The Rise of the Pink Tide Movement and Shades of Pink
By Peter Streufert
Hugo Chavez was born in Sabenta to a poor family in a small rural town on the plains of Venezuela. At a young age, he was exposed to leftist rhetoric by family friends. At 17 Chavez enrolled at the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences in Caracas and began his military career. In the early years of his military career, he read influential texts by Marx and Lenin. He especially admired Tiempo de Ezequiel Zamora, a book about Ezequiel Zamora, a Venezuelan leader and soldier in the 19th century who fought for peasants and land reform against the conservative elites.1 Using these ideas as a base, he and three other members of the Venezuelan Military formed a secret cell by the name “Ejército Bolivariano Revolucionario”.1 This group initially started in theoretical political discussions, but soon sought radical change. In the winter of 1989, Venezuela’s government passed a series of new economic adjustments that caused social unrest. When public transportation fares were raised the Venezuelan working class began to riot, soon resulting in the capital being looted. The government sought to shut this down by announcing a curfew and violently responding with the military. By the end of the riots, hundreds had died, including a founding member of the Ejército Bolivariano Revolucionario. This working-class riot and the Venezuelan Military treatment of civilians made Chavez realize the immediate need for change. Soon, Chavez and other members of the Ejército Bolivariano Revolucionario, now MBR-200, began planning for a coup against the centrist president Carlos Andrés Pérez. Operation Zomora had begun. The 1992 coup sought to use the military siding with Chavez and other MBR-200 leaders to take the capital and power of the government. On the day of the planned coup, they quickly ran into problems. High ranking leaders had abandoned the coup, a pre-recorded message inspiring civilians to begin a mass uprising failed to air. Soon Chavez was arrested by the Government. In a speech to his fellow revolutionaries, he took full responsibility for the uprising and told his remaining men to lay down their arms. The revolution had failed, “por ahora”.1 Following his release from prison in 1994, he traveled the continent, meeting with other leaders, and eventually forming the fifth republic movement political party to run for president in 1998.1 This time moving through the established democratic channels, he ran on anti-corruption and a movement away from western economic models in hopes to reduce wealth inequality and increase the life of the common Venezuelan. He won the election with 56% of the vote and was largely supported by the working class and the country’s poor, marking the official beginning of the pink tide movement in Latin America.
The pink tide movement is the shift of Latin American democracies to center-left or left ideologies and a push away from neoliberal economic structures. For a continent with such a strong history of negative reactions to any left-leaning governments, it seems astonishing that by 2009, across the continent “nearly two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under some form of left-leaning national government.” During the cold war, any political action organized by left-leaning groups in Latin America was perceived as connected to the soviet agenda, and thus a security threat to the United States.3 To answer this threat, the political left was disenfranchised through “restricted suffrage and later through mechanisms such as military intervention, proscription, and repression.”3 On the occasion a left-leaning government was able to be established in Latin America, they were often overthrown by a US-supported military coup as seen in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Chile.3 However, following the fall of the USSR in 1991, socialist or left-leaning political movements were no longer seen as a direct threat to the US, and support for military coups or strong support against left-leaning groups declined. The left saw this opening and took it, making small political gains on the local scale beginning in the 1990’s.3 The pink tide’s rise can also be attributed to the economic situation during the 1998-2002 downturn in Latin America.
The economic downturn caused poverty and unemployment to grow throughout the region. Wealth inequality was extremely high — by 2002, 44% of the population was in poverty and 60% of families had adult members unemployed sometime during the year.3 This helped push the left politically forward; during the 1998-2002 downturn people lost faith in incumbent governments and largely voted against them in the following elections. Also, Latin Americans lost faith in the “economic status quo” of the Washington census, a United States economic plan for developing countries that pushed neoliberal reforms. Together, the political opening in a post-USSR world and the changed political perceptions from the 1998-2002 economic downturn allowed the pink wave to crash over the region and allow for the election of a left leaning head of state in Venezuela, then Chile, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay, and El Salvador.
