Lessons for working people from Latin America

September 28, 2012 5:36 pm

Just before last year’s TUC March for the Alternative, Rob Marchant offered his advice to Ed Miliband on why it was wrong for him to speak at the TUC rally. It would apparently make Ed irrelevant.

This week Rob kindly turned his attention from undermining TUC initiatives to giving it some of his advice. This time he advised that they shouldn’t be involved in a rally celebrating the huge advances in social progress and widening of democracy underway in Latin America, namely in Venezuela. Again it would make them irrelevant.

Both events are linked. Both are about building the strongest possible opposition to neo-liberal austerity programmes that seek to make ordinary working people pay for a capitalist crisis. Rob’s advice to support neither seems to be part of a worrying viewpoint in sections of the Labour Party that it has to accommodate itself to austerity.

What has Latin America got to do with the greatest attacks on living standards in decades that working people are faced with across Europe?

For two decades Latin America was a victim of unrelenting austerity economics far more aggressive than even those being implemented across Europe today. Initially imposed at the barrel of a gun with the coup in Chile in 1973, the whole continent became a test bed for neo-liberal economics that were soon embraced by Thatcher and Reagan.

Just as the defeat of the Chilean coup unleashed attacks that affected working people everywhere, the sweeping away of these policies across Latin America over the past decade, and the progressive alternatives implemented in their place, offers important lessons to those looking to challenge austerity today.

Take Venezuela where the “pink tide” began in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez. Millions of once excluded Venezuelans have become a driving force in creating social change, working with their government to oversee radical reforms. A massive programme of wealth redistribution has seen free healthcare for all become a reality, free education has seen illiteracy eradicated and the number of university students triple. Poverty has been slashed and access to culture opened up. In many ways there are parallels with the creation of the Welfare State in post-war Britain.

Two specific recent policies implemented this year offer very clear lessons, as well as hope, for the left in Europe.

Venezuela’s economy is now growing rapidly having expanded 5.6% in the first half of the year thanks to a massive stimulus in social house building. In 2011, about 150,000 houses were built and 200,000 more are planned for this year, with most already completed. The equivalent for Britain would be 740,000 social houses being built in two years. As a result of this stimulus, growth has been led by construction, which expanded by 22.5% in the first half of the year. There are obviously lessons here.

On May Day this year, the government signed in a new Labour Law. It reduces the working week to 40 hours and guarantees 2 days off per week for every worker. It ends all further outsourcing and ensures any outsourced workers have the same conditions and benefits as other workers. Post-natal maternity leave has been raised from 12 to 20 weeks and new parents are now protected from dismissal for two years following the birth of a child. It enshrines trade union freedom, including the right to strike in your own interests and in solidarity with others. In short the law strengthens working people against exploitation and the interests of business. Against the backdrop of 30 years of the undermining of workers’ rights in Europe, these gains are clearly instructive for the British trade union movement.

This social prgress in Latin America is not limited to Venezuela but is a continental-wide phenomenon. As former Brazilian President Lula explained earlier this year:

 “Progressive governments are changing the face of Latin America. Thanks to them, our continent is developing rapidly, with economic growth, job creation, distribution of wealth and social inclusion. Today, we are an international reference of a successful alternative to neoliberalism.”

Lula added “under Chávez’s government the Venezuelan people have made extraordinary conquests. Popular classes were never previously treated with such respect and dignity”. This is why Hugo Chávez has won a record number of elections over the past decade. It is also why he is set to win the Presidential election to be held next week- with the polls showing large and irreversible leads. This will be Venezuela’s 15th set of national elections since Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1999 – more than were held in the 40 years prior to this. All have been declared free and fair by bodies such as the EU and the Organisation of American States. Former US president Jimmy Carter said earlier this month that “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” and that Chávez has always won “fairly and squarely”.

Yet these tremendous achievements in both democracy and social progress in Latin America have to be constantly defended, as the coup in Paraguay earlier this year and Honduras in 2010 show. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and there are concerted efforts from some in the US to re-assert control over these oil-riches. The US- backed coup that temporarily ousted Hugo Chávez in 2002, and the bloodshed that accompanied it, demonstrated the lengths to which some will go to restore an old order which guaranteed cheap oil supplies whilst enriching a tiny Venezuelan elite at the expense of the overwhelming majority of ordinary Venezuelans.

Vigilance against the threat of further intervention is especially important ahead of Venezuela’s coming Presidential election. US government agencies are pouring millions of dollars into Venezuela to seek to get their favoured candidate elected. Further destabilisations and a wave of false claims to discredit any re-election of the current government cannot be ruled out. Solidarity is needed and that was the purpose of the VSC rally this week which Francis O’Grady addressed.

The trade union movement has a long history of international solidarity. From the letter sent to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil war that ended slavery, to the prolonged opposition to Apartheid South Africa through to challenging of the killing of trade unionists in Colombia today, trade unionists have always had an internationalist outlook.

