The US cannot ignore the new ‘pink tide’ in Latin America

The return of leftist governments in the region is a clear indication of region-wide rejection of US policies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Uruguayan Luis Almagro, attend the Ministerial Meeting of the Summit Implementation Review Group during the 52nd General Assembly of the OAS in Lima, Peru on October 6, 2022. Cris BOURONCLE/Pool via REUTERS
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Uruguayan Luis Almagro, attend the 52nd General Assembly of the OAS in Lima, Peru on October 6, 2022 [Reuters/Cris Bouroncle]

Latin America is changing. Throughout the region right-wing governments, firmly established for almost two decades, have been replaced by socialist and social democratic ones in the last four years.

Gustavo Petro, a former member of the 19th of April Movement armed group, was elected president of Colombia in June this year. Gabriel Boric, the most left-wing president of Chile in almost 50 years, won the presidential vote in December 2021; a month earlier, leftist politician Xiomara Castro won in Honduras, 12 years after her husband, Manuel Zelaya, was removed from his post as president in a military coup.

In Peru, Pedro Castillo, a teacher and a union leader, won the presidency in June 2021 and in Bolivia, Luis Arce of the Movement to Socialism party was elected president in 2020. In 2019, Alberto Fernández supported by a left-leaning coalition of parties defeated incumbent right-wing President Mauricio Macri in Argentina. A year earlier, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) scored a landslide victory in the Mexican general elections.

Potentially the most important change will take place on October 30, when left-wing Lula da Silva, leader of the Workers’ Party (PT), is hoping for a victory in the Brazilian run-off election. In the first round, Lula won 48 percent of the vote, with incumbent right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro coming second with 43 percent.

For some observers, this new wave is the continuation of the “pink tide” of leftist governments that swept into power in the 1990s. At that time, left-wing leaders condemned neoliberal policies as well as the resulting inequalities and social exclusion, political corruption and foreign dominance over national economies. In the 2010s, they were voted out of office, after a drop in the price of export commodities impeded their ability to resolve deeply-rooted inequities.

Leftist governments have now made a comeback because the right-wing governments that took over from them – largely supported by the US – failed to appreciate the tides of popular frustration. The new generation of regional political leaders rejects the traditional US role in the region, but it also has other interests.

It focuses more on environmental and gender issues, is less interested in a continental identity, ardently pursues social justice matters, and in post-Covid times is increasingly concerned with public health. It is not afraid of being seen as harbouring leftist ideals – indeed, it seeks to channel the frustration of its electorate into new forms of governance. It is also learning to live with foreign investment, but increasingly from China and not the US.

Take Chile’s Boric, for example. He has tried to maintain good relations with Cuba and Venezuela but has also condemned human rights abuses in both countries. At home, he has emphasised the need for constitutional reform to address socioeconomic and political inequalities and strengthen protections for the rights of the Indigenous population. He has also embraced feminist policies, appointing women in 14 out of 24 ministerial positions.

In Mexico, too, AMLO, the first left-wing president there in three decades, has pursued divergent policies. He has maintained good relations with Venezuela and Cuba, calling for the end of the trade embargo on Havana, but he has also kept close ties with the US. He has undertaken sweeping changes in Mexico, attacking corruption, condemning human rights abuses, reducing inequality, and protecting workers’ rights.

Clearly, Latin America is changing, but Washington seems blind to the extent of this change. In 2019, US President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton declared the return of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, according to which the US claimed Latin America as its own backyard and warned all foreign powers to stay away. He had, however, clearly misread the continent-wide rejection of his ideas.

After Joe Biden took office in Washington, the US policy towards the region continued to be misguided. The Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles in June 2022, deliberately excluded what Bolton had termed the “troika of tyranny” – Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This brought waves of criticism. Several Latin American leaders led by Mexico’s president declined to attend, while others used the opportunity to condemn US policy in the region.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to South America was an exercise in damage control, and was partially successful in showing Washington’s awareness of the clear leftward tilt of the region. He visited Colombia, Chile and Peru, where US commercial interests are losing out to Chinese competition.

He also attended the 52nd General Assembly of Organization of American States (OAS) in Lima, where debates revealed disenchantment with US policy. During the proceedings, 19 out of 35 member nations voted in favour of removing the OAS envoy of the US-backed Venezuelan opposition; they were short of just five votes to carry this out.

Despite committing to provide $240m in humanitarian assistance to refugees in the region, the US role in the OAS is clearly on the decline. Washington pays more than 50 percent of the Organization’s annual budget but has a lot to learn about new directions in the region.

For far too long Washington has backed the wrong players in the region – authoritarian military men and wealthy businessmen, many educated or trained in the US. For far too long, US governments have not understood that civil society is demanding change in Latin America, which has meant the departure of US favourites.

They have condemned human rights abuses and corruption in some countries and ignored such issues in those led by US allies. They have turned a blind eye to poverty rising, elites becoming wealthier and protests against injustice being quashed with violence.

This needs to change. In essence, Washington has to recognise the real aspirations of Latin Americans and stop playing favourites and showing selective indignation.

Latin America is open to dialogue with the US, but this has to be a respectful exchange of opinions, not a top-down lecture. It is time for a recalibration of prevailing ideas about the region, for a policy of pragmatism and constructive engagement.

Specific goals can, and should, be set. For example, support for the Petro government’s peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) armed group in Colombia should be clearly demonstrated. Washington should return to the Obama playbook and improve relations with Cuba, a small country with major political influence in the region. The US government can also reach out to newly elected leftist leaders in the region to help find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela.

Washington should also focus on the two leaders of the region, Mexico and Brazil. The litmus test of US interest will soon come with the election run-off in Brazil and Washington should make clear that it will not accept military involvement if Bolsonaro – the self-styled “Trump of the Tropics” – loses.

Indeed, it is time for the US to recognise that Latin America is being transformed, and the leftist activism of the 2020s represents a clear rejection of the policies of recent decades. It is the only way for it to have a meaningful relationship with the region and stay a relevant player within it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.