When Venezuelans amassed in the streets of Caracas and loyal military units faced down rogue superiors in April of 2002, they may have symbolically ended more than just the coup d’etat against their republic’s constitutional government. Though conflated by Western media as an internal conflict spurred by the precipitous, firebrand ways of president Hugo Chávez, few in Latin America failed to see the fingerprints of the Bush administration on the coup. Such norteamericano machinations have littered the history of the region for more than a century, almost always at the behest of American financial elites, their corporations and their wealthy in-country peers, and always to the detriment of those countries’ broader populations.
But at the dawn of a new century, the old seeds failed to yield the desired fruit, instead stirring the ire of the Latin American community. Whether they loved, abided or even hated Chávez, 19 nations of the Rio Group, then meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, issued a joint statement condemning the coup, as did the Organization of American States. Bush played a Cold War-worn game and lost. Six years later, the region has undergone a tectonic electoral shift to where the U.S. and its once unquestioned primacy as the unmoved mover in the region “risks finding itself pushed aside as an outdated and rather useless relic,” as Larry Birns, director of Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal U.S. think-tank, put it in June 2006.
When Bush relinquishes the US presidency in less than half a year, he will leave his nation mired in a disastrous and legally untenable war, economically ravaged by predatory capitalism run amok, riddled with criminal scandal, and its prestige in the world in tatters. Historians, then or decades hence, will have little good to say of the administration’s tenure at the helm of the superpower, which it so single-mindedly dedicated to enforcing a global hegemony. And yet, for those “south of the border” where U.S. hegemony was once omnipresent, the Bush reign has effected just the opposite: a epoch-making, Latin America-wide shift leftward, away from, if not out of, Washington’s orbit.
In April, the people of Paraguay elected Fernando Lugo, a center-left populist and former Catholic priest, as their new president, ending 60 years of reactionary one-party rule in Paraguay. Lugo’s win is just the latest in the onslaught of progressive electoral victories that have, in less than a decade, ended a century-long lockdown on Latin American power by U.S.-backed right-wing oligarchs. He joins the likes of Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua in what has been called the “Pink Tide.” Each represents different degrees of progress, from moderate reformers to left nationalists. Yet, in relative terms, all are utter Reds compared to the erstwhile U.S.-friendly regimes that preceded them and, should they aggregate as a bloc, pose the broadest regional breach of the U.S.’s hegemony and “neoliberal” economic orthodoxy in the world today.
If we apply standard U.S. electoral mapping, a telling graphic picture emerges. In the U.S., red is used to indicate states or districts that vote for the more conservative Republican Party, whereas blue is used to indicate where the ostensibly more progressive Democratic Party wins, yielding a common parlance of “red states” versus “blue states.” More detailed district-by-district mapping often shows states trending toward “red” or “blue,” often graphically rendered in hues of purple. Using a similarly graded system, if not wholly scientifically, the author mapped out changes in the Latin American politicalscape from 2000 (Map 1) up to Lugo’s win (April 2008, Map 2). The political shift in the region, in this light, is utterly stark. It finds Latin American ruling parties, coalitions and even presidential palaces now populated by the types of people the U.S. once dealt with via military counter-insurgency and death squads: unionistas (Lula), Liberation Theologians (Lugo), self-identified socialists (Chávez, Morales and Bachelet [sort of]), former armed revolutionaries (Ortega) and indigenous peasant movimientistas (Morales).
The Pink Tide has left the reactionary governments of Colombia and El Salvador, and to a lesser extent Mexico and Peru, as vestigial outcrops of the old U.S. client-state model – and even two of those must be footnoted. Mexico’s 2006 election remains clouded by considerable evidence of Bush administration-linked private agencies engaged in ballot-tampering in order to steal the hotly contested election from progressive nationalist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And in El Salvador, gearing up for an election next March, polls show that for the first time the nation’s former leftist revolutionary front turned political party, the FMLN, will likely take the presidency in the person of the young, dynamic former journalist Mauricio Funes, whom some have called “El Salvador’s Obama.”