How to Change the World

Looking back at the Pink Tide’s accomplishments, and the roots of its shortcomings.

Pink Tide

Latin America is in many respects the birthplace of neoliberalism, so it’s fitting that it fought back first and hardest. After a decade of false promises, anger over rising joblessness, poverty, and insecurity in the 1990s coalesced into powerful social movements that demanded something better.

By the turn of the century it was clear something was happening in the region. Bolivians went to war over water, Argentines took to the streets and took over their workplaces, and Hugo Chávez beat back a coup in Venezuela. Observers from the North didn’t know what to make of this wave of rebellion. They began talking about a “Pink Tide” washing over Latin America.

“Pink Tide” is a somewhat peculiar term that referred to the fact that the progressive governments popping up in one country after another weren’t necessarily socialist — at least not in any traditional sense — yet they spoke loudly and directly about the problems of capitalism. Latin American leaders talked about a new kind of radicalism — one built on improving people’s lives in the everyday without worrying about a long-term vision of overthrowing capitalism.

For more than a decade these countries, buttressed by social movements, did just that. They brought down poverty; improved health, education, and political engagement; and embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects. For a moment, another world seemed possible.

But global capitalism is not an easy beast to tame; it’s a fickle creature — friend one day, foe the next. World markets went from buttressing the Pink Tide projects — through robust primary commodity prices — to undermining them. When the bottom fell out of the commodity markets following the 2008 global financial crisis, and then again beginning in 2011, Pink Tide governments found themselves scrambling to sustain their vision without booming commodity exports.

Strong cash inflows meant Pink Tide governments could pay for social programs without fundamentally changing the for-profit system or demanding that elites make sacrifices. For a while the rising tide really did lift all boats, including the yachts. But this didn’t mean Latin American elites forgot what their interests were when crisis hit. As the case of Brazil shows so starkly, when global markets soured, capital demanded austerity.

This about-face highlights mistakes made by Pink Tide governments. They took the easier route, relying on commodities instead of confronting elites. And when it came time to either fight or surrender, they found themselves standing atop a diminished social base. It was all too obvious that once robust, autonomous movements had been defanged during years of Pink Tide government.

Yet the present crisis can’t just be chalked up to bad choices. Pink Tide governments faced a bigger challenge than traitorous elites; they faced the constraints of global capitalism. And fighting capitalism without being anticapitalist is impossible.

History shows the difficulty of sustaining a strong welfare state when the material conditions underpinning progressive governments change. As Latin American governments were buffeted by the shifting winds of global capitalism, they found themselves ill-equipped to meet the challenge; they hadn’t built the forces or institutions — nationally or regionally — to withstand the onslaught. The result is a profound period of crisis for Pink Tide governments.

“By Taking Power” examines this crisis and the broader arc of the Pink Tide in Latin America. We explore the roots of the leftward shift in the social movement-based struggle against the Washington Consensus and US imperialism. Following the Pink Tide governments into power, we look at both the accomplishments and the shortcomings of administrations in Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela. And looking to the future, we draw lessons from the last fifteen years of progressive rule in Latin America.

This issue isn’t a post-mortem on the Pink Tide. The US left was fascinated by the dynamism and energy of the regional fightback against neoliberal capitalism and remains so today. But we also recognize the need, in the face of deep crisis, to understand what went wrong so we can move from taming the capitalist beast to slaying it. We offer solidarity, and remain hopeful that Latin America’s social movements will forge a path forward against formidable odds.