It was journalist and South American bureau chief for the New York Times, Tabaré Vázquez, that created the term pink tide. In his article about the inauguration of Uruguay’s new president, he characterizes this emergence of left-leaning heads of state by their conviction that “the free-market reforms of the 1990’s have failed and by a renewed focus on egalitarianism and social welfare” but recognizes their pragmatism and jokes they don’t go “to the point where it breaks the bank.” He notes the shared anti-America talk, rejection of the Washington Consensus, IMF, and World Bank, as well as the general willingness to adhere to the rules of the system rather than a total revolution, making this political change “not so much a red tide as a pink one.”4
Out of all the left-leaning heads of state that took power at the turn of the century Hugo Chavez was the most populist and impassioned. As a small but important exception to the “general willingness to adhere to the rules of the system” Chavez wanted to create a new Venezuelan constitution that better represented the new constituency and their values.4 In a public referendum, 88% of the population voted for a new constitution. The constitution that was created would reflect progressive values; human, indigenous, and women’s rights, increased importance on health, education, the environment, right to employment, and the right to civil disobedience. The new constitution also took away checks and balances and made the executive branch more powerful, allowing Chavez to more easily execute his plans. Through the 2001 Hydrocarbon law, Chavez nationalized the country’s oil and used the profits to fund social programs that targeted education, poverty, and hunger. Chavez took a strong anti-imperial and anti-neoliberal development stance and he represents the left end of the spectrum of pink tide leaders.
While displaying similar core characteristics, the pink tide movement has varying shades and hues, with enormous variations across regions, governments, and leaders. As previously stated, Chavez and the Venezuelan government represent the far left side of the pink tide governments along with Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Critics of these three governments have described them as the “populist leftists” while the more center-left governments in Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay in contrast have been called the “good leftists.” All three leaders are characterized by their rise to power and subsequent creation of new national constitutions widely supported by their constituents.6 Following the creation of their new constitutions the “populist leftists” had more power and were able to make substantial radical changes such as land reforms in Venezuela, seizing of natural resources by Morales in Bolivia, or Correa challenging Ecuador’s political elite class. Their key defining feature is their anti-neoliberal actions and rejection of privatization across their economies. These three countries have at times defined themselves as anti-capitalist and they clash with the US.
The more moderate side of the pink tide is still seen as a step away from the neoliberal path and the United States Washington consensus, but often is done through more reserved economic policies. A defining feature of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Brazil, Ricardo Lagos’s Chile, and Tabaré Vázquez Uruguay, is the institutionalized governing parties. Originally, these three countries’ parties (Chilean Socialists [PSCh], Uruguayan FA, Brazilian PT) started as radical Marxist/socialist groups that pursued significant economic and class restructuring. Over the years, these groups moved away from their radical left objectives and “made a restoration of liberal democracy the centerpiece of its political project.” All three parties played roles in the transition of democracy in their respective countries, in part making them become important members of their political establishments. As such, throughout their rise to power and government, they played by the established rules of the system, making their agenda inherently less radical than that of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Some analysts go as far to claim many of these center left governments are not part of the pink tide movement due to their more moderate views. However, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil all made advancements to include previously excluded groups, increase social programs, and not as heavily rely on the Washington standard of development to modernize, making them definitively part of the pink tide movement. The other Pink Tide countries such as Nicaragua, Paraguay, and El Salvador fall somewhere within the spectrum of these two groups, with varying degrees of radical change and grassroots movements.
Since the early 2000’s the Pink Tide has been replaced by conservative governments in many previously left or center-left governments. Some analysts call this a failure of the leftist movement. Yet, during the prime of the pink tide’s control, poverty and inequality decreased and inflation was controlled. The grassroots movements and incouperation of previously excluded groups led to a more modern, quality democracy. Many still look to Bolivia, one of the last remaining original pink tide governments, as the model post-neoliberal country and “one of the most successful leftist governments” in recent Latin America. This raises the question, is the pink tide and other left governments a suitable alternative to the capitalist neoliberal model?
Kirby, Peadar. “Probing the Significance of Latin America’s ‘Pink Tide.’” Edited by Eduardo Silva, Geraldine Lievesley, Steve Ludlam, and Francisco Panizza. Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y Del Caribe / European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, no. 89 (2010): 127–33.
Rohter, Larry. “With New Chief, Uruguay Veers Left, in a Latin Pattern.” The New York Times, March 1, 2005, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/01/world/americas/with-new-chief-uruguay-veers-left-in-a-latin-pattern.html.
Wolff, Jonas. “The Political Economy of Bolivia’s Post-Neoliberalism: Policies, Elites and the MAS Government.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y Del Caribe, no. 108 (2019): 109–29.