The importance of building links and solidarity with movements against neo-liberalism in Latin America cannot be overstated, argues Matt Willgress

SolidarityDevelopments around the world in the past few years have shown beyond doubt that the ‘free market model’ has clearly failed the overwhelming majority of people. Whilst many in Europe and elsewhere are only now starting to draw this conclusion, as witnessed by the mass struggles against austerity in countries such as Greece, it has been clear in Latin America for some time. Indeed it is in Latin America today we can see these going beyond defensive struggles against neo-liberalism to struggles for positive change and policies that put people first.

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 reject the disastrous neo-liberal policies that brought such ruin.

Linked to this, a key thread running through the different types 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 justice and 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

A particularly significant example of the failure of neo-liberalism, mass resistance and then progressive change in the region is Venezuela, which with the likes of Ecuador and Bolivia can be seen at the vanguard of the changes taking place in Latin America, linking up with Cuba, which has withstood US blockade and pressure for over fifty years.

For decades most Venezuelans lived in deep poverty, with unsafe water and desperately inadequate public services. In the 25 years prior to Hugo Chavez’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, the achievements since 1998 of the revolution led by the Chavez-led government until his tragic death in April this year – and the government led by the former trade union leader and explicitly socialist Nicolas Maduro since April –  stand in stark contrast to previous Venezuelan governments who for 25 years presided over rising poverty and falling living standards.

Just five of the many examples and achievements (more can be found in this in-depth pamphlet here ) of social justice and development of public services for all since 1998, echoing, implementing and advancing the demands of these mass movements, include:

  • Poverty reduction: In the mid 1990s poverty peaked at 70% and one in three Venezuelans was forced to live on less than $2 a day. Now, progressive policies have seen over five million lifted out of poverty and over three million from extreme poverty.
  • Tackling inequality: The UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) reports that Venezuela has the lowest levels of economic inequality in Latin America, with the largest decrease in inequality throughout the continent over the 2002-8 period, with inequality even continuing to fall during the global economic crisis of 2008-10.
  • Erradicating hunger: The savage period of neo-liberalism and the free-market has left one in five Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition by 1998. Today, people are no longer left to starve with international bodies recognising that over 96% of Venezuelans eat three times a day due to government policies such as free school meals and subsidized supermarkets.
  • Free healthcare for all: In Venezuela now, millions have free access to a doctor and wider healthcare for the first time in their lives. Since established in 2003, then national programme Barrio Adentro has been used by over 80% of Venezuelans, saving some 300,000 lives whilst the infant mortality rate has dropped by a third.
  • Free education as a right: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has eradicated illiteracy with 1.6m adults learning to read and write in just 18 months. Today, free education at all (including university) levels is a right with investment in education soaring from 3% of GDP in 1999 to over 6% of a much larger GDP by 2011.

This has been made possible by a sustained rise in social investment, with the government redistributing the country’s oil wealth to the majority of people. It has also been endorsed by the majority of Venezuelans again and again, with more elections in the last 12 years than the previous 40.

Millions of once excluded Venezuelans are driving social change and developing political bodies such as communal councils to further deepen this.

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, where an election was recently not free and fair according to many analyses, 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 with Venezuela and Other Progressive Struggles!

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.

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. In Venezuela in particular the right-wing is engaged in a vicious campaign of destabilisation and economic sabotage against the progressive government, with echoes of Chile 40 years ago.

In addition – and linked – to this, 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.

Join us in this important solidarity today!

Matt Willgress (writing in a personal capacity) is the National Co-ordinator of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign ( and will be a contributor at this Saturday’s Latin America 2013 Conference along with Seumas Milne, Owen Jones, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Lindsey German (Stop the War) and others. You can get information and tickets at and on facebook