Latin America is turning socialist and nobody is paying attention. Hyperbole? Maybe. But recent developments and upcoming elections should worry anyone who cares about America’s neighbors to the south and what a new “pink tide” in the region could mean for the U.S. and American foreign policy.
The danger is real. “The US worries more about Kabul 7,000 miles away than about Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua that are in their own backyard,” Diego Arria, the Venezuelan politician and diplomat who served as president of the U.N. Security Council, told me. “With ties to terrorists, some of these countries can be just as threatening to the U.S. and they are much closer.”
Also, America’s backyard is rapidly changing in ways that bring multi-faceted threats to U.S. homeland security.
Let's start with Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega has arrested six of his presumptive challengers in the November presidential election and jailed dozens of opposition figures. He’s even imprisoned some of his Sandinista comrades from the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1970s. Latin America has not seen such a brazen crackdown on political opponents in almost half a century outside of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela or Communist Cuba.
Ironically, Ortega has become a leftist version of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the totalitarian dictator he fought to overthrow as a guerilla fighter. Taking his authoritarianism to new extremes, Ortega has systematically dismantled Nicaragua’s democracy.
However, Latin America’s leftward shift goes far beyond what former National Security Advisor John Bolton called the “troika of tyranny”: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
Schoolteacher Pedro Castillo of the openly Marxist Free Peru party won a runoff presidential election in June by a razor-thin margin and was finally declared the winner six weeks later.
When Castillo takes over, the fifth-most-populous country in Latin America and a strong U.S. partner will have its first left-wing government in three decades.
A Castillo-led Peru would accelerate the new “pink tide” that threatens to take over the region.
The first “pink tide” was a wave of electoral victories at the turn of century that marked a sharp shift toward the left in much of Latin America. The color pink illustrates how the region’s left-wing governments were less extreme than communism’s red.
However, a conservative wave in the 2010s reversed the socialist trend and likely led to complacency in Washington D.C.’s corridors of power. Now, suddenly, the region’s biggest and most powerful countries are turning left again and becoming increasingly anti-American.
Next door to Peru, Brazil, the region’s most populous country, may also be on the verge of a leftward shift. The country’s Supreme Court annulled the corruption convictions of former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which will allow him to run for Brazil’s top office. Poll after poll shows Lula handily beating President Jair Bolsonaro, a pal of former President Trump.
Mexico elected its first leftist president in seven decades in 2018. Andrés Manuel López Obrador has governed the region’s second-most-populous country as a pragmatic populist who rails against big business, elites, and occasionally the U.S., but is somewhat less of a socialist firebrand than his rhetoric would suggest.
Colombia has never had a socialist leader, but Gustavo Petro is currently the favorite in next year’s presidential election. The former guerrilla and M-19 revolutionary leads the Humane Colombia political party, which describes its ideology as democratic socialist and anti-imperialist.
Argentina returned to left-of-center government with the election in 2019 of Alberto Fernández. He was supported by the Frente de Todos coalition of Peronist, Kirchnerist, socialist, and communist political parties.
Chile just elected a constitutional assembly that’s markedly left-wing. Polls show a communist, Daniel Jadue, as the favorite to win the November presidential election.
The result is that less than a year from now the region’s seven-most-populous countries (Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile) may likely be governed by left-leaning leaders. Add in just Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua and about 550 million people, more than 80% of the region’s population, could live in countries not inclined to be friendly to the U.S.
The maps below represent the ebb and flow of the political tides in Latin America. In 2011, the pink tide was at its high, as indicated by the countries colored in red, all with left-of-center governments. In 2018, the more conservative wave colored many countries blue. If a new pink wave fully materializes, by May of 2022, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Chile may also be colored red, indicating an unprecedented control of the region by leftist governments.
Why is this happening? Certainly, the failure of the region’s governments to effectively combat the coronavirus epidemic created conditions that made the ground fertile for change.
But, as usual, “it’s the economy, stupid.” “Economies in Latin America had stagnated and the pandemic hit them while they were down,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “Economists believe it will take until 2023 for the region to return to 2019 G.D.P. levels. That sounds bad enough, but it’s much worse when you realize that 2019 levels were terrible and badly lagged global peers.”
So, some may ask, why does a new pink tide in the region matter to the U.S?
At the extreme, countries such as Venezuela have become supporters of terrorist groups and other enemies of the U.S.
Hostile regimes that view the U.S. as an imperialist power often cease to cooperate with important American objectives like drug interdiction. Venezuela, the worst offender, has even become a hub of organized crime and an active narco-trafficker. An estimated 5-6 million Venezuelans have fled the human rights abuses and economic chaos in their homeland, many to the U.S.
Farnsworth also pointed out that Americans “need to know that what happens in Latin America will have direct consequences for them on migration, health, and even climate change. A Latin America that looks more to Chinese investing will take away opportunities from U.S. investors and bring Chinese values to the region instead of democratic values.”
One painful example at the Organization of American States proved the point. Argentina and Mexico couldn’t even vote in favor of a resolution condemning Ortega’s outrageous human rights violations in Nicaragua. Clearly, supporting fellow travelers takes precedence over their commitment to democracy.
What can be done?
Arria argues that the U.S needs to project soft power more aggressively, something that neither Presidents Trump nor Biden have done. He believes the U.S. must use “all its talents, not just the military” to broadly engage the region with “interlocutors” at all levels of Latin American society, including arts, education, unions, agriculture, and business.
Farnsworth agrees that the U.S. has not achieved the desired results in its outreach, walking away from the development agenda for the region. He also thinks the U.S. can provide solutions to help Latin America address the huge challenges it faces on the health and economic fronts.
His fear, and mine, is that the U.S. is missing that opportunity.
We ignore Latin America at our own peril.
Picture credit: Creative Commons, 38th Anniversary of Sandinista Revolution, 2017