Monday, 3 December 2012

Latin America 2012 Conference Report

Over 400 delegates attended a packed Conway Hall for the eighth annual Latin America Conference. Whilst progressive governments across the continent lead the challenge to neo-liberal hegemony, the threat of US imperialism remains a real and present danger. In that context, solidarity and support for Latin America is needed now more than ever, writes Bob Oram.

It is impossible to put in words the feeling I had listening to Aidee Moreno from Colombia’s agricultural workers union. It is shocking when she describes how her husband was murdered in 1994, her mother ten years later and then numerous other members of her family. On top of this you are numb listening to tales of the 1,000’s of members assassinated, disappeared or in prison.

Living with two bodyguards because she is a trade union leader, Aidee is a brave and stoic individual who makes a powerful case for international solidarity. Echoing Frances O’Grady’s earlier comment that it is “wrong for the EU to give its stamp of approval to a free trade agreement with Colombia,” Aidee urged us to lobby MEPs to reject a deal that will not benefit workers. Welcoming the current peace talks brokered by Cuba with the FARC and Colombian government in Havana, she re-iterated that this is a critical moment for her members with violence and threats on the increase. Our support and solidarity is needed more than ever.

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary designate, welcomed delegates from Latin America to cold austerity Britain. She praised the huge social and economic advances made across the continent and the “spectacular re-election of Hugo Chavez”. She spoke of her pride speaking at the Vigil for the Miami Five outside the US embassy with Che’s daughter Aleida, and noted that Cuba still defies US might and economic power to put its people first.

Jacobo Torres, Executive Committee of the Venezuelan Socialist Party, lamented the western press that call his country a dictatorship. He joked that, having had 14 elections in 13 years, they should have a place in the Guinness Book of Records. With an 81% turnout and 55% of the vote in the presidential elections, Chavez has a legitimacy that our politicians can only fantasise about.

“We are building a participatory democracy. While the rest of the world talks about it, we are creating it. It is not the democratisation of poverty as they claim but the real transfer of power to people, so that they can govern and be in control of their own destiny,” Jacobo said to huge applause.

Journalist Victoria Brittain spoke about Cuba’s role 40 years ago at the heart of African liberation and drew lessons for Latin America now. Describing the hope encapsulated on Cuba’s Island of Youth, meeting African children who had arrived skinny and traumatised but who grew to be confident and positive, she praised Cuba’s enormous support for African liberation, especially the MPLA in Angola. Reflecting on the strategies employed by the US to topple progressive post-colonial regimes – assassinations, funding ‘oppositions’, smear media stories, economic attacks and corrupting elites – she saw hope today for Latin America in the fact that the ruthless undercurrent of the cold war is no longer prevalent and the internet makes us more aware of what is happening globally.

Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary, praised Cuba and all the countries defending their sovereignty and independence in a world dominated by capital. The Bolivarian alternative demonstrates “a world can be built based on need and not greed” he said to cheers from delegates.


As always, the only criticism of the day is that you have to make choices. With over 16 seminars and film screenings, something is always missed. This year over 50 speakers covered everything from threats to the Amazon, media misrepresentation, the future of the Malvinas, ALBA, Latin America and austerity, and country-specific reports from Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia.

A packed workshop heard about Cuba and its efforts to update its socialist model. Tony Kapcia, University of Nottingham, contrasted the styles of Fidel and Raul but emphasised their shared ideology. He explained that Cuba should not be viewed through the lens of Eastern European socialism but more as a ‘nation-building’ de-colonisation process that has, for fifty years, involved mass mobilisations of the people.

Echoing this theme, Steve Ludlam, Sheffield University, asserted that this is not a change in the system but a change in political culture that is defined by high levels of participation. Public meetings attended by 9 million people ensured less than a third of the original economic proposals survived. Policies such as the changes to exit visas and the sale of houses were proposed by ordinary Cubans as part of a citizen-led consultation.

On workplace changes, all attempts to increase productivity by redeploying state jobs to the private sector have to be approved by workplace assemblies with a 75% turnout. All jobs identified have to have clear justification agreed by democratically-elected committees. This ensures no personal reasons or prejudices could be used in selection.

