BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — The recent presidential election victory for the left in Colombia marks a political milestone within the country and is accelerating the left-wing shift across Latin America.
The historic victory for Gustavo Petro in Colombia will bring the left to power for the first time in that country’s history when he takes office in early August, rupturing the conservative establishment’s long-held pollical power.
Petro’s victory is also a milestone for a resurgent left in Latin America, where left-wing governments continue to defeat conservative incumbents.
Political shifts in Latin America’s modern history often resemble waves and tides, as the movement of one political ideology in one country is followed by momentum in other countries.
By 2018, a conservative wave had brought right-wing governments to power across most of the region, with left-wing outliers in Uruguay, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba.
Enrique Peña Nieto governed Mexico, Mauricio Macri was promising to open up Argentina’s economy, Sebastián Piñera had just been reelected in Chile, and Jair Bolsonaro and Iván Duque won elections in Brazil and Colombia, respectively.
Then domestic and global issues emerged and worsened. Macri’s neoliberal policies, such as eliminating currency control, unleashed spiraling inflation and led to an IMF bailout of $57 billion — the largest in the money lender’s history. Peña Nieto became mired in corruption scandals as he oversaw a struggling economy and record numbers of drug-related homicides.
In Colombia, sustained mass protests marked Duque’s presidency, demanding action across a broad range of issues from increasing poverty and corruption to the lack of progress on the government’s peace deal with the former FARC rebels.
In the lead-up to elections in Brazil this fall, polling continues to place left-wing candidate Lula (43%) in the lead ahead of incumbent Bolsonaro (32%), who has been broadly criticized for the accelerating deforestation of the Amazon and his mismanagement of the Covid pandemic — Brazil has registered the second-highest number of deaths (671,000) after the U.S. (1 million).
Since 2018, the right-wing wave has been receding and given rise to the resurgence of socialists, social democrats and center-leftists. It began in Mexico with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018, followed by Alberto Fernández’s victory in Argentina a year later. The left returned to power in Bolivia in 2020 with the election of Luis Arce. In 2021, Pedro Castillo came to power in Peru and more recently Gabriel Boric in Chile and Petro in Colombia claimed victory. If Brazilians elect Lula president in October, it will complete a fundamental political shift in the region.
The left hasn’t governed this amount of territory in Latin America since the so-called Pink Tide brought many left-wing governments to power between 2000-2010, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina.
The Pink Tide turned away from liberal policies and used the commodity boom and increasing trade with China to fuel higher social spending and reduce poverty. Between 2002 and 2012, Latin America “experienced a substantial reduction of poverty and extreme poverty,” according to the UN. Poverty dropped from 44% to 28% and extreme poverty from 19% to 11%.
The left is now back in power across the region but finds itself on fragile ground. Despite some commodity prices like wheat and oil currently booming from the pandemic bounce back and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation is undermining the benefits. National economies are stagnating, with regional integration unraveling. Intraregional trade was 13% in 2021, down from its peak of 21% in 2008. Trajectories of trade have been influenced by multiple factors.