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Resurgent left looks to integrate Latin America but faces challenges

As a left-wing wave sweeps Latin America, its backers' vision of a more integrated region will meet obstacles both regionally and from abroad.

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. 

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“First, we saw a prolongation of the global crisis of 2008-09 that stretched into the second decade of the 21st century,” said Julián Kan, a professor of history of international relations focused on regional integration. “This had repercussions on trade as well as the new global players like China, the BRICS countries, etc. Then the trade war between the U.S. and China had an impact on the periphery, including Latin America.”

Intraregional trade within Latin America. (Courtesy of ECLAC)

The conservative wave was another influence, which attempted to look at opening up national economies to trade outside the region. “In short,” Kan added, “there were no positive results at the level of regional trade in South America, and particularly in Mercosur,” the region’s trading bloc.

China’s return as a global power has been one of the strongest influences. “China has become a vacuum cleaner of Latin American exports, which has caused the flow of products to China and lowered the level of regional commercial exchange,” said Kan. Its insatiable appetite for raw materials includes soy from Brazil and Argentina, copper from Chile and Peru, and oil from Venezuela. Since the turn of the century, China has been replacing the U.S. as the number one trading partner across the region. 

“There is no doubt that many governments have started to look much more strategically towards Beijing as a result of the hegemonic transition from West to East, and the place that China occupies in the global economy,” Kan said. “The problem is the way in which they build the links with China. If only China is a vacuum cleaner of exports from the countries of the region, well, that can generate certain foreign currency but there is no possibility of thinking of associating with that power with an autonomous development.”

The region finds itself in a changing world of power relations. “The world is multipolar and this is an advantage for the region,” said Juan Ferrero, a senior lecturer in Latin American politics at the University of Bath in England. “The new left may be reasonably skeptical of the U.S. but not necessarily anti-American like in the 1970s. In terms of international relations, we’ll likely see a pragmatic, interest-based approach whereby the region benefits from the existing competition among superpowers.”

Currently, nations are tending to their own internal issues — Chile with its constitutional assembly and conflict with the Indigenous Mapuche in the south, Argentina with its economic crisis and spiraling inflation and Colombia with nationally high expectations for change.

Despite the loosening of regional ties at the economic level, there is strong support among societies, with 7 in 10 Latin Americans supporting closer regional integration. And with closer political alignment in the region, there are expectations that countries will begin to cultivate closer cooperation and reverse the decade-long decline.

“It’s still too soon to think about what is going to happen on the regional political chessboard,” said Kan. But the new left has been making moves. It has put more focus on ECLAC, a UN organization to promote economic cooperation, which had lost influence under liberal and conservative governments.

Then there is the newly created Puebla Group, a forum for left-wing politicians, academics, and social organizations across the region which aims to articulate ideas, development programs and state policies.

As South America’s largest nation, both in geography and economy, Brazil's election may energize the movement further towards integration. “The election of Lula might play a critical role to galvanize this grassroots support and give it a sense of purpose and direction,” said Ferrero. “The new thrust for regional integration needs the symbolism and charisma that Lula can provide but also real-world transformative initiatives.”

These initiatives include Lula’s suggestion of a regional monetary union if he is elected, or discussions between Chile and Argentina in establishing a lithium OPEC. “This would give them a say in the global price of the commodity,” said Ferrero. “Together with Bolivia, the three countries can become world leaders in the export,” which is a key component in the development of batteries for electric vehicles.

“One question is how to think at the regional level about the lithium issue, which will be a key resource for the future economy,” said Kan. “How can we think about the extraction and export of resources while not only doing it in national terms but also in regional terms? This requires political decision and also efforts to deal with internal interests, and also thinking about restructuring some forms of regional economic institutes.”

More broadly, the level of regional integration fluctuates between countries, with some more connected than others. “Mexico, for example, is totally connected to the United States, starting in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s through the NAFTA free trade agreement,” said Kan. “It is not that the country cannot think of greater cooperation and solidarity with their Latin American neighbors, but there is a tension at some point with its outward-orientated economy.”

Today’s terrain is broadly different than it was at the beginning of the century. “New global links have allowed the periphery, such as Latin America, to insert itself in another way and with other political alliances at the global level,” said Kan. Yet faced with poor performing economies, “this is where the initiatives, the ingenuity, the laboratory of ideas comes into play."

For Ferrero, this needs to be “based on strong political will and bold but concrete initiatives,” he said. “They need to inspire a sense of regional identity but also aspire to create solutions to the region’s more acute socio-economic problems.”

The political terrain of Latin America if Lula were to win presidential elections in Brazil this October.

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