Latin America in the World-System:

World Revolutions and Semiperipheral Development


Street Demonstration, Porto Alegre, Brazil, World Social Forum 2005


Christopher Chase-Dunn <>

Alessandro Morosin <>

Department of Sociology and the

 Institute for Research on World-Systems (IROWS)

University of California-Riverside

v. 2-19-13 10236 words

Paper to be presented at the Santa Barbara Global Studies Conference session on "Rising Powers: Reproduction or Transformation?" February 22 – 23, 2013.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the California Sociological Association meetings, Mission Inn, Riverside, CA on November 10, 2012.  Thanks to Matheu Kaneshiro, Alexis Alvarez, Kirk Lawrence, Richard Niemeyer, Anthony Roberts, Edwin Elias, David Pugh and Angie Garita for their help with an earlier version of this paper. This is IROWS Working Paper #76 available at



Abstract: This paper discusses Latin America's changing role in the modern world-system and the contributions that it has made, and may yet make, to the contemporary world revolution. We review the ways in which earlier world revolutions have played out in Latin America and the contributions that Latin American populist and indigenous politics are making to the global justice movement. We develop and apply a method for coding Leftist regime forms in Latin America and we use this coding to examine the relationship between regime form and world-system position (periphery vs. semiperiphery). We find that peripheral and semiperipheral countries are not different with regard to the likelihood of a transition toward the left in the period between 1959 and 2012, but that semiperipheral countries are more likely to have gone through such a transition earlier.


The Comparative Evolutionary World-Systems Perspective

            Hall and Chase-Dunn (2006) have modified the concepts developed by the scholars of the modern world-system to construct a theoretical perspective for comparing the modern system with earlier regional world-systems. In this framework, sociocultural evolution can only be explained if polities are seen to have been in important interaction with each other since the Paleolithic Age. From this perspective, what we call Latin America contained many smaller regional world-systems before it became incorporated into the expanding Europe-centered system beginning in the 16th century.  Hall and Chase-Dunn proposed a general model of the causes of the evolution of technology and hierarchy within polities and in linked systems of polities (world-systems). Perhaps the most important idea that comes out of this theoretical perspective is that transformational changes are brought about mainly by the actions of individuals and organizations within polities that are semiperipheral relative to the other polities in the same system. This is known as the hypothesis of semiperipheral development. This process of uneven development of the evolution of sociocultural complexity was operating already within the indigenous world-systems in the places that became Latin America.

            As regional world-systems became spatially larger and the polities within them grew and became more internally hierarchical, interpolity relations also became more hierarchical because new means of extracting resources from distant peoples were invented.  Thus did core/periphery hierarchies emerge. Semiperipherality is the position of some of the polities in a core/periphery hierarchy. Some of the polities that were located in semiperipheral positions became the agents that formed larger chiefdoms, states and empires by means of conquest (semiperipheral marcher polities), and some specialized semiperipheral trading states in the spaces between the tributary empires promoted production for exchange in the regions in which they operated. So both the spatial and demographic scale of political organization and the spatial scale of trade networks were expanded by semiperipheral polities, eventually leading to the global system in which we now live.

            The modern world-system came into being when a formerly peripheral and then semiperipheral region (Europe) developed an internal core of capitalist states that were eventually able to dominate the polities of all the other regions of the Earth. This Europe-centered system was the first one in which capitalism became the predominant mode of accumulation, though semiperipheral capitalist city-states had existed since the Bronze Age in the spaces between the tributary empires. The Europe-centered system expanded in a series of waves of colonization and incorporation (See Figure 1). Commodification in Europe expanded, evolved and deepened in waves since the 13th century, which is why historians disagree about when capitalism became the predominant mode. Since the 15th century the modern system has seen four periods of hegemony in which leadership in the development of capitalism was taken to new levels. The first such period was led by a coalition between Genoese finance capitalists and the Portuguese crown (Arrighi 1994). After that the hegemons have been single nation-states: the Dutch in 17th century, the British in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century (Wallerstein 1984a).  Europe itself, and all four of the modern hegemons, were former semiperipheries that first rose to core status and then to hegemony.



Figure 1: Waves of Colonization and Decolonization Since 1400- Number of colonies established and number of decolonizations (Source: Henige, 1970)


            The recurrent waves of colonization shown in Figure 1 show that European expansion and peripheralization of the Americas, Asia and Africa was a somewhat cyclical process that was carried out by different European powers over time (first the Portuguese and Spanish, then the Dutch, British and French.) This represents the formation of Europe-centered world-system of colonial empires that eventually became global in the 19th century. The waves of decolonization, starting with the United States in 1776, show how the system of formal colonial empires was dismantled by resistance and how the European state system expanded to include first Latin America in the 19th century, and then Asia and Africa in the 20th century.  This demonstrates the formation of the contemporary global polity of formally sovereign states by the interaction between imperial domination and anti-imperial resistance.

            In between the periods of hegemony were periods of hegemonic rivalry in which several contenders strove for global power. The core of the modern world-system has remained multicentric, meaning that a number of sovereign states ally and compete with one another. Earlier regional world-systems sometimes experienced a period of core-wide empire in which a single empire became so large that there were no serious contenders for predominance.  This did not happen in the modern world-system until the United States became the single super-power following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989.

