How left-wing forces are regaining ground in Latin America

As progressives win key elections from Honduras to Peru, analysts point to changing regional dynamics.

Supporters of left-wing Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro celebrate her victory on December 4 in the capital Tegucigalpa. Castro is part of a wave of new left-wing leaders reshaping Latin America, according to analysts [Fredy Rodriguez/Reuters]

Latin America’s political left is making a resurgence, analysts have said, as hunger and poverty rise across a region hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Honduras is the latest country to vote out a long-serving right-wing government. Xiomara Castro, the country’s first female president, won the November election with a promise to “pull Honduras out of the abyss” of a “narco-dictatorship and corruption”.

Castro’s husband, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a US-supported coup in 2009 during the tail end of the last wave of socialist governments in Latin America a decade ago – a period dubbed “the pink tide” by analysts.

Known for his cowboy hats and thick moustache, Zelaya was part of the trend encompassing Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa – macho leaders eager to leverage natural-resource wealth in the name of reducing inequality and fostering social programmes.

Castro’s win, in a sense, heralds a broader shift across the region as a new generation of left-wingers gain ground, said John Cavanagh, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

“What we have seen in the last five years is a progressive tide, but I wouldn’t call it ‘pink’. ‘Pink’ refers to a traditional type of socialism; what’s emerging here is different,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s more nuanced, less macho and more inclined for young voters who care about the environment … There are more green and more feminist currents in these movements.”

There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to the region’s leftward tilt.

Ecuador, for instance, elected conservative banker Guillermo Lasso as president in April. But analysts across the political spectrum agreed change is happening.

‘Millennial left’

According to a November research note issued by the Dutch multinational bank ING, “Latin American politics has already seen a decisive shift to the left in 2021 and it is not over yet.”

The analysis pointed to 2022 as a “big political year” for the region, highlighting upcoming elections in Colombia and Brazil. “Right-wing incumbents look vulnerable,” the bank noted.

Along with Honduras, 2021 saw Pedro Castillo narrowly win the presidency in Peru. Previously unknown to many voters, the former rural teacher pledged to better share the country’s vast mineral wealth and take more royalties from mining companies he accused of “plundering” the Andean nation. His popularity has, however, taken a hit amid recent corruption allegations.

In Chile, traditionally one of the region’s most stable and wealthy countries, 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, a former student protest leader, held a polling lead over his far-right rival before a runoff presidential vote set for December 19.

Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, of the left-wing coalition ‘Apruebo Dignidad’ (I Approve Dignity), holds a polling lead ahead of a December 19 runoff [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Boric, who is campaigning to reduce inequality and tackle climate change, is a prime example of what Valeria Vasquez, a Mexico City-based analyst with the consultancy firm Control Risks, dubs the “millennial left”.

“This new millennial left has the base of the old forces,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to left-wing movements such as trade unions and socialist political parties. “They are starting to build around that historical base, using other mechanisms, governance via Twitter, for example, to help to gain power.”

Building on that older base with social media will be key for the biggest prize of all: Brazil’s election next year.

Likely pitting the incumbent, far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, against former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the contest will offer voters in Latin America’s most populous nation a stark choice.

“The common dynamic between Chile and Brazil: We see mass movements of people rising up to reclaim their democracies and constitutions,” David Adler, a Mexico City-based coordinator with the Progressive International advocacy network, told Al Jazeera. “In both cases, we see candidates of reaction threatening to repress those movements.”

Parts of the old guard remain on stage

Yet, even as a new group of left-wing politicians gain ground, some remnants of the old guard of Cold War-style authoritarians have not fully left the stage.

In Nicaragua, 76-year-old Daniel Ortega secured a fourth consecutive term in November in an election many observers criticised as neither free nor fair.

Ortega battled the Somoza dictatorship with the Sandinista rebels through the 1970s, but today has allied himself with conservative elements in the powerful Catholic Church, backed a total ban on abortion and jailed political opponents, including some of his old Sandinista comrades. Ortega paints his opponents as gringo stooges who would sell the country out to the US.

In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has presided over the western hemisphere’s worst refugee crisis, forcing 5.9 million people to flee the oil-rich country in search of food and security, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

According to Cavanagh, no one in the region’s emerging left is campaigning to govern in the model of Maduro or Ortega.

Part of what ended the last pink tide was a big drop in commodity prices starting in mid-2014, analysts said. Left-wing governments in places such as Brazil and Ecuador had tied their policies and economic models to the extraction of natural resources. When prices dropped, economies contracted, and angry voters blamed incumbents.

“In the past pink tide, natural resources were more important,” Vasquez said, adding that while they still matter to the new crop of left-wingers, they are less of a focus.

Standard electoral cycles, where voters get tired of one party or ideology and vote for their opponents, also likely played a role in the region’s rightward drift several years ago, analysts said. But as the political pendulum swings back to the left, observers far beyond the region are watching as the new dynamics unfold.

“Latin America is so influential in the imagination of progressives around the world, going back to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara,” Cavanagh said. “There is a rising green tide in Latin America that has met the pink tide. It will be a bit different in every country, but it will be interesting to see what emerges.”

Source: Al Jazeera