Triumphs and dangers

Since the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in1998 Latin America has undergone an extraordinary transformation which was unthinkable back then. Ever since, powerful social movements have elected a wave of progressive governments which have turned a region traditionally under the US imperial thumb into an assertive subcontinent which is seeking to build a better world.

Many countries in the region tried to create a more just society during the 20th century but the overwhelming majority of those efforts were brutally crushed by the US in alliance with the local oligarchies.

These defeats led to horrific levels of violence, state-sponsored terror, assassinations, dictatorship, the suppression of civil society, persecution of trade unionists, torture and exile, plus a wave of mass impoverishment. It made Latin America the most unequal continent on the planet.

But in the 21st century the election of Chavez was followed by the survival – however precarious – of the Cuban revolution, which by the year 2000 was already showing signs of solid economic recovery.

Then it was the turn of the continent’s giant Brazil, whose electorate chose Ignazio Lula da Silva as president in 2002.

A year later Nestor Kirchner became president of Argentina, soon to be followed in 2005 by two other left-wingers – Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Then Ecuador and Chile followed suit, electing Rafael Correa and Michelle Bachelet in 2006 followed by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2007.

Paraguay elected a liberation theology bishop and Guatemala elected Alvaro Colom in 2008. The last on the list so far is Mauricio Funes in El Salvador.

The region has entered into a process of economic and political integration which by now is quite advanced. It has established Unasur, a regional body of all the South American nations, which played a crucial role in first politically isolating a US-supported regionally-led coup against President Morales in Bolivia in 2008 and finally helped to defeat it.

This was a substantial contribution to the consolidation of democracy in that country Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador and some Caribbean nations have established Alba, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.

One of the most radical manifestations of the new assertiveness which characterises Latin American nowawdays, Alba is responsible for a significant number of highly progressive regional initiatives such as Operation Miracle and PetroCaribe and a single currency, the SUCRE.

Operation Miracle has enabled nearly two million poor people from the continent to have operations on cataracts and similar eye ailments while PetroCaribe substantially benefits 13 Caribbean nations by offering them oil at preferential prices over 25-year contracts.

Thanks to their integrationist policies, the Latin Americans have been able to reduce the weight of the external debt to an insignificant fraction of what it used to be merely 20 year ago. Then it was effectively employed by the US government, the IMF and multinational capital to better control and subjugate the region’s raw materials and political and economic processes.

In consequence the drastic reduction of the debt has rendered the IMF almost redundant. The sharp reconfiguration of the relations with multinational capital in favour of the countries in the region has been a decisive factor in both the successful implementation of poverty-reduction programmes and the sustained growth of the domestic economies.

In Brazil alone, during the adminsitratrion of President Lula which has just ended, government policies lifted 20 million people out of poverty.

Similar trends can be observed everywhere where the left is in charge in the region. Bolivia for example currently has a surplus of US$5bn (£3.2m) – an extraordinary development since Bolivia had never had a surplus in its near-200 year history.

The Latin American countries have also established CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which explicitly excludes the US and Canada. This is in line with their continuing assertiveness and the strengthening of regional bodies ever more independent from the US, whose influence in the region, though it has by no means disappeared, has substantially declined.

The US economy is in tatters, while the Latin Americans are showing signs of vigorous economic growth. And Latin America is steadily orienting itself towards Asia where it has found a large number of willing trade partners, notably China.

There are now alternative export markets, sources of credit, technology, machinery and everything else the economies of Latin America need to further an already sturdy development.

But there are serious threats to these very positive developments. With a coup that overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in June last year, local oligarchies in alliance with neocons in Washington were able to stop Honduras from joining the wave of progressive development.

Honduras is currently engulfed in a cycle of poverty, arbitrariness and violence which has led to the killing of hundreds of activists for opposing the turning of their country back into a US backyard.

With the support of local oligarchies, the US is also busily establishing military bases everywhere in the region including sending 20,000 marines to quake-stricken Haiti and stationing 7,000 more in army-free Costa Rica.

Contrary to expectations, under President Obama the US attacks and hostility against Cuba and Venezuela have continued unabated. And the US Navy has resuscitated the Fourth Fleet, whose theatre of operation is the Caribbean and the South Atlantic.

The US was heavily involved in the short-lived coup against Chavez in April 2002 and on September 30 this autumn pro-US forces nearly succeeded in overthrowing Ecuador’s President Correa.

So, as the region strengthens its assertiveness, domestic reactionary forces in cahoots with US imperialism get more aggressive.

There will be a wonderful opportunity to learn about these developments and to engage in dialogue and discussion about the issues that Latin America faces at the Latin America 2010 conference in London on Saturday.

Speakers such as Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Walter Sandino – grandson of Augusto Sandino – Brendan Barber and Seamus Milne will be joined by over 50 contributors including special Latin American guests from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras.

Those of you who have been before will know that this is an annual conference not to be missed.

Latin America 2010 takes place on Saturday 4th December at Congress House in London. It features over 50 guest speakers, seminars, films, music and an evening fiesta. £10 waged/£6 unwaged. Book online at www.latinamericaconference.org.uk or telephone (020) 8800-0155.