By Colin Burgon, Labour Friends of Venezuela
Marching through London with half a million others last month was a powerful reminder of the deep-rooted support for our welfare state and public services. From the local nursery and home help to the National Health Service, millions of people rely on – and deeply appreciate – the difference these services make to their lives. As Cameron learnt that day, if he did not already know it, any government seeking to destroy these faces huge opposition.
The welfare state has always been a focus for deep political struggles, from opposition against its very creation to the current attempts to dismantle important elements of it. This is to be expected given that at its heart lies a fundamental principle – that of redistribution. Whenever resources are transferred from one group to another, outrage from vested interests is always likely to follow.
Understanding these facts helps us also better the developments in Latin America today. Across that continent a whole range of progressive governments are undertaking measures that echo many of those introduced in Britain under Labour’s from 1945-1951. Predictably, these governments are met with ferocious resistance from the old guard.
Of courses there are numerous differences between Latin America today and post-war Britain and so any analogies can only be taken so far. But these differences only underline the greater difficulties faced by today’s reforming Latin American governments. They are starting from much weaker economic positions, with much greater levels on inequality and a right-wing that has been only too happy to defend it its privilege at the barrel of a gun over the years, often backed by Washington.
Nevertheless, the similarities are striking. The post-war vision of protecting people ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and the commitment with which Clement Attlee set about transforming society is very alive in Latin America. The creation of the NHS, universal schooling, council house building, greater access to pensions, expansion in education and nationalisation of major industries were key polices then for Labour as they are today in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Take Venezuela as an example. There, Hugo Chavez leads one of the most progressive governments in the world, showing the tremendous difference to lives that governments can make when they put people first. In just over a decade, free health care has been extended to 20 million people, saving tens of thousands of lives. Infant mortality is down and life expectancy up whilst extreme poverty and malnutrition both have been halved. The ability of poorer people to properly feed their families is being met with a network of subsidised supermarkets that are providing 12m people with high quality food. By creating free education for all, millions of adults have learnt to read and write for the first time and record numbers of students are now attending university.
In short, the Beveridge Report’s ‘five evils’ of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease are being tackled as a priority by the President Chavez-led government.
Yet a glance at most media coverage would not lead you to conclude that Hugo Chavez was a progressive, let alone one whose coalition of supporters have won 14 national elections.
Herein lies another interesting parallel with the post war period. No doubt the Chavez government would recognise the vitriol fired at Clement Atlee from the Conservative supporting sections of society, including its media. The Sunday Times’ James Margach said of the Attlee years “I have never known the press so consistently and irresponsibly political, slanted and prejudiced”. Attorney-General Sir Hartley Shawcross attacked “the campaign of calumny and misrepresentation which the Tory Party and the Tory stooge press has directed at the Labour government. Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to tell lies”.
Similarly, when Roosevelt embarked on the USA’s New Deal in the 1930’s, it needed to face down entrenched interests. Former President Herbert Hoover claimed “this stuff was pure fascism”, conservative Democrats and Republicans formed the American Liberty League against the progressive measures and in 1935 the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the National Recovery Act that set minimum wages and maximum weekly hours, abolished child labour and a guaranteed the right that trade unions could organize and exercise the right of collective bargaining.
Roosevelt correctly brushed aside this opposition with the comment “Everybody is against me except the voter” after he won by a record margin in 1936. It is a phrase that could easily apply to the Chavez-led government given its extraordinary democratic record, which now includes having held more elections since coming to power than took place during the 50 years that proceeded him in Venezuela.
Yet despite this mandate, Venezuela’s social progress has faced deep opposition from a tiny but powerful minority, who ran the oil-rich country into the ground in the decades they held power, as well as by their allies in Washington. A military coup and then an oil sabotage have tried to oust Chavez, the former temporarily succeeding. Today, the US is still funding opposition movements with tens of millions of dollars whilst a frenzied media campaign seeks to isolate him with false claims stemming from a Venezuelan media still dominated by the opposition, with close links to business sectors that despise President Chavez programmes of redistribution.
As we approach the countdown to next year’s Presidential election this media smears will no doubt intensify. But trade unionists and the wider labour movement should go behind the headlines and learn about these progressive developments in Latin America for themselves. Even though no society is perfect and many mistakes will be made on the road to transforming society, it is clear that those radical and popular e movements of Latin America are today showing that there are alternative ways of doing things. Ones where people and communities come first. In rejecting the doctrines of neo-libral liberalism they are having their own ‘cradle to grave moment’.
Colin Burgon will be addressing the social transformation in Latin America as part of the Venezuela – Defending the Majority, not Punishing the Poorest conference on 16 April, backed by the TUC.
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