Today it gives strong backing for the rights of the people in Latin America to determine their own future free from foreign intervention. In return Latin America is showing working people across Europe that real alternatives to the policies of cuts and austerity can win the day.

Colin Burgon is Chair of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

  • Brumanuensis

    The inability to understand why Chavez is popular is sadly typical of many of Chavez’ critics. It reminds me rather of the inability of some Azerbaijani anti-government activists to appreciate why the Aliyev government remains so popular despite its failings – hint guys, it’s oil, largesse and nationalism. And because they’re too consumed with hatred for the government (or in this case Chavez), they consistently underestimate him.

    Now we have to separate the features of Chavez’ rule. First, it is undeniable that Venezuela under Chavez has made enormous social progress and a great many of the programmes introduced by Chavez deserve to be retained. It is also undoubtedly true that Chavez has a genuine concern for the poor and that this is the motivation behind most of his policies – albeit his own egotism rather colours the process, such as branding social programmes with his own image. Equally, Venezuela suffered under a pre-Chavez period of ‘Washington Consensus’ dogmatism that did great harm to ordinary Venezuelans and Chavez, along with the considerably more palatable Evo Morales, has done well to challenge it.

    But free schooling and anti-poverty programmes do not detract from the legitimate criticisms of Chavez for fostering a growing cult-of-personality, nor for his hostility to the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary, nor his use of the criminal code to target his political opponents. Equally, although the private media of Venezuela are an unlovable bunch with plenty of dirt on their own hands, it is undeniable that Chavez has aggressively curbed freedom of the press, with detrimental results for the scrutiny of the government. It’s easy to use RCTV as a defence and RCTV certainly dug their own grave by actively supporting the 2002 coup attempt, but this is far more than a specific set of attacks on individual broadcasters and has graduated to, as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have both shown, a general assault on groups critical of the government. It’s not enough to point to Chavez’ other achievements or the examples of positive gains in the area of women’s rights and indigenous rights; that is not a defence against restrictions on other constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

    Equally, Venezuela is suffering from an advanced case of Dutch Disease, due to its dependence on oil. Mercal might provide cheap food, but it is also prone to shortages and supply disruption. Non-oil sectors of the economy are suffering from maladministration (http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/08/19/venezuela-no-cement-no-steel-no-housing/). Ultimately, Venezuela needs to wean itself off its addiction to oil, which Chavez has singularly failed to do, a failure of economic management every bit as severe as the failure of Western governments to adequately regulate and scrutinise their financial sectors. And at a certain point, a similar reckoning will occur for Chavez.

    It is possible to balance growth against social equity – witness what Lula accomplished in Brazil – but mere authoritarian benevolence, like some sort of modern-day Caesar, is insufficient. Ironically, Chavez’ great idol Simon Bolivar, ended his days an embittered ex-autocrat, in exile. If Chavez isn’t careful, he’ll end up the same way.

  • Brumanuensis

    The inability to understand why Chavez is popular is sadly typical of many of Chavez’ critics. It reminds me rather of the inability of some Azerbaijani anti-government activists to appreciate why the Aliyev government remains so popular despite its failings – hint guys, it’s oil, largesse and nationalism. And because they’re too consumed with hatred for the government (or in this case Chavez), they consistently underestimate him.

    Now we have to separate the features of Chavez’ rule. First, it is undeniable that Venezuela under Chavez has made enormous social progress and a great many of the programmes introduced by Chavez deserve to be retained. It is also undoubtedly true that Chavez has a genuine concern for the poor and that this is the motivation behind most of his policies – albeit his own egotism rather colours the process, such as branding social programmes with his own image. Equally, Venezuela suffered under a pre-Chavez period of ‘Washington Consensus’ dogmatism that did great harm to ordinary Venezuelans and Chavez, along with the considerably more palatable Evo Morales, has done well to challenge it.

    But free schooling and anti-poverty programmes do not detract from the legitimate criticisms of Chavez for fostering a growing cult-of-personality, nor for his hostility to the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary, nor his use of the criminal code to target his political opponents. Equally, although the private media of Venezuela are an unlovable bunch with plenty of dirt on their own hands, it is undeniable that Chavez has aggressively curbed freedom of the press, with detrimental results for the scrutiny of the government. It’s easy to use RCTV as a defence and RCTV certainly dug their own grave by actively supporting the 2002 coup attempt, but this is far more than a specific set of attacks on individual broadcasters and has graduated to, as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have both shown, a general assault on groups critical of the government. It’s not enough to point to Chavez’ other achievements or the examples of positive gains in the area of women’s rights and indigenous rights; that is not a defence against restrictions on other constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

    Equally, Venezuela is suffering from an advanced case of Dutch Disease, due to its dependence on oil. Mercal might provide cheap food, but it is also prone to shortages and supply disruption. Non-oil sectors of the economy are suffering from maladministration (http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/08/19/venezuela-no-cement-no-steel-no-housing/). Ultimately, Venezuela needs to wean itself off its addiction to oil, which Chavez has singularly failed to do, a failure of economic management every bit as severe as the failure of Western governments to adequately regulate and scrutinise their financial sectors. And at a certain point, a similar reckoning will occur for Chavez.

