The revolutionary turn to the left in Latin American countries

“The world is shrinking”. In the era of the internet with an unprecedented availability of information, everyone is one click away from traveling to the most exotic places, learning history, politics, social movements, religion, ideologies and foreign affairs from the comfort of our home. One could expect a growing understanding of world issues, an increased ability for empathy among global citizens and the possibility of learning about colossal mistakes others have made throughout history to avoid following the same paths. Yet, what we see instead is an increased polarization of ideologies and countries across the globe repeating the same patterns over and over again, often leading them to the same, many times disastrous, results. Patterns of political similarities can be seen within geographical regions. And when one takes up the task to dig in deeper, surprisingly similar patterns can be found historically across the world.

In the case of Latin American countries, from Mexico in the north all the way down to Patagonian Argentina and Chile, have recently taken a turn to the left. A so-called pink tide of socialism has tinted politics and the way the government runs. What does a turn to the left mean in the political context? How, where, and why did it start? In human terms, what does a liberal economy opposing a socialism regime look like and what does it mean in the Latin world?

The green part is Latin America.


Left wing ideologies

The political spectrum

From a political stance, left-winged movements claim that society is best served when the government plays an important and expanded role. In other words, when a country takes a turn to the left, more power is given to the government on the bases that it will be for the benefit of society. An example of such social benefits are certain programs like social security, medical care, and unemployment benefits (diffen, n.d.). On the opposing side of the spectrum, right-winged ideologies and movements protect individual rights and claim minimum government intervention in the economic sector. Within this two spectrums several movements and ideologies rise, and are often mixed, intertwined, overlapping and overall confusing for the population.

In Latin America, the following are the most debated ideologies.

On the left wing, progressivism and socialism can be found. Whilst on the right wing, liberalism and conservatism are often put together. Even though they are boxed together, these four ideologies differ from one another, as well as overlap in many areas.

Conservatism is mostly linked with religion and preservation of socially traditional ideas. Politically and economically favoring free enterprise and private ownership.

Opposing right-winged conservatism, left wing social ideologies are based on progressivism. Progress and reforms regarding social factors such as gender equality, environment protection, and LGBTQ rights (Coleman, 2020). Progressivism is a movement that is based on renewal and progress; this is the counterpart of conservatism. These liberal ideas are usually what left-winged young people identify with. Progressivism stands for the improvement of society through reforms (Milkis, n.d.). But referring to the methodology, the how to get there, progressists assert that it is the government who should hold power and control the economy (reason for which is placed on the left wing).

Liberalism is the ideology in which individual rights and liberties are to be protected. The right to life, liberty and private property are the three pillars that hold liberalism. To ensure the right to free choice, it claims that prostitution, drugs, and (debatable) abortion should be legalized. Every person should have the right to decide over their own body. From this social perspective liberalism overlaps with progressivism and differ from conservatism.

On the political and economic sector, liberals, like conservatives, assert that to ensure the right to private property, the economic system should be capitalistic. Capitalism is when the countries’ trade and industry are controlled by private owners (this is why liberalism is placed on the right wing).

The leftist Marxist socialism and communism are the political and economic counterpart of capitalism. (Biddel, 2019). This is where right and left-winged ideologies crash the most. A capitalist economy (defended by conservatism and liberalism) against a socialist economy (defended by socialism, communism and progressivism). And their main point of debate: who should control de economy: the state or the individuals?

The Communist Utopia

Socialism and communism were proposed by Karl Marx, rivaling classic capital liberalism. The theory emerged as an alternative to the horrific working conditions under Tsarist Russia. Marx asserted that ultimately, power should be in the hands of the working class. To achieve this, industrialization should happen first, so society would have to go through an initial phase of capitalism. In this phase, industries could be established by the private sector and power would be on the hands of the industry owners (DeFronzo, 1991). Theoretically, the poor working conditions of the labor class would lead to a social revolution. Power would transition to the working class, achieving then a state of socialism, when the state owns the resources, industries and production, and power is in the hands of the working class. Ideally, the excellent social relations among the workers will allow for a fair distribution of wealth, leading tomaterial abundance. This is when communism would be in place and power would not be needed any longer (DeFronzo, 1991).

