In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Latin American politics was defined by the re-emergence of the left. In stark contrast to the immediate post-Cold War period, by 2010 around two-thirds of Latin Americans lived in countries governed by progressive administrations. Backed by vibrant social movements, newly-elected governments began distancing themselves from Washington’s political and economic agenda, defying both neoliberal ideology and the longstanding dominance of the United States in the Western hemisphere.
This ‘Pink Tide’ is receding. The conservative candidate Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s 2015 presidential election. In 2016, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s Workers’ Party president, was removed from office before the end of her term. The crisis in Venezuela is fracturing the left and splitting the popular classes. After years of socio-economic gains, falling commodity prices dampened output across South America, reducing government revenues. In the Andean region the extractivist model that underpinned ‘21st Century Socialism’ has thrown up its own tensions and contradictions. There is the growing sense that the Pink Tide constituted a passive revolution, in Gramscian terms, even if, on an international level, the new left posed a counter-hegemonic challenge to the US.
Enter Donald Trump, who employed virulent anti-Mexican racism to win the US presidency. The hyper-nationalist Trump is keen to outsource policy to the generals to construct a ‘military first’ administration. In reversing Obama’s pragmatic opening to Cuba, for instance, the Trump administration returned the US to its customary bellicosity toward the island. Under the influence of conventional right-wingers like Marco Rubio, Trump’s approach to Latin America may yet conform to Republican orthodoxy. If trade is to be the exception (given Trump’s mercantilist proclivities), the promised NAFTA renegotiation will offer clues.
The current moment raises questions about the status of US hegemony and its relationship to the hemisphere’s changing political economy. For decades, the power of the United States has been inextricably interlinked with processes of neoliberalisation. The Washington Consensus, it is worth recalling, was first proclaimed with Latin America in mind. What makes the moment more profound is that, as result of Latin America’s newfound autonomy, commentators of various stripes have proclaimed an end to US hegemony in the region. In the dominant narrative, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, consumed by events elsewhere, all but ignored their geopolitical ‘backyard’. This is an overly-simplistic account, one that doesn’t stand up to empirical scrutiny.
As I argue in my new book, US Power in Latin America: Renewing Hegemony, rather than allow Latin America to enter a ‘post-hegemonic’ age, Washington has attempted to reconstitute its traditional pre-eminence. This can be seen across the different forms of power that comprise US hegemony in the hemisphere. From military strategy to multilateral diplomacy, the United States adjusted to the new realities to absorb and, at times, suppress the resistance emerging from Latin American capitals. This dialectical process will enter a new phase under the Trump administration, which is likely to face reinvigorated contestation from within the region, even as the left struggles to regain its electoral footing.
The New Latin Left – as I dub the progressive governments that arrived on the scene in the 2000s – was heterogeneous from the outset, with countries pursuing multiple and contrasting paths to development. While the more ‘radical’ governments sought to confront and transcend neoliberalism, most implemented ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. Leaders were generally content to give the state a more robust role in regulating the economy and tackling poverty, while simultaneously adhering to the wider structural constraints of an increasingly globalised capitalism. Inequality remained an intractable problem throughout this period. Nevertheless, states were able to seize policy space to experiment with alternatives to market fundamentalism.
It was the definitiveness of the left-turn as a truly regional trend that made it significant from an inter-American perspective. For all of its limitations and shortcomings, the New Latin Left comprised a counter-hegemonic movement away from the Washington Consensus. The US-designed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was defeated by 2005, with Brazil and Argentina playing a leading role. Venezuela and Bolivia re-nationalised elements of their hydrocarbons and mining industries. The IMF saw its authority decline. The Post-Washington Consensus was more Keynesian in orientation, but vaguer in its prescriptions. Many Latin American countries cultivated closer economic ties with China, sparking interest in the Beijing Consensus as a potential substitute for the neoliberal model. Indeed, China’s growing clout in the Western hemisphere symbolised Washington’s waning influence.
Latin American states also created new institutions of international cooperation, such the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. These bodies excluded the US and undercut the centrality of the Organisation of American States (OAS) on matters of conflict mitigation and election monitoring. The OAS has long been viewed as a mechanism of US supremacy by elements of the Latin American left. By reforming the OAS, the Obama administration hoped to protect its institutional power in the hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), led by Venezuela, offered an anti-imperialist vision of economic integration based on principles of solidarity and complementarity against neoliberal ‘free trade’.
With the FTAA in tatters, Bush, and later Obama, turned to a multi-track approach to shore up the Washington Consensus agenda, completing bilateral agreements with Chile, Peru, Panama, and Colombia, along with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which includes Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Although the Bush and Obama administrations differed in style and approach, they were both committed to advancing the interests of US and transnational capital in a more liberalised hemispheric economy. Obama pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to bridge the Americas and East Asia, linking participating economies in a trade regime designed to address areas not covered in previous agreements, including e-commerce and state-owned enterprises. Trump, a staunch advocate of corporate capitalism, removed the US from the TPP on his first day in office, leaving the future of US trade policy in doubt.
As illuminated by neo-Gramscian theory, hegemony in international relations requires elements of coercion, consensus and ideological legitimation. Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Latin America, is uninterested in consensus-building. He appears unware of the structural and institutional foundations of US hegemony, favouring instead a blunt, transactional approach centred on Washington’s considerable coercive power. The Trump phenomenon could galvanise left-nationalist and oppositional currents in the region; next year’s election in Mexico, where Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the current frontrunner, will provide an interesting test case.
A more ad hoc form of US statecraft implemented by an increasingly isolated White House will accelerate talk of hegemonic ‘decline’. That said, an imperialist turn in US foreign policy would threaten to destabilise Latin American politics at a particularly precarious time given the Venezuelan crisis, the peace process in Colombia, ‘drug violence’ in Mexico and Central America, and the coming transition in Cuba (where Raúl Castro is stepping down). This uncertainty is made more pronounced by the fact that the region’s fatigued progressive forces are now on the defensive against a resurgent right.
To an extent, the gains of the recent past are on the line.