Last December’s election of Sebastián Piñera, of the National Renewal party, to the Chilean presidency was doubly significant for Latin American politics. Coming on the heels of the rise of right-wing governments in Argentina in 2015 and Brazil in 2016, Piñera’s victory signaled an unmistakable right-wing turn for the region. For the first time since the 1980s, when much of South America was governed by military dictatorship, the continent’s three leading economies are in the hands of right-wing leaders.
Piñera’s election also dealt a blow to the resurrection of the Latin American left in the post–Cold War era. In the mid-2000s, at the peak of the so-called Pink Tide (a phrase meant to suggest the surge of leftist, noncommunist governments), Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia, or three-quarters of South America’s population (some 350 million people), were under left-wing rule. By the time the Pink Tide reached the mini-state of Mexico City, in 2006, and Nicaragua, a year later (culminating in the election of Daniel Ortega as president there), it was a region-wide phenomenon.
It’s no mystery why the Pink Tide ran out of steam; even before the Chilean election, Mexican political scientist Jorge Castañeda had already declared it dead in The New York Times. Left-wing fatigue is an obvious factor. It has been two decades since the late Hugo Chávez launched the Pink Tide by toppling the political establishment in the 1998 Venezuelan presidential election. His Bolivarian revolution lives on in the hands of his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, but few Latin American governments regard Venezuela’s ravaged economy and diminished democratic institutions as an inspiring model. In Brazil, the Workers’ Party, or PT, was in power for 14 years, from 2002 through 2016, first under its founder, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, between 2003 and 2011, and then under his successor and protégée, Dilma Rousseff, from 2011 to 2016. The husband-and-wife team of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of the Peronist Party governed Argentina from 2003 to 2015. Socialist Michelle Bachelet had two nonconsecutive terms in office in Chile, from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018.
Economic turmoil and discontent is another culprit. As fate would have it, the Pink Tide coincided with one of the biggest economic expansions in Latin American history. Its engine was one of the largest commodities booms in modern times. Once the boom ended, in 2012—largely a consequence of a slowdown in China’s economy—economic growth in Latin America screeched to a halt. According to the International Monetary Fund, since 2012 every major Latin American economy has underperformed relative to the previous 10 years, with some economies, including that of Brazil, the region’s powerhouse, experiencing their worst recession in decades. The downturn reined in public spending and sent the masses into the streets, making it very difficult for governments to hang on to power.