            The sequence of hegemonies can be understood as the evolution of global governance in the modern system. The interstate system as institutionalized at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1644 is still a fundamental institutional structure of the polity of the modern system. The system of theoretically sovereign states was expanded to include the peripheral regions in two large waves of decolonization (see Figure 1), eventually resulting in a situation in which the whole modern system became composed of sovereign national states.

            Each of the hegemonies was larger as a proportion of the whole system than the earlier one had been. And each developed the institutions of economic and political-military control by which it led the larger system such that capitalism increasingly deepened its penetration of all the areas of the Earth. And after the Napoleonic Wars in which Britain finally defeated its main competitor, France, global political institutions began to emerge over the top of the international system of national states. The first proto-world-government was the Concert of Europe, a fragile flower that wilted when its main proponents, Britain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, disagreed about how to handle the world revolution of 1848. The Concert of Europe was followed by the League of Nations, then by the United Nations and the Bretton Woods international financial institutions (The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and eventually the World Trade Organization).

            The political globalization evident in the trajectory of global governance evolved because the powers that be were in heavy contention with one another for geopolitical power and for economic resources, but also because resistance emerged within the polities of the core and in the regions of the non-core. The series of hegemonies, waves of colonial expansion and decolonization and the emergence of a proto-world-state occurred as the global elites tried to compete with one another and to contain resistance from below. We have already mentioned the waves of decolonization. Other important forces of resistance were slave revolts, the labor movement, the demand for suffrage from “men of no property,” the women’s movement, and other associated rebellions and social movements.  


World Revolutions and the Evolution of Global Governance

            These movements affected the evolution of global governance in part because the rebellions often clustered together in time, forming what have been called “world revolutions” (Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein 1989). The Protestant Reformation in Europe was an early instance of a world revolution that played an important role in the rise of the Dutch hegemony.  The French Revolution of 1789 was linked with the American and Haitian revolts. The successful anti-colonial nationalism in many of the British colonies of North America helped to inspire the French revolution as it also deepened the fiscal crisis of the French monarchy because of the costs of its support for the rebels. The Haitian revolution let by Toussaint L'Ouverture established the first republic in Latin America and inspired movements for national sovereignty in the colonies of Spain and Portugal.  The 1848 rebellion in Europe was both synchronous with the Taiping Rebellion in China and was linked with it by the diffusion of ideas, as it was also linked with the emergence of new Christian Sects (Latter Day Saints, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, etc.) in the United States. 1917 was the year of the Bolsheviks in Russia, but the same decade as the Chinese Nationalist revolt of Sun Yat Sen, the Mexican revolution against Porfirio Diaz, the Arab Revolt of 1916 and a General Strike in Seattle led by the Industrial Workers of the World. The revolts of students and oppressed nationalities in Europe, Latin America and the U.S. in 1968 coincided with the height of the Cultural Revolution in China. 1989 was mainly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but important lessons about the value of civil rights beyond their uses as justifications for capitalist democracy were learned by an emergent global civil society (Kaldor 2003).

            The current world revolution of 20xx (Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer 2009) has been, and continues to be a global counter-movement in response to the latest wave of capitalist globalization. The big idea here is that the evolution of capitalism and of global governance is importantly a response to resistance and rebellions from below as contenders for global power compete with each other to provide legitimated leadership. This has been true in the past and is likely to continue to be true in the future. Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) contend that capitalism and socialism have dialectically interacted with one another in a positive feedback loop similar to a spiral. The labor and socialist movements were obviously a reaction to capitalist industrialization. U.S. hegemony, the building of the post-World War II global institutions, and the post-war wave of globalization were importantly spurred on by the World Revolution of 1917 and the wave of decolonization that occurred in decades after World War II.

            As described above, we conceive of global governance as an evolutionary process of sociocultural change in which the institutions and structures of hegemony provoke counter-hegemonic responses within countries and in the Global South (the non-core), and these responses are taken into account by the lords of globalization as they fine-tune their efforts to reproduce a system of inequalities with themselves at the top. We contend that it was popular reactions to the stringent neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s and 1990s (Walton and Seddon 1994;  Francis 2005) that eventually led to the emergence of  “Pink Tide” populist regimes in Latin America. SAPs evolved over time as the architects of neoliberal policies adapted to the popular reactions that their early policies produced. We use a typology of political regimes in the Global South to examine particular cases in Latin America to see how the reactions to the SAPS have played out in particular cases. We discuss how local social movements in the “planet of slums” have linked up with activists in other countries and have participated in the Social Forum process, as well as the often contentious relationship between the social movements and the populist regimes.

            Neo-liberalism began in the 1980s as the Reagan-Thatcher attack on the welfare state and labor unions. It evolved into the Structural Adjustment Policies of the International Monetary Fund and the triumphalism of the ideologues of corporate globalization after the demise of the Soviet Union.  In United States foreign policy it found expression in a new emphasis on “democracy promotion” in the periphery and semiperiphery.  Rather than propping up military dictatorships in Latin America, the emphasis shifted toward coordinated action between the C.I.A and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy to promote electoral institutions in Latin America and other semiperipheral and peripheral regions.   

