Report/article on the conference Learning from Latin America held in the STUC building on 2 December 2012

What can Scotland learn from Latin America? As the debate about the constitution picks up, that’s probably not a question which many are asking. However those who attended the conference at the STUC on 2 December found that the answer is ‘quite a lot’ which is relevant to that debate and to discussions about social justice and inequality. Especially for those who believe a fundamental shift in the balance of power is more important than the formal question of independence.

The conference heard from top notch speakers from Ecuador and Venezuela as well as from Scottish politicians and academics. They ranged across many topics, with a particular attention to education. At the most general level, however, the key messages I took from the conference are: it’s possible to take on neo-liberalism and austerity – and to win! and that the key to success is political determination to pursue popular objectives with all means available

Jacobo Torres from Venezuela was clear how important these lessons are. Reflecting on the meaning of Chavez’s recent re-election as President he said that, having recovered rights lost under neo-liberalism, they were now in a position to contribute the great debate about how to save humanity, not just Venezuela. While in Europe the achievements of the welfare state are under attack, the opposite is the case there.

Jacobo was adamant that they are making a revolution in their own way and that each nation has to find its own way and shouldn’t be wedded to one particular form of struggle. He said “in 1988 with the first election of Chavez we started a peaceful and democratic revolution”. Yet the so-called democrats, the old elite, launched their coup in 2002 and the media continue their hostility. “We should be in the Guinness Book of Records as the only terrorist country with an average of 1.4 elections a year!”

Sandra White MSP, who had been an observer of the recent elections, confirmed that they had been free and fair – in fact the Venezuelan system is much better than ours, with systems in place to identify voters and to prevent any possible fraud. Even though these may slow the process down, turn-out was a massive 85 per cent. She remarked also that this was a country with a different mindset – one of care for people who don’t have as much.

She had found out that the majority of the media are hostile to Chavez, although reports in the British press have suggested that Chavez success is due to control of the media. Far from it. “They are terrified of the people” said Jacobo “so they make up lies – every Sunday we go out and eat children!”. Guillame Long from Ecuador confirmed that their press is also “Fox-style racist and sexist” – of five TV channels, four are owned by banks.

First Cuba and then Venezuela inspired people and parties across the continent and the last decade has seen countries across Latin America elect socialist governments and adopt radical policies in the face of hostility and interference from the USA. One such is Ecuador and we heard from the consul Fidel Narvaez and Guillame Long about the policies of the government of Rafael Correa, who also experienced attempted coup and assassination. He is particularly unpopular with the US government for having expelled the its military bases, saying that of course they could stay if the USA would agree to having an Ecuadoran military base in Florida!

Fidel spoke of Ecuador experiencing real sovereignty for the first time. “The other element” he said “is social justice, achievable only by redistributing wealth, in favour of the most vulnerable. ….By changing economic policies and social policies, Ecuador has increased its social investment by four times compared with just six years ago”.

President Correa often says that the best indicator of “who has the power” is perhaps how a country manages the social investment: how this expenditure is allocated in the budget. If your priority is rescuing the banks, you have financial capital in power and running your economy. If you prioritise the needs of the majority over of the richest and more powerful in the society, as the progressive governments in LA are doing, then you have popular states and people in power.

For all the Latin American speakers the ‘long neo-liberal night’ was a key reference point. Francisco Dominguez told us how 10,000 people were murdered by the regime in his country, Chile, in 17 years. Those who thought that Chile represented the worst learnt that it was just the first, as we listened to a catalogue of horror – 30,000 in Argentina, 60,000 in Peru, 80,000 in El Salvador and 120,000 in Guatemala. “Think also of those imprisoned and tortured; and of the impoverishment which left 50 per cent in poverty” he said, before listing some of the outstanding achievements which governments have achieved by turning their back on the USA’s way, the Washington Consensus. 100 million have been taken out of poverty in a decade, taking the poverty rate down from 48 per cent to 30 per cent.

The creation of the Bank of the South aims to make the IMF and the World Bank redundant in the region. Bolivia has, for example, increased the taxation of multinationals in the extractive sector from one per cent to 85 per cent. Cuba’s Operation Miracle has given sight back to two million people, for free. If a poor country under a US blockade can do that, what could a rich country like the UK or Scotland do?

Cuba’s achievements were the topic chosen by Elaine Smith MSP. She compared life expectancy there, at 78, with 64 in parts of Glasgow. She praised the Cuban government response to Hurricane Sandy, the worst for 50 years, providing cheap materials and loans to those who had lost their homes. “No-one is starving or homeless in Cuba” she said. “compare that to Scotland where homelessness, begging and food parcels are prevalent”.

Fidel Narvaez added “The revolutionary path taken by several Latin-American countries indeed follows the worst long term economic failure in the region over a century. Most of those neo-liberal policies are familiar for you Europeans today: tough and pro-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies, the abandonment of a proper state-led development policies, massive privatizations, indiscriminate opening up to international trade and financial flows. This ‘long neo-liberal night’ also increased levels of poverty, social inequality, political instability, deterioration of the state institutions and provoked social unrest in the region”.

Expanding on the experience in Ecuador, Guillame Long explained that the country had been in a crisis, with nine banks collapsing. Two million left the country out of a population of 14 million. There had been six presidents in 10 years. Rafael Correa’s intent was to recuperate the state and the nation. As in Venezuela, a new constitution created by a Constituent Assembly with 70 per cent approval in a referendum had created a new social pact. The rights of the indigenous population had been recognised and protection of the environment is a high priority in the management of natural resources. Since then there has been a sixfold increase in health and education spending. Tax income rose from $2.7 to $9.5 billion through enforcing tax laws. “As well as minimum wage we have a ‘dignity wage’. Employers don’t have to pay this – but they are not allowed to pay dividends to their shareholder until they do.”

The intention is to change Ecuador’s role in the international division of labour through investment in science and education. There has been a 23 per cent growth in university education for the poorest quintile of the population. Neo-liberalism had created ‘garage universities’ in which the standards were so poor that the government had to close 14; but it had reallocated the students (10 per cent of the student population) to public universities. And four new public universities are being created, one dedicated to training teachers, another to researching the bio-genetic resources of the Amazon, an necessary step to stopping bio-piracy by multinationals.

Education in Latin America was also the topic of Liam Kane of Glasgow University, in his case Popular Education, a continent-wide movement which has a political commitment in favour of the oppressed and the poor. “If you are not working to change things you are working to keep things as the are”. The aim is to enable people to become agents of change, not having change done to them. The extent to which this movement had contributed to the success of the ‘pink tide’ of revolutionary governments in Latin America is one of the many topics which the conference did not have enough time to explore.

One of the benefits of this type of conference is that it helps see your own country in a wider perspective. From Latin America, Scotland can’t look very much different from England and the rest of the UK. The differences which we value, though important, don’t alter an overall assessment in which we share the same large and rising levels of inequality unemployment, mental illness and poor health for the worst off. The question here is whether there is the political will to fix these problems, whether in the UK or in a devolved or independent Scotland. As Fidel Narvaez said of the actions of the government of Ecuador “How strange that in times of a world recession you can do exactly the opposite to the cuts!”

Actually it’s not strange. Many of us knew that, but fewer believed it was happening now. Learning from Latin America, we can say with confidence:

These are lessons worth treasuring.

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