Seeking red in the pink

A new survey of the leftward drift across Latin America urges analytical caution in understanding this as the so-called ‘pink tide’


Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy
Edited by Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam
2009, Zed Books
263 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IF EVER there was an example of the need for caution in describing Latin America’s leftward drift as a tidal wave, it is the case of Honduras, whose ousted president Manuel Zelaya has exploited the theme of continental drift in his so far ineffective response to the coup that ousted him in June.

That the Honduran military is deeply unpleasant and has long had close links with the US armed forces and the CIA is beyond doubt, that the Obama administration in the US has responded ambivalently to the putsch, and that Honduras more than deserves a strong, leftwing democratic government, is beyond doubt.

But as Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam point out in Reclaiming Latin America, Zelaya is far from being part of any pink tide, leading only the less conservative of two longstanding parties in a political system in which leftwingers won only 2.5 per cent of the vote in 2005.

Zelaya’s ability to portray himself as the wounded warrior of the left – and hence to shore up his damaged political image with sideswipes at Washington’s lukewarm response to the coup, reflects well the need for caution that Lievesley and Ludlam draw attention to when assessing both the rise of the left and its prospects.

Zelaya was taken from his home at gunpoint by soldiers and flown into exile on 28 June after months of pushing for a constitutional referendum that Honduras’s courts and Congress had deemed illegal.

He steadfastly denies it, but many suspected the referendum was an attempt to remain in power after his term ends in January. It was almost reasonable, measured even, for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe his symbolic stunt passing from Nicaragua into Honduras last week as “reckless”.

Yet Zelaya has been successfully able to press buttons that can be used to switch on the visceral reactions of less-discriminating supporters of the left precisely because of the misconceptions nurtured by the rise of a progressive alternative in Latin America. By keeping one eye so closely on what Washington is, or is not, doing for him, he reveals just how important his northern neighbour remains to the country, and how ultimately his fate is likely to be determined in talks between Tegucigalpa and the US capitol.

Reclaiming Latin America is a worthy and timely reality check. The editors write:

“Not only journalistic and right-wing accounts, but also some left-wing analyses which over-romanticize developments, have presented the ‘pink tide’ as if the whole continent were marching leftwards in close order. This is mistaken.” [p. 3]

Electoral gains can be reversed, governments on the left have different histories and ambitions, presidential majorities may be constrained by legislative minorities, and the policy constraints within which left-of-centre administrations act vary considerably.

Foreign policy perceptions

One of the principal sources of the image of a “pink tide” across the region has been the perception of shifts towards a more independent foreign policy, particularly one that offers the “Bolivarian” vision of Latin American unity associated with Venezuela’s leader Hugo Chávez. A potent source of the perception of a pink tide derives from the notion of a new continentalism that derailed the US free trade agenda in the region.

Yet the editors point to the significant differences that exist between left-of-centre administrations – not least those that are reformist through market-led growth versus those that continue neoliberal policies while paying some lip service to social justice, as well as problems and inconsistencies with some of the influential typologies that have been advanced with which to classify the new administrations. They seek explanations for what has happened in historical and often case-specific trends.

They have ensured that Brazil and Venezuela have been given careful attention within the overall comparative analysis, writing:

“… these are arguably the most important ‘pink tide’ states. They also represent exactly the kind of differences in economic and political strategy that demonstrate the limitations of the ‘pink tide’ analogy.” [p. 18]

Lievesley analyses the emergence of the left with a theoretically informed discussion of classical revolutionary/reformist socialist debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – Lenin and Luxemburg’s critiques of Kautsky and of Eduard Bernstein’s model of evolutionary socialism. The key question she addresses when examining recent developments is, therefore, a longstanding one: whether radical social reform can be implemented through taking state power, inheriting old institutions, and then transforming them in the effort to foster greater social justice.

In a fascinating chapter, Francisco Dominguez explores the Latin Americanisation of politics in the region with the emergence of political movements – from the Zapatistas in Mexico to Bolivarian discourses in Venezuela – seeking legitimacy in a radical reinterpretation of history.

But it is in their conclusion that the editors return to what is probably the most pertinent theme in any study of the fate of the left in Latin America: US foreign policy, and at this particular juncture, the possibilities offered by the Obama presidency. They point out that Democratic presidents have in the past pursued foreign policies that outdo the right, and that Obama’s initial hints about a progressive policy in the region were soon reversed on the campaign trail. They write:

“Democratic presidents are known for their pursuit of illiberal foreign policies, whether it be Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which for all the ‘development speak’ was really an all-out effort to prevent structural change and also empowered the military to unleash massive repression in the dark years of dictatorship; or the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961; or Jimmy Carter’s refusal to even acknowledge Archbishop Oscar Romero’s plea for the USA to stop selling arms to the Salvadorean military in 1979. So Obama’s window on the world is not an original one, and may perpetuate the historical antagonism between the USA and much of Latin America.” [p. 219]

It is also possible, they stress, that the Obama presidency will break with tradition and try to create a new relationship with Latin America based on multilateralism. The signs so far on Cuba and Honduras are that there is no concrete evidence of this, and the tensions between the key player in the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) bloc, namely Venezuela, with its continental aspirations, have yet to play out.

Either way, as the editors point out, Latin America’s leftward drift poses new questions not only about the region’s relationship with the US, but also about socialism itself. The editors suggest that the socialism as pursued by ALBA leaders looks a lot like the democratic reformist socialism of mid-twentieth century Europe, despite some key differences.

“In other words we may be witnessing in Latin America the revival of the socialism that rejected the revolutionary method in favour of reforming capitalism into socialism by winning elections and wielding state power.” [p. 227]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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