Karl Marx

Communism is a political and economic ideology striving for a classless society. Communism seeks to replace the profit-based economy with a common ownership of the means of production, achieving abundant wealth for all and powerful social relations at its peak (Chen, 2020). This economic ideology opposes that of capitalism, where industries are owned by the private sector. The former Soviet Union is often seen as the biggest example of a communist society, although the conditions for the utmost benefits described by Marx have never been achieved anywhere. There is a huge gap between the utopian ideologies behind socialism and the tough historical reality when the system is put in place.

A hammer and sickle, this is the symbol of communism. This symbol was used on the state flag of the Soviet Union.

Pink Tide: Latin America turning left

The Pink Tide is a revolutionary wave of a turn to the left in Latin American governments. These governments claim to be distancing themselves from the so-called neoliberal economic model. This shift to the left means that the countries are moving towards more socialist economic policies which coincided with a trend of democratization of Latin American countries after years of dictatorships. Several governments implemented these progressive policies and these policies increased social spending, renegotiated trade deals and nationalized important industries. New constitutions have even been written in some governments.

The left-wing governments in power in 2011 were Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. In 2013, the left-wing government in Paraguay came to a definitive end (The Next System, 2017). It is important to know that these left governments claim to differ from the governments that were considered left in Eastern Europe during the Cold War (De Santiago, n.d.).

The division between left and right in Latin America. The countries that are dark red are very left and the blue countries are right.

History of the Pink Tide: Utopian socialism and why Latin America is turning left

Before the 1990s most Latin American countries were under authoritarian ruling. The decade started with a wave of democracy, establishing mostly conservative right-winged government who paired with liberal economic ideas, claiming to liberalize the market and privatize the state’s resources for economic growth and equality. Several policies came into place with this aim, and the population of most countries identified their economy as “liberal”. Nevertheless, this was far from being the truth. Most Latin American countries, to this day, have not experience real liberty.

A cultural fear of capitalism

What happened was that when the leaders of each state privatized the national resources, such as oil reserves or telecommunications, they did not actually liberalize them. Instead, they gave the rights to their friends and closed ones. An oligarchic system began, this is, a form of politics when just a few privileged groups are in power of a certain sector. Twisted policies were also implemented to protect the new owners of such industries against free competition and entitling them benefits under the law. Opening an infinite possibility to corruption.

Protests throughout Latin America

Even under the so perceived “liberal” governments, in many Latin American countries many other important sectors were not liberalized. The state holds control of the educational, health, and many areas of the economic system. So is to say that even the notion of private property is misused and far from true. The governments in Latin America hold the rights of the subsoil. If you find oil, copper, silver, or any other valuable mineral or natural resource in your property, it is not yours to keep. It belongs to the state. And the state may give it away as it pleases. This has always been the case.

In the case of education, many Latin American constitutions guarantee “free” education for all. Noting beforehand that nothing is, was, and could ever be free. The State provides access to education for the users through a system of subsides. The government gives all the money directly to the schools and teachers. Apart from multiple other inherently wrong things brought up by this system, that are not the focus of this post, it gives total power to the state to dictate what kind of education is offered to its citizens. Public education is financed by the private sector (consumers, taxpayers, but mainly by private industries) but controlled by the government. The state mandates what is taught and how is taught, indoctrinating the kind of citizens that it needs to keep up with a system that benefits just a few.

Far from liberal, these examples showcase how state-controlled regimes are, and have always been in place in Latin American, despite the public opinion. As humans, we tend to believe what we are told, until we know better, then we can do better. And education is meant to free our minds and give us tools to know and do better. But what can be expected from a schooling system that is controlled by the same people that want us, that need us, naïve?

However, it is true that in the 1990s the first steps were given in the direction of liberalization of the market by privatizing the national resources (although wrongly distributed) and by opening the market to the world. Many trade agreements were established within Latin American countries, across the American continent (in the case of former NAFTA, now USMCA, and other agreements involving Canada and the USA) and with the rest of world.