            William I. Robinson (1996) and Barry Gills et. al (1993) point out that the kind of “low intensity democracy” that was promoted by global and national neoliberal elites is really best understood as a regime form in which elites orchestrate a process of electoral competition and governance. The intent and effect was to undercut more radical political alternatives that might threaten the ability of elites to maintain their wealth and power by exploiting workers and peasants. Robinson convincingly argued that ‘polyarchy’ and democracy-promotion are the political forms that are most congruent with a globalized and neo-liberal world economy in which capital is given free reign to generate accumulation wherever profits are greatest. Gills et. al. (1993) argued that low intensity democracy is a form that facilitates the imposition of neoliberal economic policies, including liberalization, marketization and privatization, the three pillars of the Washington Consensus.


The Contemporary Core/Periphery Hierarchy

            Jeffrey Kentor’s (2000, 2005) quantitative measure of the position of national societies in the world-system remains the best continuous measure because it includes GNP per capita, military capability, and economic dominance/dependence (Kentor 2008). We trichotomize Kentor’s combined continuous indicator of world-system position into core, periphery and semiperiphery categories for purposes of our research. The core category is nearly equivalent to the World Bank’s “high income” classification, and is what most people mean by the term “Global North.” The “Global South” is divided into two categories: the semiperiphery and the periphery. The semiperiphery includes large countries (e.g. Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, India, China) and smaller countries with middle levels of GNP per capita (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa, etc.). 


Figure 2: The global hierarchy of national societies: core, semiperiphery and periphery in 2000 (Source: Kentor 2008)


            Figure 2 depicts the global hierarchy of national societies divided into the three world-system zones. The core countries are in dark black, the peripheral countries are gray, and the semiperipheral countries in the middle of the global hierarchy are in crosshatch. The visually obvious thing is that North America and Europe are mostly core, Latin America is mostly semiperipheral, Africa is mostly peripheral and Asia is a mix of core, periphery and semiperiphery.

            As we have said above, the comparative world-systems perspective developed by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) observes that semiperipheral regions have been unusually fertile sources of innovations and have implemented social organizational forms that transformed the scale and logic of world-systems. This is termed the hypothesis of “semiperipheral development.”  This hypothesis suggests that attention should be paid to events and developments within the semiperiphery, both the emergence of social movements and the emergence of national regimes. The World Social Forum process is theoretically global in extent, but its entry upon the world stage has come primarily from semiperipheral Brazil and India. The “Pink Tide” process in Latin America, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has seen the emergence of populist regimes in several Latin American countries in the last decade. We want to pay special attention to these two phenomena and to their interaction with one another in light of the hypothesis of semiperipheral development.


The New Global Left and the World Revolution of 20xx

            The contemporary world revolution is similar to earlier ones, but also different. The research reported in this paper is part of an effort to comprehend the nature of the New Global Left in its world historical context (see also Santos 2006). Our conceptualization of the New Global Left includes both civil society entities such as individuals, social movement organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but also political parties and progressive national regimes. In this paper we will discuss the relationships among the progressive movements and the populist regimes that have emerged in Latin America in the last decade. We understand these regimes to be an important part of the New Global Left, though it is well known that the relationships among the movements and the regimes are both supportive and contentious.

            The boundaries of the progressive forces that have come together in the New Global Left are fuzzy and the process of inclusion and exclusion is ongoing. The rules of inclusion and exclusion that are contained in the Charter of the World Social Forum, though still debated, have not changed much since their formulation in 2001.

           The New Global Left has emerged as resistance to, and a critique of, global capitalism (Lindholm and Zuquete, 2010). What are the structural roots of crisis and privation that these new forces are operating in and reacting to? In brief, the Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal capitalist globalization project extended the power of transnational capital. This project has reached its ideological and material limits. It has increased inequality within some countries, exacerbated rapid urbanization in the Global South (so-called Planet of Slums), attacked the welfare state and institutional protections for the poor, and precipitated a near-global financial collapse. Much of neoliberalism has been crisis management intended to deal with the problems caused by overaccumulation in core manufacturing and a declining profit rate in the 1970s and 1980s (Amin 1997). Perceived limitations to the further expansion of financialization led neoconservative elements in the second Bush administration to support what may be called “imperial over-reach.” The invasion and ongoing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, utilize military power to control the global oil and energy supply as a means of propping up declining U.S. economic hegemony and perpetuating the rule of global finance capital. The economic meltdown of 2008 began the demise of the current phase of capitalist accumulation and the neoliberal and neoconservative political projects.

            The New Global Left is a collection of social movements that, for all its diversity, shares a common sense of indignation at these systemic inequalities  and is working to ameliorate or surpass them. Recent incarnations of the old social movements that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries (labor, anarchism, socialism, communism, feminism, environmentalism, peace, human rights) and movements that emerged in the world revolutions of 1968 and 1989 (queer rights, anti-corporate, fair trade, indigenous) and even more recent movements such as the slow food/food rights, global justice/alterglobalization, antiglobalization, health-HIV and alternative media (Reese et al., 2008). The explicit focus on the Global South and global justice is somewhat similar to some earlier instances of the Global Left, especially the Communist International, the Bandung Conference and the anticolonial movements. The New Global Left contains remnants and reconfigured elements of earlier Global Lefts, but it is a qualitatively different constellation of forces because:


1.      there are new elements,

2.      the old movements have been reshaped, and

3.      a new technology (the Internet) is being used to mobilize protests in real time and to try to resolve North/South issues within movements and contradictions among movements.


