The chapter in Latin American history that opened in 1998 with celebrations in Venezuela has ended with a coup and violence in Bolivia. As with all tidal waves, the “pink tide” recedes to reveal a terrain transformed. The left movement landscape that produced variously striped socialist governments in a dozen countries is fractured and disillusioned. Central and South America face a resurgent right and the return of austerity, often through a scrim of tear gas. This state of disarray also marks the continent’s literal terrain: the forests and mountains cleared and ripped open, their minerals and hydrocarbons sent to port and shipped abroad in the name of a socialist project whose achievements have proven fragile, temporary, and superficial. Trying to maintain a “green” version of global consumer society could lead to a scramble for rare metals to make previous waves of extractivism look gentle by comparison.
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The main lesson of correísmo is that no project of transformation, if it wants to sustain and even deepen social change, can weaken the people who propel it forward.
The Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa (2007–2017) stirred hopeful expectations in the continental and global lefts. Although the young economist did not have a record of participation in social movements and had not played any direct role in resistance to neoliberalism, he had been part of a group of heterodox economists known as the Foro Ecuador Alternativo (Ecuador Alternative Forum), some of whom were critics of structural adjustment.
As threats to the environment increase across Latin America, new laws and police practices take aim against the front line activists defending their land and resources.
Berta Cáceres, assassinated in her home on March 3, 2016, was just one of hundreds of Latin American environmental activists attacked in recent years. At least 577 environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) were killed in Latin America between 2010 and 2015—more than in any other region—as documented by Global Witness. But in addition to physical violence, EHRDs face threats and harassment through judicial proceedings, severely impeding their work. Before Cáceres’ murder, she faced trumped-up charges stemming from her leadership in opposition to hydroelectric dams on her indigenous community’s territory.
On March 8, 2012, a few hundred marchers set out from Pangui, Ecuador, a town in the southeastern Amazon, near the construction site of the massive, open-pit Mirador Mine. Just days earlier, a consortium of Chinese state-owned companies had signed a contract to exploit the mine’s copper reserves, the first agreement of its kind in the country’s history.
The demonstrators zigzagged through the southern Andes, where more mines are planned throughout the highland wetlands, which supply water to rural farmers and urban consumers. Reinforcements from the northern Amazon joined the march along the way, intentionally traversing the route of crude oil that has for decades flowed through notoriously faulty pipelines. After a seven-hundred-kilometer trek, on foot and in unwieldy caravans, the two-week long March for Water, Life, and the Dignity of Peoples reached its end in Quito, where the state coffers, voters, and armed forces form the complex of economic incentives, democratic legitimacy, and military repression that activists contend keeps the country’s extractive model in motion.
When the “pink tide” of left-leaning governments first rose to power on the back of anti-neoliberal protests across Latin America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the initial reaction from the Left was euphoric. Striving to move beyond the “there is no alternative” mantra, many pinned their hopes on what seemed to be a new wave of actually existing alternatives to neoliberalism.
Amidst the revolutionary fervor of social forums, solidarity alliances, and peoples’ councils, it appeared an epochal shift was underway, which Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa optimistically dubbed “a genuine change in the times.”
But in retrospect, the 2005 political mobilizations that led to the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) may have been the high point of the pink tide project. Since then, the balance of power has slowly shifted back towards the Right, with the popularity and efficacy of left-wing governments rapidly diminishing.