The population was then convinced that Latin America was liberal and capitalist, and at first, was hopeful about this change of regime, from dictatorships and authoritarian governments, towards democracies and free market. But the law was not applied to everyone fairly. Small and medium enterprises were having difficulties to open and to stay in business, having to pay exorbitant taxes. All the meanwhile, the already- huge enterprises, protected by the government and favored by the law, were growing even bigger.  Corruption was in place, while people with conservative ideas were still ruling, opening up the possibility of illegal markets (such as drugs) which led to increased insecurity and violence and more corruption. And workers were still living under the same conditions as before. Things were not improving, and in many cases, even worsening. And in the eyes of everyone, this meant the new system had failed, liberalization and capitalism were not the solution (UNPACO, 2018; Alvarez, 2018).

When an opposite alternative emerged, promising all that was needed for the countries to prosper and to suppress inequality, it was easy to believe. And so, the first Pink tide emerged. A turn to the left, a revolutionary social movement in Latin America. The mainland was finally following what Cuba had started since the late 50s.

Revolutions and revolutionary movements in Cuba

Cuba has been under a socialist regime since the mid-20th Century, when Fidel Castro, alongside the popular Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, and with military and economic support from the USSR seized power from sanguinary dictator Batista. Militia-man Batista had started his leadership well, gaining independence from Spanish colony and strengthening bonds with the USA. The economy of the island was on the rise, being the main sugar producer of the world.  When the time came, he peacefully left power in hands of his successor, and took off to a life of luxury in the USA. Things started to go downhill for Cuba, so when Batista came back to retake leadership a few years later, he was well-received. However, Batista had tasted the sweet flavor of power and was not willing to let it go this time. He turned into a dictator who violently suppressed those who opposed to his regime (Bouchehri, Delahaye, Rasch & Zatulkina, 2015).

Che Guevara 

Revolutionary ideologies started sprouting throughout the island. Leaded by young, charismatic Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. The Castro brothers had grown up between the two worlds: having received education and some luxuries from his illegitimate father, a land-owner, Spanish descendent bourgeois, but living and working in the plantations with their mother, who was not married to him but worked for him (Bouchehri et al, 2015).

Initially Fidel Castro did not have socialist ideas, so during the uprisings, many people with different ideologies, including business-owners, joined him against Batista. Nevertheless, Fidel’s brother and Che Guevara had ties with socialist parties and communist groups derived from the USSR (Bouchehri et al, 2015).

The Cuban revolution took a form of guerrilla warfare. General Batista ended up fleeing, and Fidel Castro rose to take power. Castro had anti-American feelings, as the US had been present in most of the Cuban history since its independence from Spain at the start of the 20th century. Soon, the USSR, took advantage of Cuban’s political stand against its western ideological enemy, and of its geographic location (Bouchehri et al, 2015). Having Cuba only 425 km away from the coast of Miami, in the midst of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the USSR leader strengthened his bonds with Castro.

As Cuba was moving towards socialism, the regime depended on the economic and military support of their new Eastern socialist ally. Russia had recently gone through its own social revolution, following the Marxist and Leninist ideas. Lenin’s social revolution to overthrow the Czars of Russia was the first of the kind (DeFronzo, 1991).

The fall of the Soviet Union

With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the defeat and disintegration of the USSR, Cuba stopped receiving the most needed economic support to sustain the island. From 1990 to 1998 Cuba lived its worst crisis to the date. Dictator Fidel Castro knew they needed a new financial source. And what better source than Venezuela’s oil?

As it has been mentioned, one of the ideologies of socialism, is that the government owns and controls the natural resources. So, all that was needed was a rich country willing to become socialist. With the Latin American mainland seeking for a change of regime, the timing was perfect to sweet talk socialism, social movements, and revolutions.

The task would not be easy, with thousands of people fleeing from Cuba every year due to the results of same regime they intended to convince people of adopting, and with the recent fall of the Soviet Union… but remember who controls schooling and access to information in Latin American countries? The government and parties in power.

