As the dust settled on Jair Bolsonaro’s seismic victory in Brazil back in 2018, one might have spared a thought for those dedicated to the cause of international socialism. Having bathed in the glory of the so-called “Pink Tide” and the commodities boom of the early 2000s that allowed socialist governments such as Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela to seemingly prosper, any hopes that Latin America would forever unify in the cause of left-wing anti-imperialism seemed well and truly dashed.
In many of the continent’s wealthiest countries, right-of-center politicians had swept to power with a view to restoring their nation’s former glory. These included Bolsonaro in Brazil, Sebastian Piñera in Chile, Ivan Duque in Colombia, and Mauricio Macri in Argentina, among others. Even in Bolivia, a conservative insurgent managed to displace Evo Morales’s authoritarian regime, albeit for just under a year. With Donald Trump ruling the White House, working to free Cuba and Venezuela from tyranny and increasing his sway with Hispanic voters, the promise of Latin American freedom looked greater than ever.
Yet fast forward a few years and that promise lies in tatters. All of these right-leaning leaders have been replaced by left-wing extremists ranging from a schoolteacher to a former guerrilla terrorist. The so-called Pink Tide has come back in.
The most distant of these electoral defeats took place in 2018 in Argentina, when left-wing technocrat Alberto Fernandez defeated Mauricio Macri, making him the first incumbent ever to lose his bid for re-election. Argentina has long been an economic basket case, a trend he was unable to reverse due to an unwillingness to embrace the austerity measures required to get the country’s finances back in order. As the Argentinian people suffered, they returned to Kirchnerismo, a brand of left-wing populism popularized by the late Nestor Kirchner and his widow Cristina, who now holds the position of vice president. This, of course, has done nothing to ease the pain: the Argentinian peso has lost over 90 percent of its value since his election, while only a $44.5 billion dollar debt restructuring deal with the IMF saved the government from defaulting.
It was not, however, until 2020 that the tide began to shift decisively to the left. After a disappointing second term in office in which he agreed to throw out the Pinochet-era constitution that had cemented Chile’s status as the continent’s most prosperous nation, the country’s billionaire leader Sebastian Piñera exited office with the left very much ascendant. The presidential election presented voters with a stark choice: Jose Antonio Kast, a hardline conservative of similar ilk to Bolsonaro, or Gabriel Boric, an inexperienced 35-year-old former student leader belonging to the radical left. After Chileans learned of Kast’s father’s links to Nazism and deemed Kast a throwback to the Pinochet years, Boric ended up scoring a decisive victory. The most notable aspect of Boric’s tenure so far has been his attempt to draft his own “progressive” constitution, although his proposal was overwhelmingly struck down by voters in a national plebiscite.
The next body blow came in Peru, where the former teacher and openly Marxist-Leninist Pedro Castillo squeaked past his right-wing opponent Keiko Fujimori by a fraction of a percent. Unlike Boric, Castillo was not a social progressive. He holds hardline positions on abortion and homosexuality that have won him admiration from the likes of Bolsonaro. Yet as a leader who has more in common with Mao Tse-tung than Bernie Sanders, Castillo presented a unique threat to what was once one of the region’s most stable democracies. In November 2022, Castillo staged an unsuccessful coup d’etat in which he attempted to dissolve the country’s Congress, install an emergency government, and rule by decree. Although Castillo is languishing in a military jail, his almost equally radical deputy, Dina Boluarte, must now see out his term.
Perhaps the most significant setback for Latin American freedom took place last June in Colombia, a country famously hostile to the radical left as a result of its long-running civil war with the terror organization Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombian politics have long been determined by the success of military operations against la guerilla, yet in a country where most groups have now laid down their arms, the issue of rampant inequality has come sharply into focus. This paved the way for Gustavo Petro, a former terrorist turned mayor of Bogotá, to narrowly triumph against an eccentric 82-year-old businessman, Rodolfo Hernandez. Petro has pledged to reduce inequality in a country where 40 percent of people live below the poverty line, yet the falling value of the currency has already made that unlikely.
Finally, there is Brazil, which changed hands earlier this month after former president and convicted felon Lula Da Silva scraped past the incumbent Bolsonaro in a bitterly fought election. Lula has promised a return to “normality” after the tumultuous Bolsonaro years, although his hard-left worldview is unlikely to satisfy vast swathes of a vast country. Brazil’s political climate has remarkable similarities with the US, particularly following the recent riot by Bolsonaro supporters in the Brazilian Congress, echoing the January 6 Capitol riot two years earlier. Similar to Biden, Lula immediately pledged to crack down on the “fascists and fanatics” responsible, a promise that may well define his presidency.
Yet the greatest tragedy in recent years has been the consolidation of power in Latin America’s own axis of evil: Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. While Venezuela once appeared on the brink of collapse, support from Putin’s Russia and a willingness to liberalize parts of the economy has allowed Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship to cement its iron grip on what was once the continent’s most prosperous nation. A similar story is playing out in Nicaragua, where former Sandinista Daniel Ortega has transformed the country from a quasi-democracy into a full-blown dictatorship. Things are similarly bleak in Cuba, although optimists say the “drip-drip” of outside influence may eventually prove fatal for the Castro regime as Cubans yearn for the luxuries of the developed world. Meanwhile, the US continues to pay the price as it’s swarmed by millions of migrants, the majority of whom seek refuge from the three countries in the axis of evil.
The immediate future for Latin American conservatism may look bleak, but it is not a lost cause. Right-of-center, fiscally responsible leaders do reign in smaller countries such as Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay. Meanwhile, powerful grassroots movements gather on social media, allowing younger, more dynamic voices to emerge. This is to some extent exemplified by the expansion of CPAC conferences in Mexico and Brazil, both of which were said to be roaring successes. One of the most exciting campaigns right now is in Argentina, where a highly eccentric, self-described “anarcho-capitalist” and economics professor named Javier Milei, known by the nickname El Peluca (The Wig, a reference to his outlandish hair), is seen as the leading candidate in this year’s presidential election. A December study by the Mendoza-based polling firm Reale Dalla Torre Consultores found that voters consider Milei the “lesser evil.”
Yet it remains the case that with the exception of Argentina, Latin America is currently led by leftist leaders who remain in the early stages of their tenures. For those who believe in freedom and limited government, this is a worrying development. Perhaps the only thing we can say for certain is that there will be a lot more hardship to come.