Latin American left struggles post-Castro and pre-Trump

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Havana (AFP) - It's been a bad year for the Latin American left, which lost its spiritual leader Fidel Castro, saw its "pink tide" ebb to new lows and now faces the menace of Donald Trump.

The band of union leaders, ex-guerrillas and other left-wing rabble-rousers that dominated Latin American politics for more than a decade has fallen from favor as the region's economic boom of yesteryear has gone bust.

Of the 15 countries swept up in the so-called pink tide that began in the late 1990s, just eight have leftist leaders today -- and several of those are wobbling.

Charismatic figures such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have given way to a new generation whose members fought to cling to power in 2016 (Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela) or lost it (impeached president Dilma Rousseff in Brazil).

In just over a year, center-right leaders have surged to power in Argentina, Peru and Brazil. Venezuela's right-leaning opposition won a landslide in legislative elections, while Bolivia's Evo Morales lost a referendum to allow himself a fourth term.

More leftist leaders are due to bow out in 2017.

A decade after taking power, the radical economist Rafael Correa is set to step down in an increasingly discontented Ecuador. Change is also in the air in Chile, which will elect a successor to the unpopular President Michele Bachelet after a term marred by corruption scandals.

"In some countries, like Bolivia and Ecuador, the leftist leaders will have to leave and learn to organize themselves as opposition parties," said Columbia University's Christopher Sabatini in New York.

"The pink tide has receded," said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research institute.

He listed two key reasons: a plunge in prices for the natural resources whose sales funded leftist governments' social spending, and a "natural desire for change."

- Fading Cuban star -

There was a sense of a page turning last month with the death of Castro, the symbol of the Latin left's fight for social justice and defiance of US hegemony in the Americas.

He inspired the left wing's next generation when they were young radicals plotting to imitate the Cuban Revolution and topple right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War.

But Cuba's influence has dwindled.

Economic chaos in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba's top ally and benefactor, has taken a toll on the communist island's own economy.

Seeking to end its status as a pariah of the global economy, Cuba sealed a historic rapprochement with the United States -- thanks in part to its symbolic weight in Latin America.

But President Raul Castro, Fidel's little brother, now faces two big challenges: reinventing an outdated economic model and handing power to the next generation when he retires in less than 15 months.

After years of playing an outsize role on the world stage, the small country seems to have lost some of its red-hued aura.

That was clear from the absence of big-name world leaders at Fidel's funeral, says Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba.

"This suggests that Cuba's stature is declining," said Hare, now a professor of international relations at Boston University.

"One can expect the likes of Russia and China to urge Raul to stop sentimentalizing about the old Revolution and get real with reforms of the economy."

- Trump backlash? -

Fidel's demise comes just as Latin America's struggling left faces an even more uncertain future when Trump -- a tough-talking, immigrant-bashing, America-first Republican -- takes office in the United States on January 20.

His vows to build a wall on the southern US border and tear up trade deals he deems unfavorable have sown panic in Latin America, a region both keenly aware and resentful of US dominance in the hemisphere.

The Latin left will have to try to regroup at a time of shifting regional relations with a more hardline United States.

But that could be a blessing in disguise, Shifter says.

"If Trump tries to bring back a traditional hegemonic strategy in Latin America, and has an aggressive tone and style, that will create a backlash across the region," he said.

"Trump may pave the way for new leftist leaders."

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