Colin Burgon MP underlines the very real threats organising against progressives in the region.
Against the seemingly unstoppable domination of free market capitalism in recent decades, it was important for progressive people to remind ourselves that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. That dawn arrived with the wave of left wing governments elected to power in Latin America from the late 1990s.
Around the world, the 'free market' experiment has clearly failed the majority of people both socially and economically. This is clear in Latin America. As US economist Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, between 1960 and 1980 (when, according to the wisdom of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, the region’s governments couldn’t do anything right) the average Latin American’s income grew by 82 percent. From 1980 onwards, under the US-sponsored 'free market' reforms, this growth collapsed. No wonder that most of the electorate in the region has voted over the last decade to reject neo-liberal policies. An Alternative to Neo-Liberalism
Latin America became the first continent to rise up against the neo-liberal model, with the election of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998 and the subsequent 'pink tide' of left governments throughout the region. From the late 1990s, first the Chavez government – building on the inspiration of the Cuban revolution – and then others, understood that the old model had exhausted itself. Instead they put forward a combination of economic interventionism, redistribution and nationalisation that has been used to take forward the living standards of the majority of the population. In short, Latin American governments have begun to use their power in society to defend the majority against the economic interests of a tiny minority. Obviously, there are many differences between Latin America and Europe in terms of economic development, political histories and movements of the working class; and so developments there can not be identically replicated. However, some of the fundamental features do offer lessons for us in Britain and Europe, where progressives face many challenges. Threats against progress
These progressive changes have also not gone unnoticed by previous ruling elites within those countries and by those forces which are internationally tied to neo-liberalism. Such conservative forces are now fighting back. The military coup against Honduras’ elected President Manuel Zelaya in June came on the eve of a non-binding referendum on convening a constituent assembly to re-found the country’s constitution. Such an assembly would likely have resulted in a number of progressive advances. Zelaya’s government had already faced opposition from conservative elements within Honduras for its progressive social programmes, which had reduced poverty by almost 10% during two years and dramatically increased the minimum wage. The military coup in Honduras then installed a client regime and has unleashed violent repression that has seen at least 20 people killed, more than 600 people wounded and beaten and 3,500 people detained since June. Amnesty International, the ITUC and many others have condemned these human rights abuses, joining with governments across Latin America and the world in opposing the coup. Though President Obama professed the need for “a new start” to US relations with Latin America, the actions of the US military and elite so far indicate that there will be no clear break from the aggressive policies of the Bush years. The United States, which is by far the largest trade partner of Honduras, failed to cancel all military, financial and economic support to the illegal regime, and refused to use its full influence to bring about an end to the coup. Since then we have seen the endorsement by the US administration of the election held by the coup regime, to seek to gain international legitimisation of the coup. Non-recognition of the 29 November elections was a litmus test for Obama about whether there would really be a new start. That test was failed. Events in a small nation like Honduras will not determine the fate of Latin America in and of themselves. However, we need to be clear that this is a test by the right wing. If successful, it will give them the confidence throughout the continent that military coups can reverse the gains. Also, added to this threat of coups against progressive governments, we have the decision taken by Colombia to allow the US armed forces to install themselves in seven military bases. A United States Air Mobility Command document states that these bases in Colombia can be employed against threats not only from drug trafficking and guerrilla movements, but also from “anti-US governments” in the region. This agreement has been roundly condemned across Latin America. The danger to progress in the region is very real. The coup and the military bases also need to be seen against the backdrop of lasts year's bombing campaign by Colombia in Ecuador and the resurrection of the US military fourth fleet, patrolling the waters of South America. Over the last 18 months, the global economic crisis has made the failure of the neo-liberal model evident to millions of people in all the continents of the world. Alternatives are needed now more than ever, and progressives in Europe need to ensure that the alternatives being built in Latin America are not rolled back. Most importantly, this is because hundreds of millions of Latin Americans would see their living standards driven backwards. But any defeat there would also be a setback for attempts to build progressive movements here too. Colin Burgon is Labour Member of Parliament for Elmet and Chair of Labour Friends of Venezuela and the All-party Parliamentary Group on Venezuela and Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group on Cuba.