Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ ebbs to new low in Brazil

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RIO DE JANEIRO: Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment doesn’t just mark the end of 13 years of Workers’ Party rule in Brazil, but a new low for the so-called “pink tide” of leftist leaders in Latin America.

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It’s been nearly two decades since the left began sweeping to power, promising a new politics for a new century in a region often characterized as having the world’s greatest inequality.

The pink tide — more moderate than the communist red of Fidel Castro and other Cold War-era revolutionaries — reached 15 countries in all, starting with the late Hugo Chavez’s election in Venezuela in 1998.

Eight remain now that Brazil’s Senate has convicted Rousseff.

Giant Brazil was a leader in the regional movement, providing two of its most emblematic presidents: Rousseff and her once hugely popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

They brought radical street cred from the bad old days in Latin America.

She was an urban guerrilla jailed and tortured by the military regime installed after Brazil’s 1964 coup. He was a rabble-rousing steelworker who helped lead the fight for democracy.

But they also brought business-friendly economic policies to blend with revolutionary social programs.

Boom to bust

Lula took office in 2003 with a mission to turn Brazil into a middle-class powerhouse driven by consumer spending.

He was lucky to arrive just in time for the emerging markets boom, when demand from a ravenous China fueled soaring prices for the region’s oil, minerals and other commodities.

When he handed over to Rousseff after two terms, economic growth stood at 7.5 percent. More than 29 million Brazilians had escaped poverty.

Across the region, 75 million Latin Americans exited poverty in a decade.

“There was this sense that Latin America’s finally emerging,” said William LeoGrande, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

“The illusion was that it would be easy.”

But it all came crashing down, not just for Rousseff but the entire region, which is facing its second year of recession this year.

“Clearly the commodity dependency remains greater than some people thought,” LeoGrande said.

Bad news

Latin America’s left has been on the run since the business-friendly conservative Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s election last November.

Other setbacks followed in Venezuela’s legislative polls and Peru’s presidential race.

Now Venezuela is teetering on the brink of economic collapse, leaving Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, fighting for his political life.

In Bolivia, indigenous labor leader Evo Morales lost a February referendum to allow himself a fourth term. In Ecuador, radical economist Rafael Correa flirted with a third term before dropping the idea as his approval ratings sank.

A string of corruption scandals has fed the malaise.

Even squeaky-clean moderate Michelle Bachelet of Chile has watched her poll numbers dive as her son has been caught up in a scandal.

Too pink?

Rousseff is charged with using unauthorized state loans to plug budget holes. Unofficially, she is taking the blame for Brazil’s worst recession in 80 years and a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal at the state oil company Petrobras.

Lula, still seen as potential comeback material in 2018, faces corruption charges in the scandal and risks watching the election from jail.

Some supporters say the Workers’ Party (PT) turned too pink for its own good, cozying up to parties that wanted only the keys to the government pork barrel, and forgetting its roots.

The PT “slowly alienated its base, stopped training new leadership, allied with centrist and right-wing parties to guarantee ‘governability’ and had leading party figures involved in corruption,” Jose Oscar Beozzo, a Brazilian leftist theologian, told AFP by email.

The party “was devastated by pragmatism and alliances,” said the openly critical PT veteran Tarso Genro, who served in Lula’s cabinet.

New right

If the start of the 21st century represented a new beginning for the Latin left — after a 20th century marked by numerous US-backed right-wing coups, invasions and military rule — the region may now be seeing the birth of a new right.

Despite Rousseff’s argument that her impeachment is a “coup,” the region has come a long way since the Cold War, when coups meant tanks in the streets.

The emergence of a Latin American right committed to democracy and a social agenda is new, says John Coatsworth, provost of New York’s Columbia University a noted historian of the region.

“For more than two centuries, the Latin American right was deeply suspicious of democratic institutions and conspired whenever it was convenient to overthrow them or to undermine them,” he said.

The good news for the left in the new democratic era, he added, is that the right has never proved any better at managing economic crises.

“All of the center-right parties and right-wing parties that are benefiting from the collapse of the left everywhere in Latin America themselves suffered a similar collapse a decade ago,” he said.

“Democracy is a wonderful thing.”

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