By Ali Siddiqi
On December 19th, 2021, leftist candidate Gabriel Boric defeated the conservative candidate José Antonio Kast in the second round of the Chilean presidential election becoming the youngest president in Chile's history and its first left-wing president in over eight years. Boric’s election follows a trend of left-wing electoral victories encompassing Latin America over the past four years. Leftist or socialist leaders have won elections in Mexico, Honduras, Peru, and Argentina in a challenge to the region’s conservative establishment. With elections upcoming in Colombia and Brazil that carry a likelihood of left-wing candidates winning there, it is imperative that foreign policy analysts understand the implications of this left-wing resurgence in Latin America, both in terms of how it affects the region, and the world.
It is important to note that the left-wing resurgence in the region is not unprecedented with a similar wave occurring in the twenty-first century. Throughout its contemporary history, virtually all Latin American countries had at least one experience with a United States-supported dictator that combated communist and left-wing political movements through harsh measures and human rights violations. When democratization processes occurred within the region in the aftermath of the Cold War, it opened up possibilities for the left to ascend to power. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the geopolitical environment as many revolutionary movements vanished and the left-wing parties embraced the core tenets of capitalism. As a result, the United States no longer perceived leftist governments as a security threat, creating a political opening for the left. Consequently, leftist politicians such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Lula da Silva of Brazil were elected on a campaign of economic and social reform. Leftist governments in Latin America nationalized their economic industries, implemented environmental protection laws, and expanded the welfare state lifting millions out of poverty. However, these leftist governments also pursued unsustainable policies, creating economic crises during the mid-2010s that led to high unemployment rates, inflation rates, and governmental corruption. In addition, some pink tide governments, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, allegedly ignored international sanctions against Iran, allowing the Iranian government access to funds bypassing sanctions as well as resources such as uranium for the Iranian nuclear program.
Subsequently, during the mid-2010s, frustration with these economic policies coupled with widespread allegation of governmental corruption led to a resurgence of conservative parties dominating the region. The pendulum swing in right-wing politics in the region led to the election of conservative presidents in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil. In the case of Brazil, the Petrobras scandal and the subsequent impeachment and removal of center-left President Dilma Rouseff, the legacy of which contributed to the 2018 election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. However, since 2018 with the election of Mexico’s left-wing President Obrador, there has been a resurgence of left-wing presidencies. The resurgence could be attributed to the unpopular austerity measures and income inequality that has persisted within Latin America since the mid-2010s, with the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating it.
The resurgence of the pink tide could alter the geopolitical landscape of Latin America. Economically, these new leftist governments could help reduce economic inequality and implement measures to increase environmental protections and guarantee the rights of its indeginous population. However, many of these newly-elected presidents have not adequately addressed how they will pay for their measures with them risking expanding Latin America’s crippling deficit and debt situation. Geopolitically, the pink tide could help foster Latin American unity and might enable closer relations with the U.S. but simultaneously also risk closer relations with China, a communist one-party state. Indeed, some leaders such as Bolivia’s Luis Acre praise China for its role in combating imperialism worldwide, and many other leaders have criticized the U.S. for its role in aiding and assisting right-wing military juntas throughout the region during the Cold War.
One interesting facet of this left-wing phenomenon is the role of the United States and neoliberalism in the region. While it was outlined earlier the recent pivot towards China in some nations, Other nations still maintain their neoliberal economies and close ties with the United States. One example is the Presidency of Xiomara Castro of Honduras in which despite her leftist political views and policies, has maintained a close relationship with the United States. Remarkably, she has refused to budge on Honduras’ recognition of Taiwan as the legitimate government of the Chinese mainland and was one of the first foreign leaders that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met in her visit to the Central American countries. In essence, while U.S. policymakers' fears about a left-wing Latin America should not be invalidated, it should not generalize every left-wing politician or leader as one willing to cozy up to the Chinese Communist Party.
Therefore, it is vital and crucial to not overlook the recent political developments in Latin America. If this left-wing trend continues to hold and solidify its control over the region, then there is a real possibility that Latin American unity can be achieved by fulfilling the dream of late revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar. In addition, it could serve as a vessel to reduce economic inequality and poverty within the region. However, it might also trigger an expansion of the region’s expenditure rate causing massive economic uncertainty and pull the region closer to China’s sphere of influence through its Belt and Road Initiative program. Often, the consequences of elections are overlooked, especially in the Latin American region, but if the world fails to recognize this trend, it will miss out on the opportunity to not only negotiate the improvement of a singular country, but rather an entire continent.