Lessons for working people from Latin America

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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

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