First hand accounts from Brazil and Venezuela

This year’s Commission on Latin America, at the Committee for a Workers International European School, was enhanced by the first hand accounts of comrades from Brazil and Venezuela, as well as by the eye witness accounts of European comrades who recently visited the continent.

Comrade Luciano, from Socialismo Revolucionario (Brazil’s CWI section), put the discussion in context, recapping the process of neo liberalism inflicted on the continent during the 1980s and 90s, which laid the basis for mass movements in the late 90s on the back of which a host of left populist governments were elected.

Once elected, some of these governments, in particular Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Carrea in Ecuador, have responded to ongoing pressure from below by implementing some reforms that have benefited the lives of the workers, urban and rural poor, as well as indigenous people.

However, the more common experience has been one of bitter disappointment and anger as the likes of Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina and Bachalet in Chile have continued the process of neo-liberal attacks. All of the above have left the vast bulk of their economies in the hands of the capitalist class and left the old state machines intact. Problems such as inflation, particularly of food prices, have being bearing down on the mass of people.

Their betrayals of the aspirations of the people who elected them have provoked a new phase of struggle, as well as the rebuilding of new workers organisations, especially in Brazil. Here we see the formation of the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), as well as new break away trade union federations Intersindical and Conlutas, together representing 20% of the organised working class.

In Chile, the recent strike and demonstration of teachers, numbering 10,000, as well as protests of secondary school students against public transport fare hikes, represent the most significant movements since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Opportunities and challenges for PSOL

Luciano explained the opportunities and challenges posed by the creation of PSOL and the role of Socialismo Revolucionario. While the party is clear in it opposition to Lula’s anti worker policies, the strategy and tactics by which PSOL can build are the subject of much debate. PSOL’s leadership are particularly focused on making propaganda about the government’s corruption, as well as putting most of the party’s energies into elections. This approach has meant that PSOL has not reached it potential and, in fact, contributed to some electoral reverses. Socialismo Revolucionario, which has actively participated in PSOL from the start, argues for PSOL to orientate to the various struggles of workers, youth and the landless, as the best means of building authority and influence. Socialismo Revolucionario has linked up with other revolutionary socialist trends in the PSOL to fight for this strategy. The interventions by the comrades in Brazil at PSOL congresses have enabled us to reach activists from across this vast country.

Comrade Sandy, from CWI Venezuela, recalled the mistakes that have taken place in previous revolutions in Latin America in the 20th century, such as Chile, Guatemala and Nicaragua. He pointed out that there are lessons from this that can be applied to the situations in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, and latterly Paraguay. In this country we saw see Fernando Lugo was recently elected as a radical populist alternative to the Colorado party, which had been in power for generations.

The nationalizations, even when done partially, as well as reforms, such as the education and health missions in the barrios of Venezuela, have been much welcomed by the workers and poor and raised the sights of their brothers and sisters across the continent there are emerging problems which if not countered could see a reversal of even these modest gains. In particular, there has been the increasing bureaucratisation of the regime.

Venezuela and Bolivia

Venezuela lacks the fine traditions of strong workers organizations and history of independent workers parties and unions, seen in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. The PSUV party, whose formation was announced by Chavez, last year, was intended to merge all the pro-Chavez forces under one banner. The CWI argued that such an initiative will only assist the revolutionary process if it is built on the basis on clear socialist aims and democratic structures. These calls by our comrades have been met with fierce opposition by some of the appointed leaders of the PSUV. Officially, it is claimed that five million people have signed up to the new party but the level of active participation is a small fraction of this. For the forthcoming state elections, candidates appointed, from on high, have replaced some that have been selected locally. This approach to party building, if anything, is likely to contribute to the danger of Chavez losing control of some states during these elections. That said, Chavez still enjoys majority support, although the patience of the people is visibly diminishing.

In the UNT trade union federation, there has been a lot of developed criticism of Chavez and, again, there are efforts to control this movement from above by the regime.

In Bolivia, the key danger posed to Morales, explained comrade Sandy, was the preparations by the conservative prefects in the oil and gas producing states to form a break away country. Spurious referendums have taken place and there is ongoing intimidation of worker and indigenous activists in these parts of the country by right wing paramilitary thugs backed by the local prefects. Morales has actively discouraged the instinctual response by many workers in these states to rise up and combat this threat and instead he counter-posed a purely legal and electoral route to dealing with this threat from reaction. He has taken a leaf from Chavez’s book and is going to subject himself to a recall referendum. However, the local state prefects will also be subjected to a recall referendum. While it is overwhelmingly likely that Morales will be endorsed, and some of the right wing prefects may be recalled, these reactionary elements will not reconcile themselves to even the partial reforms that he has brought about to date and promised in the future, for example the diverting of some of the oil and gas revenue to fund state pensions.

Colombia

Some points were made about the role of the Uribe government in Colombia in the region. Colombia has been exceptional in that it has a traditional right wing government and that there continues to be a guerrilla campaign led by FARC. President Uribe is a key ally of George Bush, and the biggest recipient of military aid in the region. Comrade Sandy described Colombia’s role in the region, analogous with that of Israel in the Middle East in terms of it aggressively representing US interests in Latin America to the extent of military incursions in Ecuador allegedly in pursuit of FARC guerrillas.

In the discussion, comrades Bilbo and Luciana from Sweden gave an inspiring account of their recent visit to Peru and the development of a strike among miners in Cuzco which culminated in the families of strikers taking riot police sent to attack them prisoner! The comrades sold CWI literature in the university in Lima and got a very warm response.

Comrades from Germany, Sweden and Ireland made important points about likely perspectives for developments in the countries discussed in the introductions, as well as developments in Cuba, where, under Raul Castro, there is an incremental process of capitalist restoration taking place. Comrades Marianna and Alessandra, from Brazil, gave accounts of student struggles in Brazil, as well as the debate regarding the legalization of safe abortion facilities in Brazil - a topic that has been much debated as, PSOL’s former presidential candidate, Helena Heloisa, holds an anti abortion position for religious reasons.

Comrade Arna, from Sweden, catalogued the acceleration of nationalizations in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, which even when accompanied by expensive compensation for the former capitalist owners has a big impact on political consciousness.

In summing up the discussion, comrade Tony Saunois, from the International Secretariat of the CWI, introduced Mexico into the discussion. Here we witnessed significant mass mobilisations and strike movements in recent months. Mexico is likely to be more affected than any other country in Latin America by the slowdown in US economy, as it receives 80% of Mexico’s exports.

Tony summarized the recent situation in Latin America in two phases. The first phase was the election of the first anti neo-liberal governments in the world, on the continent which was also the laboratory for neo-liberal counter reforms, in the first place. The second phase is one of crisis for these new governments because they have not decisively broken with capitalism. There is real danger of the demoralizing the masses who elected them, paving the way for the return of traditional right wing governments or even coups. What is concretely posed in the current situation is the need for workers to been independently organized in their own unions and parties, as a first step to advancing the cause of socialism. It is to this task that the CWI in Latin America is firmly committed.

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