The Ebb and Flow of the Pink Tide

October 12, 2016

The ‘pink tide’ refers to the group of progressive governments elected in Latin America in the first decade of the 21st century. But it is an odd metaphor to use about elections. With its sense of powerful forces moving across the landscape, it is descriptive of how these new governments came to power – carried into the state by mass mobilisations from below. The question, however, is how far and in what direction can these governments go in transforming the region?

The key thing, in my view, is that that is not a question for governments and presidencies only. This process began not with elections, but with a surge of popular resistance; its subjects were social movements. And it would be wrong to address this recent history as if that resistance movement was simply a prologue to elections, at which point the central role in the process of change was passed, in a smooth changeover, to the newly elected governments.

In a real sense, the arrival of Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and in a different sense (to which I’ll return) of Hugo Chávez to their respective presidential seats, was a victory for the movements. But it was also a crossroads. It was, of course, a historic moment in each case, and by any standards a massive step forward. In each case it was a cultural revolution, marking the inclusion of hitherto marginalized and excluded peoples and classes. In each case the new governments were committed to redressing the damage done in a decade of neo-liberal domination. But they represented the achievement of only some of the political and social objectives around which those movements had coalesced.

The next phase, therefore, could not be the demobilization of the mass organisations, the surrender of leadership to the new state regimes. Instead, it marked the beginning of a new stage in which each had to reconsider their mutual relationship, rearticulate their independent strategies and negotiate the way in which they might combine, or clash, in what Álvaro García Linera, the Bolivian vice-president and probably the most sophisticated analyst of this new stage, has called the “creative conflict of interests”.

It is worth emphasizing that the watchword of the emerging Latin American social movements, and perhaps their most significant gift to the global anti-capitalist movement that emerged under their aegis, was the emphasis on democracy as the antidote to neo-liberalism. The deeper meaning of that concept, however, was to be found in the organizational practice of the movements, enacting democracy as collective action. The popular democracy put into action for a few weeks by APPO (the People’s Assembly of Popular Organisations)  in Oaxaca in 2006, for example; the ‘cabildos abiertos’ at the heart of the indigenous insurrections in Bolivia in 2000 and 2003; the asambleas populares, however short-lived, in Argentina after the ‘argentinazo’ of 2001 and the factory occupations that ran in parallel with them; the internal organization of the Zapatista caracoles; and the popular resistance movement in Honduras after the U.S.-supported coup against Zelaya in 2009.


Engagement Outside the State 

This new mode of engagement took place outside the state, and outside the constraints of formal politics. Political parties of the left, who for the most part supported the new movements, were in very few cases participants, and where they were their role was certainly not a leadership one. This was a paradox. For the left the organizations of the working class are both the central instrument for the construction of worker’s power –the “self-emancipation of the working class”– and the foundation of the revolutionary party that will lead the struggle for the conquest of the state. The Zapatistas and many of the movements that followed illustrated their concept of democracy by withdrawing from the struggle for the state, and arguing for the creation of an alternative location of power. The indigenous movement laid enormous stress on the idea of ‘territorio’ which was at once a geographical, a social and a cultural space, where the governing ideology of ‘sarwak karsay’ (the good life) embraced both democracy, in a sense that could be understood by indigenous activists and Marxists alike, and an economic model of production for use, not to mention the implicit acknowledgment of environmentalism.

The issue of the state, however, was rarely addressed except in a negative sense. John Holloway’s Change the world without taking power (2002), speaking on behalf of the Zapatistas, identified them with their hostility to politics – in other words to a discussion about the real sites of power (as opposed to territories) and how they could be taken into democratic control. His ideas were extremely influential, both in Latin America and in the U.S. and Europe. They fitted with the spreading disillusionment with the political parties, social democratic and national-populist, who had universally buckled under the impact of neo-liberalism. His ideas found support and confirmation in the theories offered by Negri and Hardt in Empire (2000) and Multitude (2005) in which both the ruling and the exploited classes melted away into faceless and transitory collectives. Capitalism became the global miasma in which we all lived; the exploited ceased to be defined by their common class location and instead formed and reformed in unstable ‘multitudes’ which ‘swarmed’ (Negri’s word repeated by Holloway after Marcos) around the edges of an immovable global system.

The Latin American social movements, as ‘multitudes’, had ascribed to them the same autonomist attitudes. And this in turn affected the new states carried to power by their strength and militancy. Their assumption too was that the movements would be content to operate within constricted parameters and leave to the new governments the complex business of governing a nation of multiple interests. This was dramatically illustrated after the election of Evo Morales to the Bolivian presidency; when the constituent assembly to draw up the new constitution was organized, social movements were excluded from the election of delegates. Only political parties would be permitted to present candidates. And the organisations of the left, in general, have accepted that division – working undoubtedly to maintain the support of the majority through a genuine effort to achieve national control of national resources and allocating the income from those resources to social programmes which began to redress the devastating consequences of the neo-liberal decade.

This new politics of national development, national sovereignty and the creation of a new regional (Latin American) and international order, together with a cultural revolution that embraced some indigenous demands, was designated ‘Bolivarianism’. The term, of course, was first employed and given flesh by Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela. Chávez’s election in 1998 could be regarded as the first turning of the ‘pink tide’. His election came after a catastrophic decade in Venezuela which had driven down the living standards of the majority to the point where 65% of the population of the oil-rich country were living below poverty levels. This disastrous situation was accompanied by deepening levels of corruption among the two populist parties (Copei and AD) who had shared power for fifty years. Chávez was elected with a promise of ending corruption, bringing oil under governmental control and raising dramatically the royalties paid by oil companies in order to finance social programmes. Nationalisation was a longer term objective at that point. The new, Bolivarian constitution was passed a year later, amid a devastating mudslide that claimed tens of thousands of victims. But although there was significant support for Chávez (he won with 58% of the vote) he was not the direct beneficiary of the pink tide of social resistance. In a sense the entry of the masses on to the historical stage in Venezuela occurred in 2002, with the mass protests at the attempted coup in April that year and the sustained resistance to the right wing attempt to destroy the oil industry (the ‘bosses’ strike of December 2002 to February 2003). The radicalization the Bolivarian process began after that, with the organization of the Missions in parallel with the state, and the push to full nationalization of PDVSA, the national oil company.