Socialism paired with progressive ideologies of reform and social equality have a sweet ring. Specially, to a population whose majority are living in poor conditions, seeking to end inequality, violence, and corruption. And even more when these issues are already being attributed to the liberal capitalistic, right-winged regimes.

A common ground for socialism in Latin America: The Sao Paulo Forum

Along with Lula Da Silva, a socialist Brazilian politician who would later become president of Brazil, Fidel Castro founded in 1990 the Sao Paulo Forum. São Paulo’s forum is a conference of left-wing parties and social movements from Latin American countries, this forum was set up by a Brazilian Workers’ party in São Paulo. The objective was to debate about the new international setting after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequences of the neoliberal policies that were adopted by the right-winged governments in the region. So, the main objective of the forum is to find alternatives for neoliberalism (Foro the São Paulo, n.d.). The first meeting was in 1990 and there already have been 26 meetings ever since.

An opportunity arose in 1997, when Castro met a charismatic leader with military training seeking to reform his country and free it from its liberal economic regime: Hugo Chavez, and his country, Venezuela. Hugo Chavez spent time in Cuba and received guerilla warfare training in Colombia. He claimed that power was to be seized by force, with a revolutionary movement.


The Pink Tide in the main continent really started in 1998/1999, when Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela. Pink was used instead of red, because red is associated with communism. Pink is lighter, so it is socialism (Moffitt, 2013). Hugo Chavez’s speech, during his inauguration, is today seen as a claim to leadership of Latin American socialism. Hugo Chavez launched the Bolivarian Revolution when he came into power. The ideology of the Bolivarian Revolution encouraged a state-led economy and nationalism in South America. Chavez immediately drafted a new constitution, which was about a socialist economy and social policies (TRT World, 2019).

With the Sao Paulo Forum to give structure to socialist parties, the adjacent Venezuelan oil-based economy to finance, and Cuban training, revolution and guerilla warfare was no longer needed to achieve socialism. Socialist parties could be formed, and its leaders democratically elected in each country. And so, it happened.

The rest of Latin America turning to the left

There are currently 52 official party members of the Sao Paulo Forum. Eight of them have been in power of their respective countries (in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Peru Uruguay). Five have represented the main opposition parties in their parliaments (in Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Uruguay).

Only two parties (both from Brazil) have withdrawn from the forum due to the Foro’s support to Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro.

Currently nine countries are being governed by parties that are members of the Sao Paulo’s Forum.

Argentina – Alberto Fernández (2019–present)

Bolivia – Luis Arce (President-elect of Bolivia)

Cuba – Miguel Díaz-Canel (2018–present)

 Dominican Republic – Luis Abinader (2020–present)

Ecuador– Lenín Moreno  (2017–present)

Mexico – Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018–present)

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega  (1979–1990, 2007–present)

Panama – Laurentino Cortizo (2019–present)

Venezuela – Nicolás Maduro (2013–present; disputed since 2019)

Hugo Chavez was the president of Venezuela and the leader of the Pink Tide. He died in 2013 (Moffitt, 2013).

This is what is meant by the Pink Tide. A wave of social movements in Latin America that have positioned (through revolution or through democratic elections) left-winged leaders in power. Conservatist ideas in the right-wing have been pushing young people to the opposite side of the spectrum. A wrong implementation of liberty in the 90s gave the population a false sense of a failing capitalist system. Miscommunication and media influence have led to an ideological polarization where, too often, conservatism, capitalism and liberalism are put in the same box in the right wing.

Young people fighting for gender equality, sustainability and the legalization of abortion are pushed to the left, fearing the opposing conservative ideas, but expanding that fear to capitalism and liberalism, unaware of the different meanings of the terms. Historically, socialist governments have proven to harm society, the economy and development of a country, and, in many cases, turn into totalitarian governments. Nevertheless, a culture favoring socialism is still predominant in Latin America, and it is our duty as citizens to educate ourselves and take off our blindfolds. It is our duty to look around to what is happening in the continent, what has happened in the world, track back its roots, and construct our ideologies from fact-based sources.


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