Persistent inequality: the legacy of the pink tide and its limitations

As neoliberal policies wreaked havoc across Latin America, people in a number of countries reacted by ushering in left-leaning regimes. While this turn to the left (dubbed the 'pink tide') resulted in some impressive reforms which uplifted millions of people from abject poverty, the leadership of these regimes were unable, in the face of the assault from vested interests, to sustain their hold on power to carry out the radical reforms necessary to realise a more equitable social order. Sergio Costa and Francesc Badia consider the legacy of the pink tide regimes.

IN this election year in Latin America, when it is possible that the tide will confirm its turn and may strengthen conservative forces, the time is ripe to reflect on how progressive governments failed to reduce inequality during the virtuous decade of progressive governments throughout the region that managed to remove millions of citizens from extreme poverty.

But new measurements, no longer based on household surveys but on income tax declarations, have shown that the impacts of leftist governments in Latin America on income redistribution and wealth were less than assumed.

It has been found that these governments were able to significantly reduce poverty, but not decrease the concentration of income and wealth among the small group of millionaires located at the peak of the social pyramid in each country. This argument has been used to undermine the credibility of the leftist governments, alleging that they were not efficient, not even in the objective for which they have said they are essential, which is the reduction of inequality.

The pink tide and the struggle against inequality

It is true that inequalities and poverty have decreased more in the countries that, in recent years, were or continue to be governed by leftist forces, particularly Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, than in the Latin American countries not governed by leftist forces.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that advances in the struggle against inequality in the pink tide cycle have been much more limited than expected from governments that were elected based on a promise of reverting inequalities accumulated since the colonial period.

The explanations for this modest performance normally combine external and internal factors. In terms of external factors, it is alleged that the cycle of economic growth that helped finance spending on the social policies of leftist governments was based on the exports of raw materials and agricultural products whose volatile prices have been largely declining on international markets in recent times.

From an internal perspective, the central social policy adopted by practically all the leftist governments has been criticised, that is, cash transfers to the poorest. It is known that these policies, unlike policies aimed at the formation of long-lasting structures of a welfare state (quality education and healthcare provided by the state, public investments in professional training, etc.), have, by the strength of their own design, a very limited redistributive impact.

The tax question has also been highly debated. After all, except in isolated cases, the leftist governments were not able to create progressive tax structures that could redistribute income from the top to the base of the social pyramid.

These explanations are solid and pertinent and deserve to be considered. Nevertheless, they only reveal the surface of the phenomenon that they study and do not elucidate the ultimate reasons why the leftist governments have not gone much beyond the programmes for distribution of money to the poor.

To understand these reasons, it is necessary to articulate the analysis of social inequalities with the study of power relations in each case. That is, it is necessary to understand the political circumstances that caused the leftist governments to be unable to go further in addressing their concern for promoting income redistribution.

Six factors to be addressed

1. The exhaustion of grand national narratives that at other moments of recent Latin American history have united a nation around common objectives: This was the case, for example, with the national-developmentalist discourse that in the mid-20th century helped to legitimate the decisive participation of the state in the socio-economic development of countries such as Argentina and Brazil.

Something similar was observed during the democratisation process at the end of the last century, when groups with quite diverse interests joined around the common objective of re-establishing democracies in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.

The leftist forces that assumed power in the 21st century, even if they had been capable of winning elections, were not able to transform the fight against inequality into a national hegemonic project.

2. The erosion of national public spheres: In the context of democratisation in the various countries, public spaces were formed that were capable of promoting the effective interchange of ideas, interpretations and arguments of various social groups. These arenas of debate allowed governments to both promote and defend their policies as well as re-adjust them according to public reactions.

In recent years, the intensified concentration and the increased partisan nature of mass communication media, coupled with the rise of a multiplicity of forums and blogs that do not communicate with each other, have transformed the public sphere into a space of struggle in which insults and fake news have more weight than good arguments.

This new context creates insurmountable difficulties for the legitimation of proposals of substantive change such as the profound programmes for income redistribution that the Latin American left intended to implement.

3. Volatile parliamentary base: Most of the leftist governments were only able to be established at the cost of alliances with conservative forces. If these alliances guarantee the formation of a legislative majority necessary to govern, they very often impeded projects for tax reform or bolder redistributive plans.

4. Emergence of the so-called new middle classes that demonstrated greater commitment to individual upward mobility and the broadening of their opportunities for consumption than to the promotion of social justice.

This obviously does not involve a moral condemnation of these strata for wanting material prosperity. What it indicates is that the rise of the so-called new middle classes, typical voters for the leftist governments, forced these governments to 'correct' their discourse and their more radical redistributive intentions in favour of measures aimed at expanding the consumption possibilities and upward mobility of this segment.

5. Resistance of the established middle classes: In many countries, the growing consumption capacity of the new middle classes was seen by the established middle classes as a threat to their class reproduction. After all, their common markers of social distinction such as access to certain goods and services (cars, domestic employees, university education, etc.) either were no longer guaranteed or failed to be a privilege of the established middle classes.

This transformed the established middle classes into a large and powerful opponent of the leftist governments and their redistributive plans.

6. Appropriation of the state and of politics by economic elites: In recent years, the wealthiest groups in Latin America were able to extend and consolidate their control over the states in the region, including those governed by the left.

Through strong and often corrupt influence over politicians and governments, these elites were able to instrumentalise portions of the state to serve their interests, as well as obstruct, in the legislative realm, laws and reforms that could limit their economic power.

This explains, at least in part, the absence in many countries of fair taxation of capital gains or of large fortunes. It also explains why the peak of the social pyramid (the wealthiest 1% of each country) was able to broaden their participation in the appropriation of wealth and income even in the countries governed by the left.

The combination of these six factors, and others that prove to be relevant for each particular country, allow a deeper and better-articulated interpretation of the modest results of the leftist governments of Latin America in terms of the promotion of the distribution of income and wealth.

The meagre results are not due to a lack of political will, technical incompetence or ignorance of the effective mechanisms for promotion of greater equality. Given the circumstances in which the governments took power, it seems that the leftist forces have thus far lacked enough power to promote more radical reforms.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

Sergio Costa is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Latin American Studies and at the Institute of Sociology of the Freie UniversitĄt Berlin. Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Founder, Director and Lead Editor of democraciaAbierta. Francesc is an international affairs expert, journalist and political analyst. His most recent book is Order and Disorder in the 21st Century: Global Governance in a World of Anxieties. He tweets @fbadiad. This article was originally published on the openDemocracy website (

*Third World Resurgence No. 333/334, 2018, pp 16-17