    It is possible to balance growth against social equity – witness what Lula accomplished in Brazil – but mere authoritarian benevolence, like some sort of modern-day Caesar, is insufficient. Ironically, Chavez’ great idol Simon Bolivar, ended his days an embittered ex-autocrat, in exile. If Chavez isn’t careful, he’ll end up the same way.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    You really have swallowed the “hype”, have you not Mr Burgon?  For every one of your numerous assertions – many unevidenced, all at the least contentious – there is a counterpoint.

    I care not what the trades unions do – they are their own masters, and if they can persuade British working people to hand over their money in membership so that political arrogants such as yourself can indulge their little fantasies, that is not a crime.  But anyone trying to claim what you do for Chavéz is a “useful idiot”.

    Chavéz is responsible for several thousand “disappearances”, that useful tool of policy of South American dictators for nearly 50 years.  And many thousands of others forced or fleeing from their own country for fear of arbitrary arrest and torture.  The prison population in Venezuela is 7,300% greater than when he took power, nearly all of whom are political prisoners.  You can be imprisoned for 6 years for being merely a member of an anti-Chavéz demonstration, and quite a number are (and you can be arrested many months after the demonstration on a single photographic frame.  There is also no appeal against any sentence).

    His elections are not free or fair****, and while you correctly state there have been 15 elections since 1999 (when the constitution mandates every 5 years), you do not stop to question why so many elections in a 13 year time period, or why he called them only when his apparatus was able by intimidation to guarantee a result?  He has no need to “fiddle” the figures in the election counting – he has frightened away any opposition before the vote even happens.

    **** The “electronic thumb-print” as a mark of voting is administered by the Ministry of the Interior.  Do you understand why people opposed to Chavéz choose not to vote, when they can be traced by biometrics and arrested on some nonsense charge in the middle of the night by the Internal Security Vigilance forces, also administered by the Ministry of the Interior?  If not you truly are a useful fool for Chavéz’s administration.

    • JoeDM

       The Labour left has always had a weakness to support for, dare I say –  envy of,  foreign socialist leaders of the totalitarian stalinist type down they decades.

      • Dave Postles

        Well, it makes a change from the destabilization of regimes and their overthrow in S. America by the (mainly Republican) administrations in the USA and tacit approval of apartheid and right-wing dictatorships by elements in the Tory party.  Most of us on the left-of-centre are more concerned with the depredations which have occurred in this country over the last thirty years.

      • http://twitter.com/TomMillerUK Tom Miller

        How about the Labour right? It was the Fabians that first developed a passion for Uncle Joe. And the Tories? Pinochet. Apartheid. A whole lot else.

        Let’s not pretend there are factions about with supreme moral purity in international affairs please?

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/D5Z632LO7E4WAUMLMBLLT4HJE4 Matthew

       This article is even more full of rubbish than Jaime usually posts.  That 3rd paragraph is laughable, a load of ridiculous assertions without a single source of evidence. 
      The stuff about the weakness of the electoral system is also risible. 
      Mérida, 21st September 2012 (Venezuelanalysis.com) –
      Former US President Jimmy Carter has declared that Venezuela’s electoral
      system is the best in the world.

      Speaking at an annual event last week in Atlanta for his Carter
      Centre foundation, the politician-turned philanthropist stated, “As a
      matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say
      the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
      More at http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/7272

    • http://twitter.com/TomMillerUK Tom Miller

      “you do not stop to question why so many elections in a 13 year time
      period, or why he called them only when his apparatus was able by
      intimidation to guarantee a result?”

      This is such nonsense. For hundreds of years British Governments have been able to call elections whenever they like. You may or may not think this is a good rule, but it hardly makes you a tyranny?

      On the thumb-prints, this is pretty usual electoral practise practice. You get this in a fair few places where they use electronic voting.

      “Chávez is responsible for several thousand “disappearances”, that useful
      tool of policy of South American dictators for nearly 50 years.”

      Some allegation? I have never seen -any- evidence for this.

      ” The prison population in Venezuela is 7,300% greater than when he took power, nearly all of whom are political prisoners.”

      As the Venezuelan right are (correctly) always keen to remind us, one of the downsides of the Chavez government has been enormous crime rates. So a jump in the prison population would be highly likely.

      Where is the evidence that these are ‘political prisoners’?

      Several unsubstantiated assertions of quite a grave nature there. Can’t help feeling a bit suspicious about your comment overall…

  • http://twitter.com/TomMillerUK Tom Miller

    Sorry to plug, did a semi-response to this here. Mark, any chance of putting trackbacks on the site? Would be good for the ‘sphere…

    http://leftoftheline.org/2012/09/solidarity-with-the-bolivarian-revolutions/

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