November 30, 2022


Bittersweet Tides

Chile, Brazil, and the future of the Latin American Left

The recent victories of left parties across Latin America—most recently the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil—have prompted comparisons with the Pink Tide of the early 2000s. But with narrow margins of victory against far-right opponents, fragile coalitions, and the effects of global economic disruption fueling discontent, the current moment looks very different than the last.

In a recent event convened by the Ralph Miliband Programme and the Latin America and Caribbean Centre at the London School of Economics, Claudia Heiss and André Vitor Singer reflect on the trajectories of left parties in Chile and Brazil, and discuss the future of the Latin American left. The event was moderated by Robin Archer, and a recording can be viewed here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

A conversation with Claudia Heiss and André Singer

ROBIN ARCHER: We just saw the re-election, albeit narrowly, of President Lula in Brazil. A few months earlier, we saw the rejection of the constitutional reforms that the new progressive government in Chile had only recently put forward.  

To speak about those and other developments I’m joined by an absolutely first rate panel. Professor Claudia Heiss is the head of Political Science at the Faculty of Government at the University of Chile. She is an expert on the Chilean constitution, and on the politics of constitutions more broadly—I’ve counted thirty-two articles on these subjects just in the last decade. She also sat on the technical commission which advised on the new constitution, so she’s got an insider’s view in addition to her scholarly one. 

Joining us from São Paulo is Professor André Singer, Professor of Political Science at the University of São Paulo. He, too, has written a significant number of important books about political and social change in Brazil, and about the phenomenon of the Lula presidency in particular. He was also the managing editor of Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo. And not least, he was a spokesperson for Lula during his first presidency.

Claudia, would you like to start with some introductory remarks?

CLAUDIA HEISS: I’d like to make two big points and a few smaller points to begin. The first big point is that this Pink Tide carries a bittersweet feeling—it’s not filled with hope like the one we had in the early 2000s. Of course, I’m happy that Bolsonaro and José Antonio Kast lost the presidential election—not only because they were right-wingers, but also because I think they represent threats to human rights, the preservation of the planet, and to pluralism and democracy. 

However, the previous Pink Tide coincided with a commodities boom which enabled some left-wing governments in Latin America to fundamentally change people’s lives through redistributive policies. That was clearly the case in Brazil, while Chile was slightly different. We did not build anything resembling a welfare state, but we did have direct transfers that improved people’s standard of living. 

Today, some of the largest economies of Latin America are once again governed by the left—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico all have left-wing governments. We also have leftist governments in Peru and Honduras, although in those cases there is no clear left political party to sustain the governments. We also have non-pluralist left-wing governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The worries surrounding this wave begin to emerge when we look at voters, rather than the elected parties. There is of course great variation, but on the whole, we are not seeing a lot of active citizen mobilization behind these parties. On the contrary, their membership is disappearing, at the same time as trade unions are weakening. We can analyze this trend in four ways. First, we see a very strong anti-incumbent vote. The election of the left in this case was very much the result of a swing effect—people just rejected what they had before. In that sense, the elections represent a punishment of all ruling parties, rather than a positive movement in favor of the left alternative. The Chilean constitution is an interesting example of this: in October of 2020, 78 percent of voters rejected the existing constitution, but in the recent referendum 62 percent of voters rejected the revised proposal. Ultimately, voters are just rejecting what they perceive to be the establishment. 

The second trend we see is an acceleration of political time. We see shorter and shorter honeymoons for new rulers; Boric, the current leftist President of Chile, was elected with 56 percent of the vote, and in less than a year his support has fallen to about 30 percent. The same happened to Pedro Castillo in Peru, and to the Argentine government, which had a very poor performance in the legislative elections of November 2021. 

Third is the role of lesser evilism in coalition formation. Lula and Boric were not elected with strong and stable support, they were elected by anyone who didn’t want the extreme right to come to power. One has to wonder what the result would have been if the opponent were a centrist. Crucially, we shouldn’t read the Brazilian election results as a demonstration of broad support for Lula, because he was in a coalition with his former rivals in the center.

