Starting in the 1990s, bombastic, left-wing leaders began to ride into power in Latin America on big promises and with working-class support, in what later became known as the “pink tide.” Their results, to put it mildly, have been mixed. Lula da Silva turned Brazil into an economic powerhouse, but he later watched the system collapse into a recession as he sat incarcerated under corruption charges. Evo Morales, who significantly reduced Bolivian poverty during his presidential tenure, fell from grace after the Organization of American States accused him of election meddling. And Hugo Chavez—champion of the Venezuelan worker—laid the groundwork for one of the worst hyperinflation episodes in history. From these events alone, one might expect Latin American leftism to currently be in dire straits.
Recent events, however, prove otherwise. Lula became the Brazilian president again in 2023 after 17 months in jail. Morales’ economic minister handily fended off far-right challengers to win the Bolivian presidency in 2020. In 2022, Colombia elected a left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, for the first time. The list goes on in what commentators have already labeled as “the next pink tide.”
The same pink tide also washed over Peru—and the country is now drowning in it. Barely a year after his razor-thin election victory, Marxist president Pedro Castillo was ignominiously thrown in jail this December after trying to dissolve the government. Protestors, including both supporters and critics of Castillo, regularly battle with police: some have been killed by government security forces. The country is gripped in a crisis of voter confidence in Peruvian democracy itself. But will neighboring nations soon follow suit? Peru’s trajectory mirrors that of the first pink tide, but Castillo’s contemporaries in Brasília, La Paz, and Bogotá may yet learn from his mistakes. By using Peru as a lens with which to examine the pink tide, we can hopefully understand the future trajectory of the movement and discover whether the country’s instability is an anomaly or a symptom of Latin America’s left-wing politics.
Bullets or Ballots
The roots of Castillo’s election trace back to the early 1980s, the peak of Peruvian political violence. In response to authoritarian consolidation of power and inequality between the rural, Indigenous population and urbanites, the communist guerrilla army Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) began a campaign to incite a Maoist revolution. The Shining Path stands out from other Latin American guerrilla movements for its sheer sheer brutality: After thirteen years of bombings, mass executions, and torture, between 30,000 and 70,000 were dead by the end of the war in 1993. The scars left by this era have had a longstanding impact on the Peruvian people and, consequently, their politics. The 2021 election was no exception. Castillo’s base of support originated in the same rural regions that the Shining Path once controlled. His then-opponent, Keiko Fujimori, is the daughter of the president who defeated the guerrillas using methods that were often as extreme as theirs. Many Peruvians vote based on memories of the past, with conservatives fearing the return of communism and rural laborers still feeling left out of the political system.
Peru, though, is not the only “pink tide” country with a history of civil strife. Neighboring Colombia has long battled with highland guerrillas; although the largest group has negotiated an uneasy peace, the risk of conflict is still high. President Gustavo Petro was himself a revolutionary in the 1980s, though he denies any violent conduct. Electoral maps show that Petro’s supporters are concentrated in rural areas where guerrillas are the most active. This population has reason to be dissatisfied, given that rural poverty is much more extreme than urban poverty in Latin America. Colombian guerrillas have also historically filled a critical role in the rural economy, facilitating exchange and distributing funds to the population. As Colombian inequality grows, support for leftist policies of redistribution and social security will also likely increase, even if support for armed revolution against the state does not. Developing rural regions will therefore continue to be important for Latin American governments: they continue to be pivotal electoral support bases, and neglecting them can lead to instability and even violence.
Peru’s working class is at the forefront of the demonstrations against the government, which is now led by Castillo’s former vice president and the first female president of Peru, Dina Boluarte. The country’s powerful labor unions have called for strikes in protest against Boluarte—they believe she betrayed Castillo and the Peruvian working class by supporting his removal. Boluarte is in a difficult position. Her attempts to call for new elections have been thwarted by the legislature, leaving her as a scapegoat for both Castillo’s backers and the opposition. Her recent appeal for Fujimori’s support cannot have improved her standing with the Peruvian left; many now see her as a tool of the wealthy rather than a legitimate political actor. Their skepticism is not unfounded in a country whose Congress regularly impeaches and appoints presidents. Castillo initiated his ill-fated putsch because the legislature was about to impeach him; the axe may soon fall on Boluarte if she cannot stabilize the country soon. If it does, Latin American socialists will be happy to see her go.