            There has also been a learning process in which the earlier successes and failures of the Global Left are being taken into account in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Many social movements have reacted to the neoliberal globalization project by going transnational to meet the challenges that are obviously not merely local or national (Reitan, 2007). But some movements, especially those composing the Arab Spring, are focused mainly on regime change at home. The relations within the family of antisystemic movements and among the Latin American Pink Tide populist regimes are both cooperative and competitive. The issues that divide potential allies need to be brought out into the open and analyzed in order that cooperative efforts may be enhanced and progressive global collective action may become more effective.


Latin America in World History

            Latin America has a unique and complex history in which class and ethnic struggles within countries have repeatedly intersected with the world historical context. The conquest of the Americas featured the decimation of indigenous populations and their enserfment in systems of agricultural land-tenure and the expansion of a slave-based plantation economy in which a huge number of Africans were forcibly relocated to the New World. This was an important part of what Karl Marx sardonically called “the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist accumulation.” It is safe to generalize that the beginnings of the post-Columbian Americas were characterized by primitive accumulation based on the exploitation of native and African populations. In other words, capital has deep roots in the underdevelopment of Latin America, and the legacies of primitive accumulation continue to leave large masses of poor eking out a living (Frank 1967;1979; Mahoney 2010)

            Although each country has had its own unique history, important commonalities that these countries share include indigenous rebellions, slave revolts, anti-colonial struggles for independence, concomitant wars and altercations between authoritarianism and democracy, the commodification of natural resources, competing commercial interests, foreign intervention (often at the behest of core capital), and leftist popular waves.  In other words, Latin America has been a battleground of global and internal class conflict since 1492 (Galeano 1987).

            Most world-systems analysts contend that the mode of production that emerged in Latin America was peripheral capitalism, not semi-feudalism (Frank 1979) Coerced labor (slavery, serfdom) used to produce commodities for export to the core was understood as a necessary and reproduced part of the larger capitalist world-system.  This use of coercion was not just something that happened in the beginning to create the institutional basis of capitalism, as implied by Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation. Rather, coercion is seen as a continuing and reproduced feature of capitalism as a system. This idea has been expressed recently in David Harvey’s (2003) analysis of “accumulation by dispossession.”

            During a period of rivalry between Britain and France for European hegemony in the 18th century slaves, peasants, the urban poor and sailors began to systematically challenge the power of core states and business elites, and the American, French and Haitian Revolutions were important outcomes of these forms of transnational resistance from below (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000). And the Haitian Revolution, in which slaves came to power in the French sugar colony of St. Dominque, had a large impact on slave revolts and abolition movements elsewhere, and on the outcome of the struggle between France and England for global hegemony. The Black Jacobins deprived Napoleon of the huge profits from the sugar plantations, and his unsuccessful efforts to recover Haiti led him to sell Louisiana to the Americans, thereby relinquishing French claims to nearly the whole center of the North American continent.

            The 18th and early 19th century movements from below had powerful effects on the outcomes of competition and conflict among global elites. Local and regional social movements (e.g. slave rebellions, indigenous revolts, pirates, etc.) affected the structures of global governance and the rise and fall of competing hegemonic core states. The Haitian revolution, itself a spin-off of the American and French Revolutions, played an important role in Britain’s defeat of Napoleonic France and thus in ushering in the 19th century British hegemony, the decolonization of Latin America, and new wave of capitalist globalization. Though the actions of the non-elite rebels fired resistance by example across the “Revolutionary Atlantic,” there was little in the way of coordinated action across great distances. Rather the rebellions had their effects mainly by clustering many local activities during the same decades (Santiago-Valles 2005).

            The anticolonial movements for national sovereignty in Latin America eventually led to civil wars among different elite and class factions, just as happened in the United States. But in most countries of Latin America the “internal South” – those whose wealth was dependent on keeping a large class of poor laborers – won the civil wars and so the countries continued to export raw materials to the core. In the United States the civil war was won by core capitalists in league with urban workers and small farmers, thus eventually leading to a semiperipheral and then to a core position within the larger world-system (Chase-Dunn 1980).

           Thus one sees waves of the spread of capitalist domination and the struggle for popular rights throughout the history of Latin America. Capital seemed to have won, particularly throughout the Reagan years. Then a former military general won the votes of the poor in Venezuela. A team including social democrats became elected in Chile. A member of the working party came to power in Brazil. A brave president in Argentina finally stood up against the demands of the International Monetary Fund and Wall Street.

            Alejandro Portes and his co-authors (Portes 2008; Portes and Smith 2006; Portes and Roberts 2006) have suggested the following scenario as a general representation of what has happened in many Latin American countries: the early Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) imposed by the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s were draconian instances of “shock therapy” that emboldened domestic neoliberals to attack the “welfare state,” unions and workers parties. In many countries these attacks resulted in downsizing and streamlining of urban industries, and workers in the formal sector lost their jobs and were forced into the informal economy, swelling the “planet of slums.”  This is the formation of the globalized working class described by William Robinson (2006). In many countries the informal sector was mobilized by political leaders into populist movements and parties, and in some of these, the movements were eventually successful in electing their leaders to national power, creating the Pink Tide presidencies. In this scenario, neoliberal Structural Adjustment Polices provoked domestic and transnational counter-movements that eventuated in the Pink Tide.


