Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s narrow victory over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s runoff presidential election last month has been widely hailed as historic. Not only did the 77-year-old former union leader and two-term president achieve a comeback for the ages, fighting back from prison on a now-overturned corruption conviction to defeat arguably the most significant global imitator of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s brand of brash nativism and post-truth rhetoric, but Lula’s triumph is also being seen as sealing the second coming of the “pink tide”, the surge of left-wing leaders who first came to dominate Latin America in the early 2000s.
Lula’s prodigal return follows a string of other regional leftist presidential triumphs, including those of Colombia’s Gustavo Petro this year, Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Peru’s Pedro Castillo last year, Argentina’s Alberto Fernández in 2019, and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018. If you were to look at a map of Latin America, with the countries with leftist—or supposedly leftist—governments shaded pink, only Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Uruguay would stand out against the otherwise rosy hue. On the face of it, Latin America is strongly trending left once again.
Yet that reading is a significant misinterpretation of the moment. It overestimates the popularity, durability, and likely effectiveness of this new cohort of leftist leaders, as well as their ability to work together on the international stage, whether in United Nations climate negotiations or managing China’s rapidly expanding footprint in the region.
The truth is that, rather than turning left, Latin Americans remain pragmatically centrist. A 2021 study by Latinobarómetro, a leading regional pollster, found that most voters in the region adopt what are seen as left-wing postures when it comes to inequality but ones that are seen as right-wing when it comes to public safety. In other words, they want problem-solvers who can respond to their real-world needs, from tackling rampant graft to creating jobs and addressing violent crime. The left, of course, does not have a monopoly on providing these kinds of policy solutions.
More than anything, what Latin Americans have been doing is rejecting incumbents, most of whom happened to be on the right; Lula’s victory was the 15th-straight opposition victory in Latin American presidential elections. Across the region, sitting governments have struggled in febrile anti-establishment political environments, empowered by social media and turbocharged by the COVID-19 pandemic—which hit Latin America hard and triggered despair as well as visceral anger at the failures of decrepit health care systems and the elected officials overseeing them.
Many of the supposed new pink tide’s victories have been by narrow margins: 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent in the case of Lula’s runoff victory, despite Bolsonaro’s deadly COVID-19 negligence; 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent for Castillo against a widely reviled opponent facing jail on corruption charges; and 50.4 percent to 47.4 percent for Petro against a candidate with a pending graft trial who had threatened to shoot business partners.
Now (or soon to be) in power, these leaders are precariously positioned and lack the leverage of their predecessors. Several victors, including Lula, either face opposition-dominated legislatures or have fragmented legislative majorities being tested by political forces that threaten to pull their fragile alliances apart. Castillo is now the target of multiple criminal investigations and has already survived two impeachment attempts, with more on the way. Chileans recently voted to reject a new progressive constitution, a flagship reform heavily backed by Boric.
Thanks to inflation and a cocktail of local factors, from Chile’s violent crime wave to projected inflation of 100 percent in Argentina, several of the new leftist leaders, after just scraping into power, have experienced shortened political honeymoons, with approval ratings falling dramatically. Boric’s approval rating is around 27 percent, Castillo’s is in the 20s, and Petro’s is in the mid-40s and dropping rapidly, despite him only taking office in August; meanwhile, Fernández’s disapproval rating is now in the mid-70s. The one exception is López Obrador, whose approval rating hovers around 60 percent.
Talk of a new pink tide also ignores the yawning differences among the new wave of leftists on issues including gender rights, the environment, and democracy itself. Latin America’s current crop of left-wing leaders range from smokestack socialists, whose thinking on economics and energy has not evolved since the Cold War, to millennials preoccupied with identity politics and the climate crisis. All advocate addressing stark economic inequality and prioritizing anti-poverty measures, but that may be all they have in common. Several leaders hold positions that many European or U.S. progressives would regard as profoundly reactionary and unacceptable.
At one end of the spectrum is Boric, a 36-year-old former student activist who cares about LGBTQ rights and has introduced a bill to legalize abortion but who has also admitted he is “angered” by other leftists’ failure to condemn the socialist dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. At the other end is 69-year-old López Obrador, who accuses feminists demanding abortion rights and an end to gender-based violence of being “conservative” political operatives, launches authoritarian broadsides against critical journalists in a society where killing media workers is now commonplace, and is dismantling the National Electoral Institute, Mexico’s respected electoral agency.
Then there is Peru, which appears rudderless as Castillo’s presidency descends into self-inflicted chaos while ushering in socially conservative counterreforms, such as undermining bilingual education for Indigenous children. A rural schoolteacher who ran on a Marxist-Leninist ticket, Castillo opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, while his prime minister, Aníbal Torres, has eulogized Adolf Hitler and launched misogynistic attacks on female journalists. Castillo’s incompetence—he has had seven interior ministers in just 15 months in power—is proving to be a disaster for the very constituency he claimed to represent: Peru’s poor. Half of Peruvians now experience food insecurity, double the pre-pandemic level—an issue that Castillo’s government has repeatedly failed to address. Castillo also failed to attend the last two U.N. climate change conferences, despite Peru having one of the largest stretches of tropical rainforest on Earth.
Meanwhile, Lula, whose return to power was propelled in part by his promise to save the Amazon from Bolsonaro’s push to open the world’s largest tropical rainforest to ranching and extractive industries, finds his newfound green credentials at odds with his own track record. During his first two terms as president, from 2003 to 2010, his tendency to view conservation as intrinsically opposed to his top priority—reducing poverty—left environmentalists deeply frustrated. It remains to be seen whether Brazil’s president-elect has the political will to live up to his campaign pledge of net-zero deforestation in the Amazon.
Any sense of triumphalism on the global left over the victories of Lula et al. should be heavily tempered by the grim economic realities confronting Latin American governments. In a region heavily reliant on raw materials, which make up roughly one-third of Latin American exports, the first pink tide benefited from surging prices as China’s rapidly expanding economy hoovered up its commodities, permitting leftist governments to embark on social spending programs that made a lasting dent in poverty and inequality levels. But now, economists expect inflation, the phasing out of pandemic-era stimulus packages, and strong international headwinds—including a likely recession in Europe and a possible one in the United States, along with China’s continued zero-COVID lockdowns—to undermine Latin America’s brief post-pandemic growth spurt.
Meanwhile, Venezuela, whose petrodollar-fueled growth—along with former President Hugo Chávez’s largesse toward ideological soulmates from Bolivia to Cuba—provided a model for the region a decade and a half ago, has now turned into such an unmitigated economic and humanitarian disaster that no Latin American politician in their right mind, however much they might defend the Nicolás Maduro regime on the international stage, would suggest attempting to emulate Venezuela’s policies.
This all means that Latin America’s left-wing leaders are going to find it harder and harder to fulfill expensive campaign pledges. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Latin Americans are, once again, governed by leftist administrations. But the economic good times of the early 2000s are now history. In a region where the tragic sight of Venezuelan refugees begging in the streets is now commonplace from Mexico to Argentina, the significance of the new pink tide should not be overinterpreted—including its popularity, durability, or capacity for enacting structural reforms.
Simeon Tegel is a British journalist based in Lima, Peru. He regularly roams across Latin America, where he has lived for nearly two decades, and specializes in the environment, human rights, and democracy. His work has been widely published in numerous outlets, including the Washington Post, the Telegraph, the Independent, and USA Today.