Finally, I think we should be slightly cautious in celebrating this Pink Tide because of the overwhelming trend towards political fragmentation and polarization. In Chile we used to have a very stable party system, which is today composed of twenty parties in the Chamber of Deputies and new parties forming as we speak—the former Christian Democratic party, which almost had no voters, has now been divided into three separate parties. And the elites are more polarized than the electorate. 

This bittersweet Pink Tide means that we have governments which lack the political and parliamentary support required to produce structural transformations. In Chile, for example, we are seeing huge obstacles to the constitutional process and enormous legislative difficulty in passing tax reform because the right has the majority in Congress. This divided government and the impossibility to perform is likely to create disappointment, which may mean a future swing to the right.

The second big point I’d like to make is regarding the issues we’ve seen with political mediation mechanisms and the capacity for public representation in our democratic institutions. We clearly face deep anti-political and anti-party sentiments. Collective action that is taking place is organized around specific issues like education and pensions, rather than a broad political vision or programmatic platform.

In Chile, the social outbursts of 2019 did not come out of nowhere, they began in 2006 with the high school student protests. As voter turnout has declined, we’ve seen very strong mobilization in the streets. People stopped voting and started marching. These social movements have represented in some cases a reaction to neoliberalism on ideological grounds, and in others a resistance against the weight of private debt (in Chile we have very low public debt, so almost all of the debt is absorbed by families who pay 75 percent of their salaries in debt for education, health, food, clothing, and so on). In 2019 in Chile, the discussion was around dignity. But what does dignity mean? The problem of mediation is one of translating expressions of discontent into a positive political program. We can have a spokesperson for people’s anger who has no capacity to build a better future. This is what Pierre Rosanvallon has called a “counter democracy,” people want to check power, but not to construct their own destiny. So, again, we have 78 percent of voters rejecting the existing constitution, but we lacked the same force to recreate the constitution—the voter turnout went from 51 percent to 43 percent. 

So, the questions we are left with are: Who are the people? What are they rebelling against? What do they want? I have a few possible answers. Firstly, as difficult as it is to tell politicians, there is no single voice of the people. Some people march because they want socialism, others march because they want more access to consumption. Between these, there is a convergence of demand around welfare. The demand for dignity clearly has something to do with a demand for redistribution. Second, people are rebelling against institutions and elites. This creates the ground for simple answers which can be damaging to our political culture. Third, people clearly want some limitations on the abuses of the market. Inequality is not new in Chile—we are one of the most unequal countries in the world. But in recent years, inequality has become politicized and people don’t want to tolerate it anymore. People also clearly want increased recognition of excluded peoples, including indigenous peoples and gender minorities. The Chilean Congress was composed of 13 percent women, so gender parity in the Constitutional Convention was historic for us (we only legalized divorce in 2004 and abortion was illegal under any circumstances until 2017). 

But the difficulty in political interpretation continues despite these intuitions: the right interprets the rejection of the constitution as a sign that the population supports them. The left is citing the social protests and the voice of the people in the streets. Political scientists analyzing the results of the plebiscite of course tend to focus on the mythical median voter. The truth is that we cannot simplify what people want, and legitimate political decisions can only be obtained through pluralistic democratic citizen led deliberation. Unfortunately, I think we have to stick with politics as usual, and try to see what we can do to increase citizen involvement in the political process.

RA: You have emphasized that the electoral forces which have brought these presidential results are composed of extremely broad democratic coalitions that stretched way beyond the center and indeed into the right. They don’t even seem like the French Popular Front of the 1930s. There is of course a left-wing figurehead, but the movements themselves don’t seem left wing in any clear sense. To what degree is “Pink Tide” a relevant description of what we are seeing? 

André singer: I think Claudia and I agree on the most important aspect of this question. If you look at the results in Chile, Colombia and Brazil, there is a Pink Tide: the left won. They won by a small margin, but they still won. But the context we are in today is entirely different from the one of the previous Pink Tide. In the first Pink Tide, we were very optimistic. In Brazil, it was the first time a left party had been elected. We were excited about all of the social improvements we could do. Some of them were achieved, others not. But the question was: what does a (reformist) left program look like? 

