Only last Monday the Morning Star carried an excellent report on the occupation of the water company offices in Colombia’s capital city Bogota, where recycling workers and others are resisting the privatisation of the water industry.
That news had echoes of the enormous struggle in Cochabamba in Bolivia, where Evo Morales led a struggle against water privatisation. The then Bolivian government’s plans sparked the opposition movement which resulted in Morales being elected president. The struggle for social change became the dominant political force in that country.
As it is, of course, in Venezuela. This year’s election results there were remarkable in many ways. Hugo Chavez was up for re-electon after nearly 14 years in office.
Notwithstanding the huge social changes that have taken place in Venezuela, with its anti-poverty programmes, public ownership of many industries and increasing nationalisation of land, the media structures of Venezuela are still in the pockets of very powerful, very wealthy people.
There was a huge media campaign against Chavez and many of the “expert” analysts in the United States and elsewhere predicted that he would be defeated, ushering in a new age of privatisation.
Barclays Capital urged investors to buy Venezuelan debts on the assumption of an opposition victory. The then head of the World Bank Robert Zoellick claimed that Chavez’s days were numbered and that his downfall would also spell the end of the governments of Cuba and Nicaragua.
How wrong they all were. Chavez got 55.08 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 80.5 per cent. Nobody claimed the election was anything other than free and fair, and an accurate reflection of the views of the people of Venezuela. A truly astonishing victory for an incumbent president after 14 years in office.
Venezuela’s achievements gained an important international dimension in 2004 when the Association of Bolivarian Alternatives for Latin America — Alba — was established.
Alba countries include Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua and altogether represent over 69 million people. Alba has been crucial in enabling Cuban doctors and high-quality medical services to be made available to many other countries, and in allowing Venezuela to use its oil wealth to encourage development.
Behind the economic and political considerations of Alba lies a whole alternative view of Latin American history, culture and values.
The entire continent was colonised in the 15th century by Spain and Portugal. The genocide that followed destroyed communities, languages and great civilisations such as the Inca, Aztec and Maya.
It also imposed the religious domination of the Catholic Church and a social class system of wealthy landowners, almost all of European descent, who controlled a subservient indigenous class.
Independence in the early 19th century brought changes, but in many cases the same social classes remained in control. Since 1823 the continent has been bedevilled by the Monroe Doctrine, treating everything south of the
Rio Grande as a US preserve.
In the 20th century revolutionary movements were strongly opposed by the landowning classes, with the very active backing of the US.
But since the establishment of Alba and the revolutions in Venezuela and Bolivia there has been a flowering of indigenous values, languages and land rights that presents an entirely new approach to politics — not least with regard to the environment.
Environmental issues are huge across the whole continent, from deforestation to GM crops and intensive farming which has damaged ecosystems and polluted rivers and water courses.
Rural depopulation has created mega-cities such as Sao Paulo and Mexico City, with all the attendant problems of pollution and sustainability. We can learn a lot from the approach taken by many Latin American governments towards the preservation of forests and ecosystems and the fight for a sustainable future.
But for all Alba’s successes and the growing unity across Latin America the policies of the US and European Union towards the continent remain problematic.
George W Bush was keen to develop an alternative to Alba which would persuade countries to enter into a close trade and political relationship with the US. That relationship would also entail US military domination, as we can see from the country’s presence in Colombia.
This hasn’t been too appealing. The US’s neighbour Mexico has been part of the North American Free Trade Area since 1994. It allows for a heavy US presence in the Mexican economy.
What it doesn’t do is allow Mexican people free movement in or out of the US, as the wall and fence along the border shows.
The abuse of the human rights of migrants trying to travel to the US to escape the poverty of central America is quite appalling. Equally appalling is the conflict between the Mexican state and the drug cartels, which has resulted in over 50,000 deaths over the past six years. The Inter-American Human Rights Court has had great difficulty in asserting legal power over individual countries that abuse human rights.
In that context it’s not surprising that relations with the US are increasingly seen by south Americans as an irritating sideshow, as the continent develops its own relations with Europe and China.
This weekend will see the annual Latin America solidarity conference at Conway Hall. It’s an opportunity to find out both about the huge successes of the left in Latin America, but also the challenges faced by marginalised and impoverished people trying to survive in the face of land grabs, big business and the criminal gangs of the mega-cities.
Those in Latin America trying to steer a course of social solidarity and the elimination of poverty, in contrast to the free market agenda forced upon them by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the past, have much to teach us all.
The Latin America conference takes place tomorrow at Conway Hall, London WC1. Booking and full details are available from www.latinamericaconference.org.uk or call (020) 8800-0155.
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