The right’s resurgence in Latin America has led to declarations of a new political order in the region, but while the left has made mistakes it is not yet defeated.

On being sworn into power on 15 January 2007, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa proclaimed that ‘Latin America is not living through an era of change, it is living through a genuine change of eras.’ His enthusiasm was shared by many, and with good reason: after years of intense social struggles from below against rightwing neoliberal governments, new left forces were winning election after election across the region.

Correa’s election came almost ten years after Hugo Chávez, a leftwing military officer elected on a promise to end poverty by giving power to the people, kicked off the trend in 1998. A decade later, Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ – a commonly used phrase that grouped together all regional progressive governments, irrespective of differences – had swept left presidents into power, including in most South American countries bar Colombia and Peru.

More importantly, real change was evident. Alongside dramatic improvements in social indicators, key demands of the social movements were being implemented: the US-pushed Free Trade of the Americas Agreement was defeated, control over natural resources was recovered and new constitutions enshrining a range of hard-won rights were adopted in a number of countries.

Fast forward to 2016, however, and the region looks very different. The past year has seen the left lose a string of elections, and in some cases governmental power. In addition, dubious judicial processes have been used by the right in Brazil and Paraguay to impeach those they could not beat at the ballot box. Overall, rightwing forces have taken the political initiative and in some cases even taken over the streets, a terrain the left traditionally viewed as its exclusive purview. Corruption scandals have plagued leftwing parties, particularly in Brazil and Chile, while important sectors of their social base have taken to the streets, decrying that, in power, the left has lost its way or worse, become indistinguishable from the right.

This situation has led many to ask: has the pink tide reached the end of its cycle? And if so, what lessons can be taken from this shift? Discussing these issues necessitates drawing up a balance sheet of the last two decades. It is therefore worth looking at what this ‘change of era’ entails in order to come to grips with the challenges facing a Latin American left that is today on the back foot.

Beyond ballot box defeats

The most obvious sign of these troubles has come in recent electoral performances. Having largely risen from the margins, new leftwing parties became seemingly invincible by the turn of the century. This illusion came to an abrupt end when rightwing candidate Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s presidential election in November 2015. A few weeks later, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was outpolled 45-55 per cent in National Assembly elections which saw parliament swing from a roughly two-thirds majority for the left to a two-thirds majority for the right. Then, in February 2016, after becoming the longest-serving Bolivian head of state in history, Evo Morales was defeated in a referendum that essentially prevents him from standing in the next presidential election. More recently, centre-left forces have suffered defeats in local council elections, as with Chile’s Socialist Party (PS) and Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT).

But arguing that the cycle is over solely on the basis of election results is problematic. First, this is because the left’s electoral demise is not a fait accompli. In some countries where the left continues in power it may still win elections, while in others it has confirmed its status as the main opposition, from where it may potentially regroup to challenge the right’s agenda in parliament, at the ballot box and on the streets.

Moreover, explaining the start and end of the progressive cycle with the rise and fall of leftwing governments leaves out the whole period of preceding struggle, which is an essential part of understanding them. The pink tide did not start with Chávez’s election, nor did it end with Macri’s. It began with the protesters who took to the streets against neoliberalism at the end of the eighties and its fate will almost certainly be determined on these same streets.

While the progressive era referenced by Correa was inaugurated by strong anti-neoliberal mobilisations, this alone does not explain the left’s success. When looking at the region’s recent history, emphasis is generally given to the economic impacts of neoliberalism and the social struggles it engendered. However, neoliberalism was always much more than just a set of economic policies. Implemented at a time when military regimes were becoming a burden for the region’s ruling elites, neoliberalism required the construction of a parliamentary-based democracy that, while granting the right to vote, concealed the power-sharing pacts that existed among traditional parties to ensure decision-making power remained firmly in the grip of a political class beholden to neoliberalism.

The rise of the left was based on its ability to tap into widespread discontent over economic exclusion and political marginalisation. But social movement struggles, and even rebellions, were not enough: many came to the conclusion that it was necessary to wage a political struggle to win hegemony (in the Gramscian sense) and convince the majority that an alternative to neoliberalism was possible. With this in mind, many regional social movements took the step of forming political parties. These new parties not only helped propel the left into government; they brought down the traditional political set-ups that had generally been dominated by two or three parties and reconfigured the political landscape in the process.

The left was most successful where it managed not only to unite social movements and political organisations but also to put forward a clear and genuine political alternative to the neoliberal right, as was the case with Lucio Guitérrez in Ecuador, Ollanta Humala in Peru and to a certain extent Néstor Kirchner in Argentina. Where it failed to do so, outsider candidates, in many cases adopting leftist discourse, filled the breach.

