Will Lula Bring About Change in Regional Politics in Latin America?

It is commonly believed that governments’ ideological compatibility is crucial to the achievement of regional integration in Latin America. Therefore, it is not surprising that expectations for a new cycle of collaboration on the continent have increased in light of the prospect of both a Gustavo Petro administration in Colombia and a Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva victory in Brazil. In fact, if Petro and Lula are successful to act with the intention of regional cooperation, next year’s five most powerful presidents in Latin America — those in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile — would all be, broadly speaking, ideologically aligned and, in theory, receptive to developing positive bilateral and multilateral relations. But the process will be challenged by internal factors of the states and the polarization in international system.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected to a third term as president after narrowly defeating far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro with 50.9% of the runoff vote. It was a remarkable political comeback for the 77-year-old former metalworker, who served two terms as president from 2003 to 2010 before being imprisoned in 2017 as part of a massive bribery investigation. After being freed in 2019 and having his criminal charges overturned, Lula was able to run for government again. After winning, Lula spoke at his campaign headquarters and called taking government a “resurrection.” He along with some of the other heads of states in Latin America, with similar ideological belief, are on a verge of making a change in regional politics in Latin America.

However, recent elections have been won by left-of-center candidates in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Honduras. Leftist leader Gabriel Boric also won Chile’s election in a comprehensive way, and Gustavo Petro became Colombia’s first leftist president in June. The expanding leftist movement resembles a similar regional political upheaval that took place twenty years ago. On the backdrop of this scenario, there is a possibility in the region that it can experience a revival of leftist ideological transformation. But, there will be challenges. The following sections will shed light on this issue.

Right-wing extremist, Jair Bolsonaro contributed to the movement toward Lula, a symbol of the Brazilian and Latin American left. Brazil’s staggering pandemic death toll of more than 685,000 is largely attributed to Bolsonaro’s Covid-skeptic stance, and he presided over unprecedented Amazon rainforest damage. On the other hand, political veteran Lula, who held office for two terms between 2003 and 2010, is credited with rescuing about 30 million Brazilians from poverty. He was a member of the first “pink tide,” which witnessed the ascent of leftist presidents including Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Evo Morales in Bolivia. At the time, there was a highly hopeful wave of left-wing administrations attempting to combat inequality and eliminate poverty. And the situation was substantially better.

Then came the global financial crisis, which devastated Latin America, which was heavily dependent on exports, and caused an immediate, widespread move to the political right. But later on, leaders like Bolsonaro made things worse for the image of the right-wing and a wave of left-leaning and leftist political parties came across the scene and grab the nerve of the society. Therefore, the rising inflation in the area and the rise in social inequities, which has caused a surge in unhappiness among the common people, have made the Pink Tide greener and more well-liked in recent years. The transition was also influenced by the Covid-19 epidemic. As a result of the pandemic, people began to reject well-known political parties and choose leaders who are more focused on securing increased spending on social welfare initiatives. The new wave therefore suggests that the populace was dissatisfied with the status quo in the area and desired governments that are more focused on social welfare measures.

However, the White House hastily embraced the new administration after Brazil’s leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a non-consecutive third term in October. With Brazil’s inclusion, a new group of Latin American nations that were previously trusted allies of the United States will now be led by presidents eager to strengthen ties with China, Russia, and Iran. The Biden administration has declared it is putting up an early chance to meet with Lula and expressed its desire to collaborate with him on matters such as climate change

Besides, Lula ran on a platform of regional integration, which included creating the “SUR,” a regional currency. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela at the time, tried a similar strategy more than ten years ago but was unsuccessful in winning enough support from the biggest economies in the area. However, the political environment is becoming more favorable, and advancements in digital currency technology, including a push from Beijing, might make things stronger. Like Chavez, Lula is open about the fact that this is a calculated move to reduce reliance on the currency.

Most crucially, Lula has a track record of maintaining diplomatic ties with Washington while embracing communist China’s influence and that of its allies Russia and Iran. Since the beginning of his first term as president, Lula has favored a “multi-polar” world, one in which (in reality) Beijing and Moscow might be the two most potent poles in the Western Hemisphere. At the COP27 summit in Egypt, he already had a meeting with Xie Zhenhua, China’s special climate envoy.

With Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, Lula is expected to assist in reviving the “Union of South American Nations” and strengthening CELAC, two international organizations that do not include the United States. The regional ministerial forums of communist China are frequently held at CELAC. China announced a long list of areas of collaboration with the countries in the area at the most recent summit in December, including nuclear and aerospace.

Lula had a key role in positioning Beijing’s influence in Brazil during his first two mandates. During his administration, China’s trade with Brazil rose by a factor of sixteen, moving from initial investments in rare earth minerals, oil and gas, and agriculture to delicate telecommunications and infrastructure projects, then to capital goods, manufacturing, and the service industry.

Despite conflicting statements made during his election campaign, all of this is expected to be expanded under Lula, who utilized the early 2000s commodities boom, which was mostly driven by China, to increase public spending during his previous tenure as president of Brazil. He was also a founding member of the BRIC coalition, an emerging economic bloc that has recently been used to counterbalance the influence of the United States on the global economy. BRIC may soon include Iran.

So, like many other global actors, the current Brazilian leadership is trying to maintain a balanced approach towards the major powers of the world. But there will be challenges and those should be taken into account. Like, leaders of this generation were unable or unwilling to meet the challenge of a financial crisis, made exponentially worse by a pandemic that highlighted unequal access to healthcare and education and revealed ineffective leadership. The electorate became more polarized as inequality increased. So unlike the previous instance, this “pink tide” does not appear to be motivated by a shared, ideological goal.

Moreover, the left-wing regimes that the Latin America currently has, are very dissimilar from one another. In addition to having left-wing populists in Mexico and Nicaragua, Latin America also boasts authoritarian regimes in Chile, Colombia, and Argentina. Lula would therefore have difficulty with any initiative to promote regional political or economic union because he is typically regarded as a financially moderate and pragmatic leftist rather than a radical or populist one. This shift to the left is less organized, “compared to the first “pink tide.” It is happening because right-wing presidents failed to bring about change when they were in office in practically every nation.

[Photo by Roberto Nunes, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. He was a Research Assistant at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and International Republican Institute (IRI). He has completed his internship at Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI).

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