Progressive and anti-systemic regimes in Latin America: Cold War Left, Pink Tide and Social Democrats

            As we have said above, the World Social Forum (WSF) is not the only political force that demonstrates the rise of the New Global Left. The WSF is embedded within a larger socio-historical context that is challenging the hegemony of global capital. It was this larger context that facilitated the founding of the WSF in 2001. The anti-International Monetary Fund protests of the 1980s and the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 were early harbingers of the current world revolution.                World history has proceeded in a series of waves. Capitalist expansions have ebbed and flowed, and egalitarian and humanistic counter-movements have emerged in a cyclical dialectical struggle. Polanyi (1944) called this the double-movement, while others have termed it a “spiral of capitalism and socialism.” This spiral of capitalism and socialism describes the undulations of the global economy that has alternated between expansive commodification throughout the global economy, followed by resistance movements on behalf of workers and other oppressed groups (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). Latin America participated in the world revolution of 1917, and after World War II Latin American nationalists often tended to side with the Soviet Union against the United States. The Cuban Revolution began as a movement to get rid of a dictator, but Castro was driven to ally with the Soviets because of opposition from the United States. The nationalist movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua were similarly driven toward the 1917 version of radicalism by opposition from the U.S.  The regimes that came to power in this way are somewhat different from those that have been called Pink Tide, but they ally with the Pink Tide regimes and support transnational antisystemic social movements.

            While much of the democratization of the Global South has taken the form of “polyarchy” in which elites play musical chairs (Robinson 1996), in some countries the Pink Tide Leftist regimes have been voted into power.  The spread of electoral democracy to the non-core has been part of the larger political incorporation of former colonies into the European interstate system. This evolutionary development of the global political system has mainly been caused by the industrialization of the non-core and the growing size of the urban working class in non-core countries (Silver 2003).

            Table 1 shows our categorization of Latin American political regimes since 1959.  We label as “progressive” the regimes that to some extent oppose the neoliberal policies that have been promulgated and enforced by the United States and Great Britain since the 1980s.              If the country has had a progressive regime, we note the years it has been governed by such regimes since 1980. We are interested in the longevity of progressive regimes because this is an indicator of how much support they have.  We code non-progressive and neoliberal regimes as 0. Though some of these states claim to talk about inequality as a problem (Colombia just recently), and may have some programs to offset it (Mexico for most of its post-revolutionary history), social welfare measures are not a high priority of state policy.

            Progressive regimes are further divided into 1’s and 2’s. Drawing on a distinction made by Smith and Wiest (2012), we give what we believe are reformist regimes a score of 1 and antisystemic regimes a score of 2.  Following Wallerstein (1990) “to be antisystemic is to argue that neither liberty nor equality is possible under the existing system and that both are possible only in a transformed world.” We feel this captures some of the variation among regimes who identify themselves (or who have been labeled by various forces as) Pink Tide.

            States like Argentina and Brazil have been less oppositional in international relations, but we include their regimes as progressive (not antisystemic). Social Democratic regimes that are internally progressive but that do not oppose international free trade policies (e.g. Chile) are also scored as 1.

            We classify three of the four members of ALBA as 2s (antisystemic), and these were the only 2’s in our table (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba). While these regimes have varying degrees of persistent structural dependence on the world-economy and other deeply-rooted internal inequalities, they are posing the most substantial ideological, diplomatic, and economic challenges to the neoliberal development model in Latin America thus far. Nicaragua is classified as a 1 despite its membership in ALBA. Ortega is such an opportunist rather than espouse a clear political position; he only what says what will keep him in power. Notwithstanding the ties to Chavez that have guaranteed the Ortega regime a slush fund which has helped get economic growth up, the regime is trying to grow the economy in a free market system and then to redistribute. This has many Nicaraguan leftists disillusioned or splitting with him. There is no support from worker-run enterprises as in Bolivia and Venezuela.

            The main distinction between Cold War Leftist regimes and Pink Tide regimes is the older Leftists mounted armed struggles in order to gain political power, while the Pink Tide regimes became elected through legal means. We view the Cold War leftist regimes (Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador) as part of the Pink Tide, though not all promote or seek antisystemic rupture with neoliberalism. The Latin American Cold War left comes from different historical circumstances than the recent Pink Tide, but is still important to include in our discussion, since some of these states have maintained or re-gained a certain oppositional stance towards U.S.-led neoliberalism. The political paths of our 2’s have largely been colored by negative experiences with the Washington Consensus since the 1980s. Table 1 aims to give a sense of some of the depth and longevity of this opposition, as well as the influence of states whose continued maintenance of a conservative posture poses a buffer to the politics of the Pink Tide.





Nature of Regime


Recent Heads of Government

Notes on regime composition: foreign policy, free trade, internal policies, relation to antisystemic movements






Kirchners - Nestor and Kristina.