Today, we are very scared about what I call authoritarianism with a fascist bias. This is a defensive situation in which the left—in Brazil as in Chile—has been placed in the middle of the hurricane. Of course, we have to ask ourselves what these governments are capable of doing. But we need to acknowledge that this is primarily a defensive movement. 

On the economic side, we have significant challenges. There is a global pressure for austerity, at the same time as the social situation must be improved. And these improvements demand money. We’re in a difficult situation because people expect to see results, and the economic situation in Brazil has been bad for at least a decade. 

CH: Boric did not win with the support of a broad coalition, but he did build a broad coalition with what is now called Democratic Socialism. I think it’s important to understand that the resistance we are seeing now is the product of many years of center-left governments. The first president we had after the return to democracy in the 1990s was a Christian Democrat in alliance with the left, Patricio Aylwin. Then we had Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, Ricardo Froilán Lagos, and Michelle Bachelet. We had four left-wing governments that did not make any important structural reforms to the economic model. Why? Partly because they were a broad coalition, but also partly because of the Constitution.

The Chilean Constitution was in many ways constructed to preserve what the dictatorship called the “subsidiary state.” In Europe, this term is used to describe institutions intended to protect civil society from the state. In Chile, these institutions are understood to protect the market from the state. Our constitution emphasizes the primacy of the market—we channel public funding into for-profit health and education industries, a huge transfer from the poor to the wealthy. This model is what many students and teachers have been resisting since the “penguin” protests of 2006. These policies are all associated with center-left governments, and as Jennifer Pribble has written, the fact that center-left governments have failed to enact center-left policies has weakened people’s faith in politics and sent them to the streets.

And it’s not just about the broadness and fragility of the political coalitions, it’s about deep-rooted dictatorial enclaves. We did not finish democratizing in 1990. We had appointed senators until 2005, we had an electoral system which completely distorted preferences until 2015. The right agreed that this was a bad constitution, but they also rejected the new proposal. Now that the negotiations are happening, and the pension fund and private healthcare companies are running open political campaigns, we are beginning to see the real economic interests at stake.

RA: The last question I’d like to put forward is regarding the role of generational change. For older generations in each of these countries, there is a lived memory of dictatorship and profound authoritarian rule. Yet, many younger citizens must have no recollection of this at all. We know that generational change in many cases has political consequences—how does it play into present day politics in Brazil and in Chile? 

AS: I think Brazil is a country with a very short memory of itself. What is past is past—it is very different from Chile in that respect. So the problems we experience in Brazil are understood to be more imminent problems, and the electorate votes based on the present. But there is a concerning symptom regarding this element of generational politics, which is that Bolsonaro is aiming to return to the dictatorship. It is not spoken of in explicit terms, but it’s a fact: Bolsonaro is a former military captain who was formed by the dictatorship. He speaks well of the dictatorship all the time. His movement has new aspects which make it similar to Trumpism, which have nothing to do with the old military movements. But nevertheless, he does aim to revive this pre-1964 political structure. The relationship between the new right and the old military regime may not be directly relevant to the decisions of the electorate, but it is of interest to people studying the political moment. 

CH: We have witnessed the importance of generational change in the wave of protests over the last two decades. The first big wave was, as I mentioned, with high school students in 2006. These high school students eventually became university students, and they formed the basis for the wave of 2011. Some of these university students then entered government, some became members of Congress (one became president!). 

At the same time, I think it’s important not to overstate this generational memory. When my students went to protest in 2019 and 2020, I was terrified that they broke the curfew. As someone who lived under a dictatorship, breaking a curfew to me meant that you could be killed. But my students were not afraid, they went out and marched while I stayed up calling the student union to make sure they were okay. Many of them were injured, actually. The police committed very serious human rights violations in 2019—more than thirty people died and more than 400 lost their eyes after being shot by the riot police. Nevertheless, these students were not as scared as the older generation would have been. And part of their political appeal is that they are seen as newcomers onto the political scene. Their views bear resemblance to some of the older centralized political programs, but they are not traditional workers’ parties. Their way of doing politics is different, but they are mobilized. Still, one thing that is clear in Chile is the notion that the poor, the young, and the less educated automatically vote for the left is not to be taken for granted anymore. 

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