Even with these safeguards, the trade unions found problems and the whole process was halted and the issues addressed. Trade unions have ensured new safeguards for all the new workers and are recruiting heavily on the back of this. For example, before the reforms, 2% of private transport operators were unionised. That figure now stands at 80%.

Both Kapcia and Ludlam made clear that politics in Cuba is a collectivised process where everyone is represented. Government is accountable – not to outside forces or capital – but society.

Carlos Alfaro from the Cuban Embassy thanked the UK government and individual donors that have contributed to the Emergency Appeal for Cuba following Hurricane Sandy. Cuba is facing huge challenges to repair and rebuild the areas devastated by the worst storm to hit that part of the island for 50 years.

Sean Crowe, Sinn Fein TD, praised Cuba’s friendship with Ireland and wryly reflected on two small islands oppressed for many years by their nearest neighbour. Highlighting the vote this year at the UN condemning the US blockade, he spoke of the damage it causes to people’s lives. Describing it as “plain wrong,” he decried the immorality of not saving children’s lives when the means to do so are readily available.

“The blockade has cost lives simply because of the fear of what Cuba is, its inspiration, symbolism and potential for the rest of the world” he said in a workshop on the blockade alongside the Cuban Ambassador, Esther Armenteros.

Esther re-iterated the desire for centuries of the US to see Cuba “fall like a ripe apple into their hands” and the fact they have never forgiven them for building a different society “in their own backyard”. Describing how Obama has weakened his anti-Cuban rhetoric whilst tightening the blockade, she highlighted how it hurts American citizens as well as Cubans. Stressing that Cuba wants to live in peace with its nearest neighbour (“we and they cannot go anywhere”). However, it has to be as full equals and Cubans are prepared to “go on as long as it takes defending our sovereignty and independence”.

Rob Miller, Director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, urged delegates to ask their MP’s to sign Early Day Motion 497 calling for visitation rights for the wives of the Miami Five. Over 100 MP’s have now signed – but more are needed.

Closing Rally

Guillaume Long, President of Ecuador’s Higher Education Council, spoke of the many achievements of the government elected in 2006. He explained how Ecuador, by tackling tax evasion, has increased tax revenues from 2.7 billion to 9.3 billion dollars. This has enabled money to be spent on public services. The new constitution enshrines rights for Ecuadorians that are helping repair the sense of nationhood in a state devastated by past instability and economic neo-liberal experiments. The failed 2010 coup signalled the intent of the right but he is hopeful that the forthcoming elections will be peaceful and that the citizen’s revolution of President Correa will continue.

Guardian writer Seamus Milne highlighted the democratic nature developments across Latin America. Openings in media, advances for indigenous populations, economic integration and independent foreign policies are all signs of a 21st century socialism in the making. Fearing the capacity for reversals, he warned about his recent experiences observing the Venezuelan elections and the insidious role of the CIA. However his belief in the strength of the people and the “bankruptcy of neo-liberal economics” provides hope for the future.

Jeremy Corbyn MP rounded off a great day by calling on George Osborne to learn lessons from Ecuador, Jeremy Hunt to visit Cuba’s health service and for the government to take advice from Bolivia on climate change and Venezuela on elections. Praising the ALBA alternative, he described it as “not just an economic model” but a way of taking the different strengths from countries and sharing. The 69 million people of ALBA and the non-aligned movement are a vital and important counter-force to the unaccountable power of the multi-nationals and we all need to stand firm in solidarity with them. Next year he said, “is the 40th anniversary of Allende’s murder” a stark reminder of the lengths to which the US will be go to extinguish every beacon of hope. In Conway Hall, with a motto on the roof urging, “To thine own self be true” it was a fitting end to a great day, as he urged vigilance and increased solidarity with all the countries in Latin America.

Delegates left to a bucket collection for the emergency appeal for Hurricane Sandy which struck Cuba in November. The collection raised a magnificent £774.90 which will be sent to Cuba immediately.

If you would like to donate, please send your donation to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, c/o Unite Woodberry, 218 Green Lanes, London, N4 2HB. Cheques or postal orders should be made payable to ‘CSC’, and clearly marked on the back ‘Hurricane relief’. Further information on the hurricane relief effort here.

A selection of photos from Latin America 2012 can be seen here.

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