Pink Tide Reversing Democratic Gains In South America

In South America, democracy stumbles in second act (USA Today)

Two decades or so ago, South America was a region where right-wing military dictators were falling like dominoes as a tide of democracy rolled into Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and other countries. Optimism abounded that freedom and market economics would lift the region from its long malaise, much as democratic rumblings in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories have raised hopes recently for the Mideast. These days, though, what’s being called a “pink tide” is eroding South America’s democratic gains.

The poor and middle classes feel that democracy has been hijacked by corrupt politicians and that its benefits haven’t trickled down to them. They’re protesting, demanding leaders who will do something – anything – to improve their lives. They’re forcing out those who don’t deliver and electing leaders whose “pink” populism is leftist but less revolutionary and harsh than Fidel Castro’s discredited “red” communism. Just as worrisome, pink-tide leaders are fanning anti-U.S. resentment. Among its components: dislike of U.S. support for austerity rules set by international lending organizations to pay off massive debt; anger at stricter post-9/11 immigration policies; a sense that U.S. trade prescriptions harm their economies; and opposition to the Iraq war.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits four Latin American countries this week, the pink tide is a reminder that even when elections and fledgling democratic institutions are put in place, there’s little guarantee nations will bloom into stable democracies. Or that the U.S., the standard-bearer of democracy, will continue to be seen as the place to be emulated. South American democracy has stalled before developing entrenched institutions and practices such as a strong civil service, truly independent courts and fair election campaigns.


Just how disenchanted are South Americans with democracy? A year ago, more than 50% of 19,000 polled by the United Nations said they would prefer a new caudillo (strong man) over democracy if he’d make their living conditions better.

Although it’s disappointing, this isn’t particularly surprising. Countries making the transition from authoritarian government to democracy almost inevitably face the prospect of backsliding as things get difficult. The most obvious recent example is Russia, which has seemed to be on the brink of returning to its old ways numerous times since the fall of the USSR in 1990. The transition is a messy one, complicated by a suddenly open media that shows the messiness in all its glory whereas the sins of the old regime were known only through rumor and personal experience.

Few people live in the world of political theory. Maslow’s heirarchy is always there, prioritizing safety and the ability to feed one’s family over the right to vote and free expression.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.