After Latin America’s greatest peacetime slump and social movements drive out three presidents in a week, Social Democrats assume power. Partial commitment toward narrowing inequality and seeking justice for victims of “Dirty War” (1976-83). “Superorthodox” neoliberalism replaced by greater role for state, but not wholesale rejection of Washington Consensus.

Since 2001 recovery, reliance on export-based economic growth (Asian demand for environmentally detrimental, job-cutting soy and beef industries.) 





Evo Morales, first indigenous president. Strong convergence of ethnic nationalism and syndicalism: resistance to Washington-backed war on coca and attempted privatization of water by transnationals. New contracts with foreign companies in gas fields provides fiscal surplus and new maneuvering room from IMF. Bolivia a member of ALBA.

Main trading partners: Brazil and Argentina.





Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, 2003, 2007;

After brutal military rule (1964-85), Workers Party (PT) reaches out to center and becomes legitimate electoral force. Lula and other “pragmatic left” presidents (e.g. Argentina, Chile) keep inflation low and respect IMF so as to avoid capital flight and run on currency. Striving to increase trade and foreign exchange to pay for imports leads to alliances with transnational business and deep integration with global capital markets. “Participatory local governance” at the urban level: PT raises social/health outcomes since assuming municipal power in 2001, hosts World Social Forum.

Lula’s 45 percent budget cuts in 2003 leads to “loss of credibility shock” among many progressives and PT supporters. Lula re-elected in 2006 due to some rise in living standards (e.g. Bolsa Familia program) amid neoliberal growth constraints.

Forest protection plans thwarted by 2007 commodity boom: rising land prices encourage ethanol production, which ironically contributed to global food instability and hunger during global economic crisis (2008-).Dilma Rousseff 2011-present. Domestic inequality and police impunity still high. MST movement of landless farmers a leading force in Via Campesina, transnational movement of small farmers. Dependence on agribusiness exports maintains power of landed elite (beef, soy, sugar) and hinders agrarian and environmental reform. 2012: government removing indigenous peoples to begin construction on Belo Monte dam (third largest in world), whose hydroelectric power likely to serve mining industry.




1990- 2010

CIA-backed overthrow of Allende begins military rule (1973-90). Subsequent political culture generates market-oriented policies and proactive trade relations with U.S., Europe, Asia. “Política de acuerdos”: macroeconomic stability plus tax increases, social programs, wage increases. For social-democratic Concertacion government (1990-2010), poverty reduction was a depoliticized, technocratic project of economic modernization (unlike Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s “21st Century Socialism”).

Recent movements for greater income equality (copper miners, Santiago students) and cultural autonomy (Mapuche Indians) partly given voice to a renewed opposition. Sebastian Piñera: moderate neoliberal of Chilean center-right wins power in 2010. After earthquake and tsunami of February 2010, Piñera adopted developmental stance: state support for displaced victims, economy and infrastructure.






Most right-wing, pro-U.S. regime in Latin America. U.S.-Colombia petro-military relationship a bulwark of WC against Pink Tide and other challenges. “Old left” FARC guerilla movement attempted to become “New left” and re-enter electoral politics in 1985 via Unión Patriótica party, but 3,000 UP leaders assassinated by paramilitaries. Armed conflict resumed, continues today. Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus was runner-up in 2010 presidential race. President Juan Manuel Santos maintains complicity with human rights abuses and extractive capital, with some new rhetoric about inequality (likely for international consumption, as neoliberal paradigm becomes increasingly isolated).

Since 2012, government agrees to negotiate with FARC.

Costa Rica




Laura Chinchilla of Partido Liberación Nacional assumed office May 2010. Though members of Socialist International, pro-free trade and socially conservative.






Dominican Republic









Gutierrez, Palacio; now Correa. Multiple presidents impeached or driven out for authoritarianism.

Correa sympathetic to indigenous movement and politically/diplomatically close to Chavez, Morales.

El Salvador




Funes, FMLN. Some Moderate reformist economic policies. Major retreat on womens’ right to choose. President Funes has refused to make El Salvador member of ALBA. With 18% of GDP coming from remittances from U.S.-based emigrants, Funes government unwilling to challenge U.S. hegemony. Upon his election, U.S. State Dept and Obama administration dissuade Funes from re-opening relations with Cuba and joining ALBA. FMLN continues to support FUNES. Regional projects attempt greater structural reform than central government will pursue, e.g. 20 towns with FMLN mayors collaborate with Venezuelan state oil company to build Schafik Hándal fuel storage plant in Acajutla in May 2011. Largest in Central America.





Colom won the presidential elections of 07 as

center-left politician, replacing free tradists. He seemed to be advocating indigenous rights.

But not very convincing regarding anti-neoliberalism.





Aristide (broke from OPL and founded Fanmi Lavalas) was opposed to the W.C., but was ousted by a military coup in 2004.  Lavalas not allowed to

run in 2011 elections. Michel Martelly wins election, closely connected with coup plotters and supportive of further opening Haiti to capital. Most Haitians abstained from voting. Opposition continues protests.





Zelaya elected in 2005. Turned to left in 2007.  Coup ousts him in 2009 with U.S. diplomatic backing.





