]

Approval ratings for leftist leaders may have fallen in 2015, but over the past two years the left has also claimed significant victories. In 2015, former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica left office with a 70 per cent approval rating before handing over to his leftist successor. [19] In 2014, left-wing parties in Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador were returned comfortably to government. This followed the win of the Chilean socialist Concertación in 2013 after a term in opposition. Bolivian and Ecuadorean leaders continue to receive high public approval ratings, with President Morales and President Correa sitting at 65 per cent and 41 per cent respectively.[20] Not only does Morales hold the highest approval rating on the continent, he has also earned praise from institutions like the World Bank for growing the Bolivian economy and decreasing extreme poverty by 43 per cent. [21]

Evidently, approval ratings are fluid and only give a snapshot of a government’s popularity at a particular time. Considering that the majority of ‘Pink Tide’ countries will next hold elections in 2017 or beyond, current measures of popularity cannot accurately predict whether present dissatisfaction will endure and translate into electoral losses, particularly if the economic climate improves.

Only Peru will hold an election in 2016, which the conservatives may win. If they do, their victory could give more credence to the ‘Pink Tide in decline’ thesis. However, it will take years for the political trajectory of the ‘Pink Tide’ to truly unfold. As Mark Weisbrot notes, what could transpire in Argentina, Venezuela and other countries is what happened in Chile, where Sebastian Piñera’s right-wing government (2010-2014) served one term before being voted out in favour of the left.[22] If this were to happen, it would not represent the end of the ‘Pink Tide’ but a temporary lull, mostly resultant from unpopular politicians.

Whether or not ‘Pink Tide’ governments are voted out, the left will live on in Latin America. Leftist governments have been successful in lessening social inequality, fostering diversity, and creating a more politically and economically integrated continent.[23] Under the ‘Pink Tide’, 56 million people have been lifted out of poverty.[24]

The key pillars of the left agenda that brought about these changes remain immensely popular. They include redistributive reforms and policy shifts towards a more integrated and autonomous Latin America.[25] The Latinobarometro 2013 survey found, for example, that 75 per cent of the population still believe wealth distribution is unfair, indicating the continuing relevance of redistributive policies.[26] To be elected, right-wing parties will likely have to continue some leftist policies.

Indeed, in previous elections where the right has taken office, they have not made sweeping changes. When the conservatives won in Chile in 2010 they continued most of the social programs from the previous left-wing government.[27] Similarly, while newly elected Argentinean President Macri pushes economic conservatism, he has pledged to maintain some of the most popular Kirchner era reforms including child support. As Weisbrot asserts, “Argentina and the surrounding region have changed too much to go back to the neoliberal past.” [28] The future is sure to be marked by the legacy of the ‘Pink Tide.’


The ‘Pink Tide’ faces tough future hurdles, including difficult economic conditions, corruption scandals, voter fatigue with long-serving governments, and the loss of charismatic leaders among other issues. While recent losses for the left in Argentina and Venezuela represent a short-term weakening of leftist popularity, they do not necessarily signify that the end is nigh, especially given the overall perseverance and complexity of the ‘Pink Tide.’ Lower approval ratings for many Latin American left-wing governments have been used as proof that the ‘Pink Tide’ is declining, yet these approval ratings are fickle and unreliable for predicting elections that are mostly over a year away. Even if these elections, especially the upcoming one in Peru, propel right-wing governments into power, these governments must maintain their leadership to prove that the tide has truly turned and not momentarily lulled.

Whatever happens to ‘Pink Tide’ governments in the future, it is certain that the left will not die in Latin America. Leftist policies and principles have permeated the political fabric of the continent and remain popular with voters, compelling right-leaning parties to adopt and continue leftist policies.

Sophie Gulliver graduated from the Australian National University in 2014 with First Class Honours in Political Science. She is keenly interested in Latin American politics and wrote her thesis about the Indigenous Mapuche/state conflict in Chile after studying in Santiago on exchange in 2013.

[1] Carr, Barry (2014), “Latin America: Changing Political Realities and Trends 2000 – 2014,” in Carr, Barry and John Minns (eds.), Australia and Latin America: Challenges and Opportunities in the New Millenium, ANU Press: Canberra, p.6.