The first years of the pink tide period confirmed the correctness of this political strategy, as key demands began to be implemented from within government. Collaboration between leftwing parties and social movements was driven by a shared common interest in blocking any conservative return to power. Social movements also provided progressive governments with a potential ally to help bypass legislative roadblocks and thwart the subversive actions of the right. These new governments provided breathing space for movements worn down by years of repression and mobilisation.

The problem, however, was that despite some important initiatives – local participatory budgeting, constituent assemblies and Venezuela’s system of community councils and communes, which was undoubtedly the most radical attempt to build grassroots democracy in the region – much of the left got caught up in the same parliamentary system it aimed to revolutionise. Developing new forms of democracy based on people’s participation proved difficult (especially beyond the local level) and the left found itself needing to constantly reaffirm its mandate within a parliamentary electoral system that had been set up to benefit those with more money and access to the media, i.e. the right.

As the right sought to regain power by any means, leftwing parties began to view the issue of hegemony and government as one and the same thing: protecting the new era meant defending the new governments at all cost. Public criticism began to be viewed as ‘aiding the right’ and emphasis shifted from building new forms of radical democracy – which at the local level had helped win over win over sectors that had not previously supported the left, particularly the middle classes, to its project – to marshalling forces for what seemed an endless number of local, regional and national election campaigns.

Worse still, in some cases leftwing parties decided that the only way to stay in power was to play the parliamentary game and cut deals with the opposition. The scandals that engulfed Brazil’s PT and key leaders of indigenous organisations that back the MAS in Bolivia are perhaps the clearest example of how some on the left have succumbed to the corrupting culture that exists within the inherited state bureaucracy. Even if the number of actual cases of corruption is nowhere near what the corporate media claimed, they were still a severe blow to a left which had presented itself as a break from the bankrupt politics of the past.

The economic agenda

A similar scenario is evident when it comes to economic policies. To varying degrees, the left has been able to implement aspects of its anti-neoliberal economic strategy, and in some cases even take tentative steps in an anti-capitalist direction. In doing so, it dispelled many of the myths that neoliberalism created regarding the virtues of the free market and began demonstrating that an alternative was both desirable and possible. By implementing social movement demands such as greater state intervention in the economy and recovery of control over natural resources, the left reduced poverty and helped stimulate the internal market, which together with booming commodity prices explains the large growth rates these governments presided over.

But ten years on, favourable export conditions have been replaced by the impact of a global economic slowdown, and it is clear that the left is yet to develop a concrete plan for how to break the region’s dependency on raw material exports. Every attempt to assert greater state control over the market met a fierce response. Experiments in building a social economy from below – cooperatives, worker-run factories etc – have remained isolated and frequently been absorbed by market forces. With leftwing governments facing mounting economic problems, the right has often said its candidates – increasingly business owners such as Mauricio Macri and millionaire media mogul João Doria, recently elected governor of Sao Paulo and a likely presidential candidate, as opposed to career politicians – are capable of managing the economy.

Politically exposed and facing serious economic challenges, the left has clearly lost hegemony while the right is on the offensive. But it is not yet clear that the progressive era is over. Recent election results provide evidence that the embers of discontent over political and economic exclusion have not been put out. In many cases, leftwing parties have lost elections not because their social base has opted for the neoliberal right, but rather because voters have preferred to show their discontent by staying home. Abstention levels in the recent regional elections in Brazil and local elections in Chile, for example, were well above previous record levels.

On the other hand, the right has had to recognise the new reality in terms of distancing itself from the traditional parties and adopting some of the discourse and policies of the left. The right’s current electoral strategy largely translates as new candidates from new parties promising to carry on the social policies of the left while attempting to distance itself from corruption and economic ineptness.

Rather than the end of a cycle, it seems the left is entering a new phase as part of this ongoing change. It does so from a weak position – having lost the initiative and on the retreat – but it has not been defeated. Drawing on past lessons and mistakes will be important to turning this situation around.

One lesson is that hegemony is not won once and for all; maintaining it is a permanent struggle across an ever-changing terrain. The importance of fighting for this led many social movements to take the leap into the realm of politics. Unfortunately, once in government, some concluded that hegemony was the same as holding onto power. Political interventions gave way to professionalised election campaigns, and with it the right took the political initiative.

The left also needs to grapple with developing serious and concrete alternatives to capitalism, both in terms of economic strategies and the kind of participatory democracy we want to see. This is as true for the party left as it is for the social movements which have largely failed to put forward serious alternatives, and more often than not retreated to defending corporative interests rather than becoming the cells of a new society.

This article was originally published of Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)