A key goal of leftism is to transcend national boundaries and unite people based on shared working-class heritage. As such, leftist leaders easily form cliques. While this process strengthens their political power, running afoul of the group can leave a politician isolated. So far, of the pink tide presidents, only Lula has spoken out against Castillo; Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, by contrast, severed diplomatic ties with Peru after Castillo’s ouster. The international left’s continued support for Castillo, tacit or otherwise, is worrying because it could normalize misconduct.
Izquierda y Derecha
Castillo’s actions failed, however, because he lacked support within Peru. Without both high approval ratings and a majority in Congress, an autocoup was a long shot for the former president. Like the United States, Latin American democracies have been divided by political polarization in recent years. Castillo secured victory in 2021 by a measly 0.24%. In Brazil, Lula’s 2022 margin was more comfortable at 1.8%, but it pales in comparison to his first victory in 2002, where he won by a 31-point landslide. Incredibly competitive elections have emboldened the right in these countries: both Keiko Fujimori and Lula’s opponent Jair Bolsonaro have used stolen-election lies to drum up support, culminating in three impeachment votes against Castillo and riots in the Brazilian capital. Similar divisions now fuel a “cycle of score-settling” in Bolivia, where those in power, leftists and rightists, arrest and prosecute their most vocal opponents.
Polarization is a double-edged sword insofar as it keeps leaders in check while also encouraging radical rhetoric. Fujimori’s father, Alberto, set the precedent for Castillo by dissolving Congress in 1992; although politicians were against him, the overwhelming majority of the populace was on his side. Thirty years later, a strong opposition stopped Castillo from consolidating his power. Meanwhile, in Colombia, Gustavo Petro must balance his policy goals with those of his coalition, which includes both communists and evangelical Christian conservatives. His presidential Cabinet is a mix of moderates and progressives. Closer elections and coalition governance can prevent leaders from taking extreme actions. However, competition can also drive politicians to take radical positions in order to stand out from their opponents. One must ask the question: would Castillo have attempted to dissolve Congress if his opponents had not tried to force three impeachment votes against him? Moreover, would the votes have happened at all if Fujimori and her supporters had not perpetuated false election claims? Perhaps a stronger, more radical opposition will actually prevent cooperation in Peru as congresspeople habitually remove and replace presidents rather than working across the aisle.
Alberto Fujimori had one further advantage over Castillo: the army was on his side. Latin America has an extensive history of military coups and rule by authoritarian juntas. To this day, respect and fear of the military is common in some Latin American countries. Bolsonaro’s supporters were widely condemned for calling on Brazil’s armed forces to overthrow Lula. Castillo also appealed to military power but was unsuccessful. Where the military did not act, democracy was allowed to continue; there has not been a triumphant coup in Latin America since the Honduran coup of 2009. As Fujimori’s example shows, however, true power may not always lie in the hands of the people.
The new pink tide is a moment of hope for the Latin American working class, especially in rural communities. It also presents challenges ranging from political polarization to corruption to emerging authoritarianism on both the left and right. Peru occupies an interesting niche among the pink tide countries. Its history of violent conflict and battles between the president and legislature perhaps make its politics and institutional culture uniquely unstable. However, there exist clear parallels between Peruvian democracy and that of Peru’s neighbors. The pink tides themselves show that, in politics, Latin American countries often move together. Their leaders take inspiration from others in the region; instability in one country can potentially spill over into another. Whether the Latin American left will be able to maintain its current hegemony remains to be seen, given the pressure to perform and increasingly eager right-wing opposition parties. Perhaps this tide will recede as the first did—or perhaps the waves will keep coming as leftists learn to govern more effectively.