[2] Carr, Barry above n 1; Lind, Peter Lykke, “Has Latin America’s Pink Tide Turned Muddy?” in The Argentina Independent, 7 December 2015; Kingstone, Peter (2011), The Political Economy of the Latin American Left: Reflections on Neoliberalism and Development, Routledge: New York: Routledge, p.100-01.

[3] Levistky, Steven and Kenneth M. Roberts (2011), “Latin America’s “Left Turn” in Levistky, Steven and Kenneth M. Roberts (eds.), The Resurgence of the Latin American Left, John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, p.8-9.

[4] Carr, Barry above n 1.

[5] Lind, Peter Lykke above n 2; Levistky and Roberts above n 3.

[6] “World Economic Outlook Database Latin America and the Caribbean,” (2015) in World Economic Outlook Database, International Monetary Fund.

[7] “World Economic Outlook Database Latin America and the Caribbean,” above n 6.

[8] “World Economic Outlook Database Latin America and the Caribbean,” above n 6.; Luhnow, David and Juan Forero, “A Populist ‘Pink Tide’ is Ebbing in South America, Argentine Vote Suggests” in The Wall Street Journal, 24 November 2015.

[9] “World Economic Outlook Database Latin America and the Caribbean,” above n 6.

[10] Lind, Peter Lykke above n 2.

[11] Hoff, Karla, Horowitz, Shale and Branko Milanovic, (2005), “Political Alternation, Regardless of Ideology, Diminishes Influence Buying,” in Policy Outlook, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, p.1.

[12] “Is the “Pink Tide” Turning?” in The Economist, 14 December 2015, available at <>.

[13] Trevisani, Paulo,”Brazil’s Rousseff Administration Popularity Falls to 9%” in The Wall Street Journal, 15 December 2015.

[14] “Chilean President Bachelet’s Approval Rating at All-Time Low in December” in Business Insider, 7 January 2015.

[15] Fernández, Nelson, “La Aprobación Popular de Tabaré Vázquez Cayó 25% en el Ultimo Año” in La Nación, 8 October 2015.

[16] “Géstion de Cartes Solo Tiene 25% de Aprobación” in Extra Press, 20 July 2015.

[17] “Two-Thirds of Colombians Disapprove of President Santos” in Telesur, 7 September 2015.

[18] Laiani, Azzura, “Paraguay: Left Wins Asuncion in Local Elections” in The Argentina Independent, 17 November 2015.

[19] Sabin, Lamiat, “Uruguay’s Cannabis-Friendly President Jose Mujica Hands over Power to New Leader” in Independent, 2 March 2015.

[20] “Aprobación de Morales Llega a 65% al Cierre de 2015,” HispanTV, 24 December 2015; Cabrera, Mercedes, “Rafael Correa Closes the Year with a Low Approval and Credibility According to a Study Conducted by Cedatos” in Ecuador Times, 29 December 2015.

[21] Mauricio, Jose P and Santiago Garriga, (2015) “Explaining Inequality and Poverty Reduction in Bolivia,” in IMF Working Paper , The International Monetary Fund, p.5.

[22] Weisbrot, Mark, “Why Macri’s Win is Bad News for Argentina” in Fortune, 24 November 2014 2015.

[23] Navaro, Luis Hernández, “Will South America’s Right Sink the Progresive Pirates of the Caribbean?” in The Guardian, 12 December 2015.

[24] Chodor, Tom, “Understanding and Misunderstanding the Pink Tide in Latin America,” Progress in Political Economy, 2 December 2015.

[25] Carr, Barry above n 1; Patlow, Joshua and Irene Caselli, “Does Argentina’s Pro-Business Vote Mean the Latin American Left is Dead?” in The Washington Post, 23 November 2015.

[26] “Informe 2013,” Corporación Latinobarómetro,: Santiago, 2013. p.77.

[27] Semán, Ernesto, “The Taming of the Argentine Right?” in NACLA, 2 December 2015.

[28] Weisbrot, “Why Macri’s Win is Bad News for Argentina.”