With increasing resistance across Europe the importance of building links and solidarity with movements against neo-liberalism in Latin America – in many ways the first continent to rise up against the ‘free-market model’ – cannot be overstated, argues Matt Willgress.

Recent developments around the world have shown beyond doubt that the ‘free market model’ has clearly failed the overwhelming majority of people; economically, socially and culturally. Whilst many in Europe and elsewhere are only now starting to draw this conclusion, it has been clear in Latin America for some time.

From 1980 until the late 1990s in Latin America, under the US-sponsored and at times IMF-ordered ‘reforms’, economic growth in the region collapsed and poverty and social inequality grew. In reaction mass movements emerged across the continent, and much of the region’s voters have elected to to reject the disastrous neo-liberal policies that brought such ruin.

A key thread running through the different shades of mass movements against neo-liberalism across Latin America is an understanding of the need for the region to break free from US domination, and no longer be denigrated as the “US backyard.” Developments such as ALBA – a regional bloc developed as an alternative to the US- proposal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas – bring together governments and movements to work together for social development, rather than follow the orders of the US and international bodies such as the IMF and World Bank.

The Disastrous Record of Right Wing Rule in Venezuela

One interesting example of the failure of neo-liberalism, mass resistance and then progressive change in the region is Venezuela.

For decades most Venezuelans lived in deep poverty, with unsafe water and desperately inadequate public services. In the 25 years prior to Hugo Ch√°vez’s election in 1998, Venezuela was ran by the current Right-Wing opposition according to the diktats of the US and IMF. Income per head fell relentlessly and as a result over half the population lived below the poverty line. In 1995 this had climbed to a staggering 75 per cent of Venezuelans living in poverty.

This was accompanied by vicious repression against those who protested against desperate poverty, most notably in the 1989 uprising against an IMF programme of economic reforms which led to steep rises in the price of basic necessities. Out of these mass struggles radical changes were born – with Hugo Chavez being first elected in 1998 with the support of many of these movements of the downtrodden and oppressed.

Whilst much still needs to be done to overcome the decades of neglect of the vast majority of Venezuelans, especially in areas such as transport and housing, the achievements since 1998 of the Ch√°vez-led government stand in stark contrast to previous Venezuelan governments who for 25 years presided over rising poverty and falling living standards.

Examples of social justice and development of public services for all since 1998, echoing the demands of these mass movements, include:

  • More than 2.7 million have been lifted out of poverty, with extreme poverty halved.
  • Over 17 million people now have access to free healthcare for the first time with the construction of an nhs.
  • Over 1.6 million adults have benefited from literacy campaigns with illiteracy now abolished.
  • More than 6 million more people now have clean drinking water, with access increasing from 80% in 1998 to over 92% today.
  • 98% of Venezuelans now eat three times per day thanks to subsidised food and free school meals.
  • There are new rights for working people – Venezuela’s minimum wage is the highest in Latin America and outsourcing is now illegal.
  • The expansion of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra programme, which provides free musical education to thousands of children from poor backgrounds, and other initiatives which promote social inclusion in culture and the arts.

This has been made possible by a sustained rise in social investment, with the government redistributing the country’s oil wealth. Despite numerous problems and difficulties – against the backdrop of the global economic crisis Venezuela’s economy shrank by 3% in 2009 – Venezuela has protected these social programmes. This is in contrast to the cuts agenda to public services the IMF, EU and others continue to advocate and viciously impose across the world.

One point of particular interest to many involved with the emerging struggles in Britain is that – in contrast to yet further rises in University tuition fees – as being proposed here in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world – Venezuela has moved from a socially exclusive HE system to now having two million people currently engaged in university-level studies. This places Venezuela second to Cuba among Latin American nations in percentage of adults attending universities. As school children here were kettled for protesting against being priced out of attending university last week (there was a mass demonstration in Venezuela of university students from poorer backgrounds backing government moves to further enhance inclusion!)

Similar processes can be seen in other countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, with millions of working and oppressed people fighting to take control of their own – and their countries’ – destinies. On the other hand, those countries that have governments who remain tied to neo-liberalism and the US – such as Mexico, Colombia and, since last year’s coup, Honduras – continue to viciously repress mass struggles and movements of the poor and oppressed; putting the interests of the governing elites and the US ahead of development and social progress.

Solidarity Needed

An increasing number of activists in Britain have therefore looked over recent years to both governments and mass social movements in Latin America for inspiration – struggles against neo-liberalism and US imperialism are possible and can bring about positive change.

A recent PCS report on privatisation, for example, identified that “[An] inspiring example ..is to be found in Venezuela… where privatisation and outsourcing are now illegal under the new constitution…adding that “Latin American trade unionists and social activists have shown that it is possible to defeat the champions of neo-liberalism, and that organisation and mobilisation can move us towards democracy with social and economic justice. The lesson from Latin American trade unionists is that to counter privatisation and the forces behind it we need to “Organise, Recruit, and Resist”.

But just as these examples of resistance and of progress are an inspiration to billions across the world, they are of great danger to those committed to the neo-liberal agenda.

The recent coup attempt by right-wing forces in Ecuador, following on from the successful coup in Honduras last year, show how serious these threats to return to the old order are, especially when considered in the context of a new US military build-up in the region.

Concern at the advance of progress movements in Latin America also explains why the small elites who have lost their privileges in recent years get disproportionate support from defenders of the status quo in Europe and the US, using their own dominance of much of the private media in Latin America itself to wage a systematic campaign of vilification and misrepresentation of progressive governments and movements. This is then picked up by the corporate media internationally as part of an attempt to isolate these progressive governments and movements.

Outside Latin America these systematic media campaigns against Venezuela and others depends heavily upon exploiting ignorance. That is why it is vital that progressive people work together to explain what is really happening, oppose US intervention and build links with those resisting and overturning neo-liberalism.

The Annual Latin America Conference takes place this Saturday (December 4) at Congress House from 9.30am, followed by a Fiesta at Bolivar Hall. Speakers include Tony Benn, Seumas Milne and Jean Lambert MEP plus speakers from Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras. More information and tickets.