UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Latin America 2012: Courage, solidarity and inspiration

It is impossible to put in words the feeling I had listening to Aidee Moreno from Colombia’s Agricultural Workers Union at Saturday's Latin America 2012 event in London. You are in shock when she tells 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 thousands of members assassinated, disappeared or in prison. Living with two bodyguards because she is a trade union leader, Aidee is a brave and unbelievably stoic individual who makes as powerful case for international solidarity as I have ever heard.

Echoing Frances O’Gradys earlier comment that it is “just plain wrong for the EU to give its stamp of approval to a free trade agreement with Colombia stained in blood” Aidee urged us to lobby MEPs to not go ahead with a deal that will not benefit workers. Welcoming the current peace talks brokered by Cuba with FARC and the Colombian government in Havana, she re-iterated this is a critical moment for her members with violence and threats on the increase at the same time. Our support and solidarity is needed more than ever.

Frances in opening the conference welcomed delegates from Latin America to cold austerity Britain. She praised the huge social and economic advances made in the continent and the “spectacular re-election of Hugo Chavez”. She talked of her pride speaking up 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 and their health, education and culture first.

Jacobo Torres (pictured) from the Executive Committee of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party joked at western press who describe his country as the most stringent dictatorship in the world. Explaining 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 recent 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”, he said to huge applause.

Journalist Victoria Britain talked about Cuba’s role 40 years ago at the heart of African liberation and drew out some 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 youth she praised Cuba’s enormous support for African liberation and especially the MPLA in Angola.

Reflecting on the strategies employed by the US to topple all 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 all so much more aware of what is happening in countries across the globe.

Bob Crow RMT praised Cuba and all the countries defending their own sovereignty and independence in a world dominated by capital. Looking closer to home in Europe he decried all social democratic parties that pretend the system can be reformed. “They will not challenge capital, they think being nice to the bosses will ensure we all have a better life. Wealth is extracted only for the wealthy. Every advance we have ever made they want to now claw back”. 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 workshops and film screenings, something is sadly 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 hall workshop heard about Cuba and its efforts to update its socialist model. Tony Kapcia from the University of Nottingham contrasted the styles of Fidel and Raul but put into context the shared vision. Explaining that Cuba should never be viewed through the models of East European socialism but more as a ‘nation-building’ de-colonisation process that specifically has, for all its fifty years, involved mass mobilisations of the people.

Echoing this theme Steve Ludlam from Sheffield University emphasised this is not a change in the system but a change in political culture that will be determined by the high levels of participation. Nearly 9 million people ensured less than a third of the original economic reform proposals survived and things like the recent changes to exit visas and the sale of houses came specifically from that consultation. Ordinary Cubans interventions were significant and respected by the process.

On the changes to workplaces that are now taking place in Cuba all attempts to increase productivity by cutting back on some state jobs, have to be approved by workplace assemblies with a 75% turnout. All individual jobs identified have to have clear reasons 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 many new safeguards for all the new workers and are recruiting heavily on the back of this. For example 2% of private transport operators were unionised. That figure now stands at 80%.

Both speakers made the connection that at every level politics in Cuba is not about an elite but takes place in a heavily collectivised society where everyone is represented. It is the people who are shaping the future. It is accountability not to outside forces or capital but society that drives the Cuban reform agenda.

Carlos Lopez from the Cuban Embassy also thanked the UK government but especially the individual supporters that have contributed to the CSC 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 so many years by their nearest neighbour. Highlighting the great vote this year at the UN condemning the US blockade, he spoke of the damage it causes to people’s lives on a daily basis. 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 in different society right 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. Just over 100 MP’s have now signed but more are needed.

Guillaume Long, President of Ecuador’s Higher Education Council talked 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 especially education and health. The new constitution enshrines rights for Ecuadorians that are helping repair the sense of nationhood in a state devastated by the 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. Bernard Regan saluted the courage of the Ecuador embassy in defending Julian Assange and delegates pledged ongoing support and solidarity with the Embassy and its people.

Guardian writer Seamus Milne talked of the democracy at the core of what is happening 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 though he talked about his recent experiences observing the Venezuelan elections and the role of the CIA in that process. However his optimism 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 Osbourne to learn lessons from Ecuador, 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, allowing each other then to develop in their own way.

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 need 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 that will be gone 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 Cuba Solidarity Campaign emergency appeal for hurricane Sandy. 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’.

Bob Oram