President Portia Simpson-Miller (PNP) supportive of LGBT civil unions. Favors, public-private parternships, tourism and IMF agreements. Austere budget makes more cuts, benefiting international creditors. Simpson Miller has social democratic philosophy that development is not an end in itself but allied with IMF/WC to get country out of deep debt.






Felipe Calderón (PAN) in 2006. Fraud against center-left Lopez Obrador widely acknowledged. Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) Presidency in 2012 with U.S. backing amidst voting irregularities. “Drug war”, agrarian issues, indigenous sovereignty, miners, electrical workers, reproductive rights the site of “old” and “new” social movements. Zapatistas still have strong presence in Chiapas. U.S. support for militarization, global capitalist support for oil company privatization major bulwarks against progressive change. Regional challenges to neoliberalism: newly sworn-in mayor of Mexico City and his predecessor credited with taking city in more progressive direction: safety, legalized abortions, environmental rhetoric.




1979-1990; 2007-present

Sandinistas in power from 1979 to 1990.

Daniel Ortega elected in 2007 and 2011

Working to enhance labor rights and social equality domestically, but progress remains uneven. Member of ALBA but aintained ties to IMF: advocates redistribution within free market framework. Looked to Venezuela, Iran and Libya for foreign assistance. Increased foreign reserves, national growth and bank deposits. Maintained ban on abortion. Aside from the CPCs [Councils of Citizen Power]…no dramatic moves to restructure state (Lievesley & Dudlam 2008).





Ricardo Martinelli 2009





Fernando Lugo of “Popular Alliance for Change” identified with liberation theology, but impeached in 2012.

Puerto Rico




Governor Fortuño pushes austerity and layoffs during economic crisis.

Trinidad and Tobago











Ollanta Humala promised social justice. Early in term (summer 2012), there were large crackdowns, arrests and alleged torture of indigenous and environmentalist mine protestors. Could be this will turn out to be a 0.






Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010); José Mujica (since 2010)






Hugo Chavez. First Pink Tide regime. Leaders of ALBA (counter-hegemonic bloc). Attempting re-distribution of wealth and power within country while facing strong elite opposition and coup attempts. Dependence on oil export retains distorting influence over economy and ecology.


Table 1: Classification of Political Regime Types in Latin America – 0=conservative; 1=reformist; 2=antisystemic


            The ideologies of the Pink Tide regimes have been socialist, populist and indigenist, with different mixes in different countries. The acknowledged leader of the Pink Tide as a distinctive brand of leftist populism is the Bolivarian Revolution led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But other versions of progressive political ideology have been expressed by political leaders that expressly oppose neoliberalism. Bolivian President Evo Morales combines socialism with indigenism and environmentalism. The Fidels in Cuba remain in power.

            The Brazilian Workers Party has been an important player in the Pink Tide, helping to found the World Social Forum (Baiocchi 2004).  Brazil’s strong economy has allowed PT to pursue a “great power” role for Brazil in the G20. These developments could be seen in relation to the catalytic role offered by Brazil’s semi-peripheral status, large size, and dynamic social movements. Still, the aspirations of the PT as a governing force have not been to challenge international financial institutions or overturn deep-rooted domestic inequalities. The PT government in Brazil assumes some social democratic policies and rhetoric, but does not challenge the power of global neoliberal policies uniformly or consistently. The PT has implemented some fiscal austerity measures in Brazil and has not chosen to confront the power of global finance capital. But it has staked out a set of positions in international politics that challenge many of the positions taken by the United States.

            In Chile European-style social democrats had the presidency after Pinochet, and in 2011 moderate businessman Sebastian Pinera was elected, though his policies have been centrist. Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador have elected presidents.

          Progressive regimes have engulfed most of South America and a considerable portion of Central America. Why is Latin America the site of both populist Leftist regimes and strong transnational social movements that contest neoliberal capitalist globalization? We suggest that part of the explanation is that Latin America as a world region has so many semiperipheral countries. These countries have more options to pursue independent strategies than the overwhelmingly peripheral countries of Africa do. But many of the countries with progressive regimes in Latin America are also peripheral. We attribute this to a regional effect that does not seem to be operating in either Africa or Asia, whereby progressive regimes becoming elected in large states like Brazil and Venezuela has given small and weaker states more room to contest the leadership of their national elites and project a more leftist posture on the international scene.

            Another reason why the Pink Tide phenomenon and progressive regimes are concentrated in Latin America is that the foremost proponent of the neoliberal policies has been the United States, and Latin America has long been the non-core “back yard” of the United States. Many, if not most, of the people of Latin America think of the United States as the “collossus of the North.” The U.S. has been the titular hegemon during the period of the capitalist globalization project, and so the political challenge to neoliberalism is strongest in that region of the world in which the U.S. has long played the role of neocolonial core. Both Africa and Asia have a more complicated relationship with former colonial powers.

            President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has assumed leadership of the Pink Tide project, a task made easier by Venezuela’s massive oil reserves. The Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), for example, has been joined by many progressive regimes and seeks to replace the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in development projects throughout the Americas and the Global South. The goal is to be able to become independent of the northern capitalist financial institutions, which would serve as an “alternative path” for those not desiring to heed the neoliberal policies coming from the main institutions of global governance.