The ‘pink tide’, however, was intensifying elsewhere – particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, but also with the actions of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) in Brazil. And it was within those movements that new organisations of mass democracy were emerging, and the overthrow of governments by direct confrontation was taking place. That ‘protagonism’ of the masses was far less independent in Venezuela, though it was in this period (2003-5), that the possibility of independent action at the grassroots seemed most likely, especially against the background of Chávez’s discourse of ‘popular power’.

There were in this period, therefore, two logics at work – the logic of a democratic revolution of the grassroots on the one hand, and the logic of an electoral road to government on the other. They were tactically connected, but strategically separate.

When the impulse from below carried into office new governments, the relationship between the two remained unclear –as the Bolivian example I mentioned earlier demonstrates. The first public declaration from the MST after Lula’s presidential victory in Brazil in 2002 was echoed in similar declarations from the indigenous movements in Bolivia after Evo’s election and the Ecuadorean indigenous organisations on a several occasions, but in particular after the election of Lucio Gutiérrez in 2003. In each case their support was enthusiastic but provisional, with a promise to monitor progress and act independently if the electoral promises were not fulfilled. Again Venezuela was different, in that the grass roots organisations had no independent expressions in common. The creation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) immediately after Chávez’s re-election in 2006 effectively absorbed the popular organisations that did exist and disarmed them. This was possible, of course, because of the mass support Chávez continued to enjoy; but in the longer term it deprived that mass support of any independent critical instruments.

The subsequent relationship between social movements and progressive governments is complex and problematic, and probably beyond the scope of this short piece to address. Whatever happened, it would necessarily be one of creative tension, as Linera recognizes. The problem, however, is that since the first era of election that relationship has become increasingly conflictive. The most extreme example is the criminalization of indigenous resistance by Rafael Correa in Ecuador, specifically in relation to the struggle of their organisations against the incursions of foreign mining and oil companies into their territories. The emblematic case of Tipnis, the construction of a highway through indigenous territories in Bolivia to provide easier access for mining and soya multinationals, is, of course, complex. But at its root it is a conflict of strategic priorities. The Morales government –which still enjoys massive support– is committed to the development of extractive and export industries which inescapably bring it into joint activities with the multinational companies who were the embodiment of neo-liberalism. In Peru Humala is engaged in identical conflicts.

The examples are legion.

One response to this situation is to argue that it is inescapable, for a period still undefined, as the new governments diversify their economies with the resources derived from extraction and export agriculture. The assumption in the continuing debate among Latin Americanists outside the region is that Venezuela still retains the leadership of the movement, even after Chávez’s premature death. But the reality is that the Chavista government is also increasingly confronting trade unionists and other resistance organisations as its economic crisis and the lack of any obvious solutions to it deepen its dependence on external forces, be it non-U.S.-based multinationals or the governments of Russia and China.

The opposite argument falls into what John Beverley calls the “ultra leftist category”, that tests the governments of the pink tide against a set of immovable and largely abstract criteria and (inevitably) finds them wanting. Their general analysis may well contain significant truths, but the problem is that they contribute very little to the internal debates that will shape the unfolding struggles of the near future.

Unfortunately, uncritical support for governments whose discourse grows increasingly distant from their practice contributes nothing other than a veil, and has little to offer either. So how might Latin Americanists with a serious commitment to a 21st century socialism –democratic, just and egalitarian– contribute to that future, however remote or immediate it might be. I believe the beginning of that contribution is to return to and re-examine the political content of the movements that changed the face of Latin America as the century began, and made a significant contribution to the arrival of anti-capitalist resistance in their turn.

Hal Draper analysed many years ago the dispute between the “two souls of socialism”. At the time it resonated with a very limited constituency on the left as the arguments about socialism and how to attain it revolved around the discussion about Stalinism and its supposed renovation in Cuba. But these were all examples of ‘socialism from above’ in which the real participation of the working class was minimal. The concept of “socialism from below” was never about the popularity of this or that representative, nor yet about support, electoral or otherwise, for them. It presumed a working class becoming the subject of its own liberation, and in doing so generating organs of power that would govern in new and profoundly democratic ways –be they soviets, workers councils, cordones, asambleas populares or whatever. In fact the movements of the 21st century in Latin America returned to those very issues in their practice, though their language derived from other traditions– katarismo, anarcho-syndicalism, zapatismo and so on. Western intellectuals celebrated, indeed sometimes lionized that difference, but reinforced the idea that this was a discourse that did not contain a strategy for taking power in a new and very different social order. The movements thus became marginalized from the political debate that addressed the nature of society as a whole. It is their absence that increasingly seems to have narrowed the discussions about the future to a realism devoid of the visionary content that characterized the greater tide of change, the real ‘pink tide’.



About Author(s)

Mike Gonzalez
I am Emeritus Professor of Latin American Studies at Glasgow University and currently (Fall 2014) Visiting Professor in the Spanish Department at the University of Pittsburgh. My published work has been in the culture, politics and history of Latin America, most recently Hugo Chávez, socialist for the 21st century (2014) and Arms and the people (2013). I was coeditor with Daniel Balderston and Ana María López of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Contemporary Latin Amderican and Caribbean Cultures. Earlier writing includes Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (2006).