Looking beyond the end of the Latin American Pink Tide

03 May 2016 

Adam Fishwick  - VC2020 Lecturer in Urban Studies and Public Policy, De Montfort University

Despite recent electoral defeats for the left social protest and mobilisation in Argentina suggest the Pink Tide’s decline may be overstated

The resurgence of the right in Latin America – from the recent electoral victories of the MUD alliance in Venezuela to the attempted impeachment (and possible constitutional coup) against Dilma Rousseff and the PT in Brazil to the presidential victory of perennial right-wing politician Mauricio Macri in Argentina – has upended politics in the region and left many decrying (or proclaiming) the death of the “Pink Tide”, which has seen left-wing governments elected across the continent since the turn of the century.  It is on the latter case – to the recent and ongoing changes in Argentina – that this post concentrates.

Over the past decade, Latin America has been a beacon of hope for those on the left – from the radical anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric and (to a lesser extent) political and economic transformation led by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, to the relative successes of significant social spending and state-sponsored industrial and export-led development implemented by Lula and Rousseff in Brazil and Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.

But for critics, it has been a period that mirrors the worst excesses of the populism of the twentieth century, with inefficient state patronage driving unsustainable, inefficient, and ultimately corrupt patterns of economic growth.

The new right has used this perception to its advantage, gaining domestic and international support amongst constituencies that oppose the redistributive programmes and nationalisations that have constituted the most high-profile changes brought about by the leftist governments of various stripes.

And, for now at least, it is a strategy that appears to be working.

But does this rapid rise of the right across the region constitute an end to progressive politics in Latin America? Or does such a fatalistic analysis – a view found on both the left and right – misunderstand the Pink Tide itself?

To understand these transformations requires stepping away from the institutional transformations at the level of the state and public policy that have been so prominent. It requires an understanding of the purpose(s) and practice(s) of resistance by the array of social movements, labour activists and organisations, peasant movements, land and workplace occupations, and even insurgent movements that made this progressive moment (and perhaps also the backlash to it we are now seeing) possible.

Taking Argentina as an example, the explosion of social protest that met the 2001 debt crisis laid the foundations for a seemingly dramatic shift in the political economy of development. From decades of neoliberal transformation under first the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s and then the civilian governments of Raul Alfonsín and Carlos Menem, the 2003 election of Nestor Kirchner appeared to be a direct response to the demands of the mobilised masses of the unemployed, the newly-impoverished middle classes, and the popular sectors of the left for a reversal of privatisation, fiscal austerity, and state retrenchment.

Under Kirchner (and later under Cristina Fernández) employment programmes increased exponentially, with poverty levels declining from 57 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2007 and unemployment from 20 percent to 8 percent in the same period.  Alongside this minimum wage legislation shifted it from representing only 29.9 percent of basic basket of goods in 2003 to 100.4 percent in 2007.

This social policy shift, moreover, was made possible by the context of rapid growth – particularly in the recovering industrial manufacturing sector. As demonstrated by Christopher Wylde, targeted policy measures after 2003 focused on dynamic industrial manufacturing, including a surge in manufactured exports to 31 percent of GDP, have been at the crux of new employment generation and associated poverty reduction.

Yet whilst addressing many of the immediate concerns and demands of the protesters, it has become increasingly clear that this new model for development was limited in its scope.

What marked out the protests and mobilisations that occurred around and after 2001 was the deliberate effort to confront and transform not just immediate issues of poverty and unemployment, but the deeper structural conditions that brought these about.

From unemployed workers’ movements to worker-recuperated factories, new realities were conceived of based on an alternative vision of society and, in many cases, went beyond simple defensive mobilisations designed to ameliorate the worst effects of the crisis.

In response, the Kirchners have led a de-politicisation of mobilisation by radical unemployed workers’ organisations and the worker-recuperated factories through social policy programmes.  An expansion of the role of the National Institute for Associative Activities and the Social Economy (INAES) and the Ministry for Social Development brought social demands under the remit of the state and institutionalising them such as, for example, by confining access to state funds only to organisations legally registered as an NGO.

So what does this process in Argentina tell us about the Pink Tide? And what are the implications for the emerging fatalistic prognosis of progressive governance in the region?

Importantly it is clear that this doesn’t echo many of the critiques from the left that the Pink Tide (and “Kirchnerismo” in particular) was a betrayal of the protesters and accompanying social movements, nor was it simply a continuation of the neoliberal political economy masked beneath limited social reform.

Instead, it demonstrates that despite the veracity of protest, mobilisation, and autonomous organising after 2001, there was never sufficient scope within existing institutions for the emergence of a concrete alternative.

Taking MacDonald and Ruckert’s definition of the emerging post-neoliberal consensus as a starting point, the Pink Tide represented a significant discontinuity of the progressive political economy strategies within the widely acknowledged macroeconomic continuities with neoliberalism.

What defines the Pink Tide – and perhaps can offer hope in spite of the dramatic resurgence of the right in the region – is that this continuity of protest and mobilisation (albeit in discrete and fragmented forms) and the persistent attempts to suppress it – either by the Kirchners or Macri – represents a continuity within this discontinuity itself.

This continuity can be seen, for example, with the continuing growth of the empresas recuperadas – the “reclaimed factories” of worker self-managed enterprises that, springing up in response to the 2001 crisis, have developed a momentum of their own.  The Open Faculty Programme reports that of the 311 establishments currently occupying 13,462 workers, 63 occupying over 3,000 workers were established between 2010 and 2013.

As Dinerstein argues in the case of changing social mobilisation in Argentina:

“nothing ‘went wrong’ with revolution in Argentina in 2001 as many left activists asked themselves at party meetings…QSVT [que se vayan todos] transformed autonomous organising into the art of organising hope…this is a demand that contains the not yet within it, according to the concrete and material conditions provided by the context and relations that produce the utopian demand. Concrete utopias cannot remain intact as abstract utopias do, for they belong to the material world and are constantly reshaped by struggles”

It is the persistence – and now emerging failure and replacement – of efforts to contain and appropriate these struggles from below that were the most important features of the Pink Tide and that, in turn, undermine the fatalistic prognosis of its demise.

Mobilisations have been and continue to be the source of genuine, progressive – even radical – change and with their continuity, to echo Dinerstein once more, there remains hope.

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