            The Brazilian transition from authoritarian rule in the 1980s politicized and mobilized civil society, contributing to the elections of reformist leftist presidents. One of these presidents includes Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist who was one of the founders of dependency theory (Cardoso and Faletto 1979). Porto Alegre had been a stronghold of the (PT). It was in this city that the World Social Forum was born, under much influence from the Brazilian Worker’s Party.

           As we have said, the relationships between the progressive transnational social movements and the regimes of the Pink Tide have been both collaborative and contentious. We have already noted the important role played by the Brazilian Workers Party in the creation of the World Social Forum. But many of the activists in the movements see involvement in struggles to gain and maintain power in existing states as a trap that is likely to simply reproduce the injustices of the past. These kinds of concerns have been raised by anarchists since the nineteenth century, but autonomists from Italy, Spain, Germany and France echo these concerns. And the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico, one of the sparks that ignited the global justice movement against neoliberal capitalism, has steadfastly refused to participate in Mexican electoral politics. Indeed the New Left led by students in the World Revolution of 1968 championed a similar critical approach to the old parties and states of the Left as well as involvement in electoral politics (Wallerstein 1984b). This anti-politics-as-usual has become embodied in the Charter of the World Social Forum, where representatives of parties and governments are theoretically proscribed from sending representatives to the WSF meetings.

            The older Leftist organizations and movements are often depicted as hopelessly Eurocentric and undemocratic by the neo-anarchists and autonomists, who instead prefer participatory and horizontalist network forms of democracy and eschew leadership by prominent intellectuals as well as by existing heads of state. Thus when Lula, Chavez and Morales have come to address the WSF, anti-statist crowds have gathered to protest their presence.  The organizers of the WSF have found various compromises, such as locating the speeches of Pink Tide politicians at adjacent, but separate, venues.  An exception to this kind of contention is the support that European autonomists and anarchists have provided to Evo Morales’s regime in Bolivia (e.g. Lopez and Iglesias 2006).    

Table 2: World-system position and regimes in Latin America (1959-present)





Antisystemic (2)

2  (20%)

2  (15%)


Reformist  (1)

4  (40%)

7 (54%)


Conservative (0)

4  (40%)

4 (31%)







            Tables 2, 3 and 4 summarize the results of Table 1 so that we can see whether or not there is a relationship between regime form and world-system position. All the Latin American countries are either peripheral (13) or semiperipheral (10).  Both the semiperipheral and the peripheral countries are about equally likely to have the different kinds of regimes. The differences that we see in Table 2 are small. The semiperipheral countries are slightly more likely to be antisystemic but slightly less likely to be reformist and slightly more likely to be conservative.  These small differences in Table 2 do not support the hypothesis of semiperipheral development. 

But let us examine the temporal aspect of the change toward reformist and antisystemic regimes. This is done in Tables 3 and 4.


Table 3: World-system position by date of emergence of reformist regime (1)






3  (75%)

2 (29%)



1  (25%)

5  (71%)_








Table 4: World-system position by date of emergence of antisystemic regime (2)






2  (100%)

1  (50%)




1  (50%)






Table 4 contains Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba


            Tables 3 and 4 show that the transitions to both reformist and antisystemic regimes was much more likely to occur earlier in semiperipheral countries than in peripheral countries.  Tables 3 and 4 contain only those 15 countries that transitioned either to reformist or antisystemic regimes.  The conservative countries are not included. We divided the whole time period under study in to two periods (1959-2004 and 2005 to 2012) so that there would be a balance of cases in each period.  Combining the reformist and antisystemic countries, there were eight in the early period and seven in the later period.  Though the number of cases are small, in both tables the semiperipheral countries were much more likely than the peripheral countries to transition toward the left earlier rather than later.  This implies that it was semiperipheral countries who led the way toward the pink tide phenomenon in Latin America.

            Many millions of Latin Americans are in motion against neoliberal capitalism. This is a particularly large epicenter of antisystemic activity, with a considerable amount of resources. Still, even the antisystemic regimes and movements limited by some of their own ecological and social contradictions, and as Dominguez, Lievesley and Ludlam (2011) point out, there remains a formidable Old Right as well as New Right in Latin America that scholars and movements cannot afford to overlook. As several Middle Eastern countries erupted in protest against corrupt neoliberal regimes in the Arab Spring of 2011, and as the World Social Forum of Spring 2013 is scheduled to be held in Tunisia, global social science can make contributions towards understanding the challenges and opportunities facing emerging forms of transnational solidarity in the 21st century.



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Appendix: Tables


1= Extreme Left;  10 = Extreme Right


Country           Mean               Progressive regime between 1980 and 2012? 1= yes, 0= no


Argentina         5.3                   1

Bolivia             5.1                   1

Brazil               5.4                   1

Chile                5.2                   1

Colombia         7.0                   0

Costa Rica       7.4                   0

Ecuador           5.6                   1

El Salvador      6.6                   1

Guatemala       6.3                   0

Honduras         7.6                   0

Mexico            4.9                   0

Nicaragua        6.3                   1

Panama            5.2                   0

Paraguay          5.7                   1

Peru                 5.4                   1

Uruguay           5.2                   1

Venezuela        6.2                  1


r = -.44; Source: Colomer and Escatel (2005: Table 3)