Latin America Strikes Back

I recently attended the OCLAE conference, a gathering of progressive students in Guadalajara, Mexico, which brought together more than a thousand delegates from across Latin America – and some sympathetic norteamericanos – to discuss and plan strategies to confront everything from rising tuition fees to the ubiquitous U.S. military intervention throughout the region.

Returning from Mexico, I brought with me a few things, despite an unfortunate incident involving a broken bottle of tequila in my carry-on bag. I came home with the requisite political T-shirts and buttons, pages of notes poorly translated from Spanish, and film that included me posing (eyes-closed, alas) with former Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega.

Most importantly, though, I returned from this conference with optimism, because in today’s world, victories for progressive forces are few and far between. It’s been a rough last couple decades for the Left and an even rougher last couple of years.

For instance, 2001 brought us the inauguration of malignantly ignorant runner-up for President, the ascension of war criminal Ariel Sharon to Prime Minister of Israel, the corporate coronation of Gordon Campbell and, of course, September 11. Not to be outdone, 2002 gave us such lowlights as the brutal cuts and torn-up contracts of the B.C. Liberals, a relentless push for a massive war on Iraq, the return of U.S. troops to the Philippines, and ominous mass arrests of Arab and Muslim immigrants in the United States.

Scattered throughout this dismal panorama are some bright spots, many of which emanate from Latin America, the “backyard of U.S. imperialism.” On December 20, 2001, a popular revolt broke out in Argentina, ousting president after president. The rebellion expressed the anger over years of neo-liberal “reforms” such as austerity measures, cuts to social services and privatisations that have left half the population below the poverty line. The traditional political parties of Argentina are discredited; the slogan of the Argentine uprising became “Que se vayan todos”, everybody must go!

In Brazil, Workers Party leader Luis Inacio da Silva, better known as Lula, won the presidential election in a landslide. This despite the most shameless attempts by the U.S. government and the international loan sharks to spread fear amongst the population. By electing Lula overwhelmingly, Brazilians stated emphatically that what they really feared was the economic disaster that Argentina had encountered along the path of neo-liberal reforms. Lula has traveled a long, difficult road to power. Born in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, he emerged from the shop floor to become a prominent union leader and opponent of the military dictatorship in the late ’70s and early ’80s. With the return of democracy, Lula became the perennial Workers Party candidate for president, finally triumphing this past November. Although unanimous in celebrating his election, delegates from Brazil had sharply differing opinions on what Lula would do in power. Indeed, Lula has worked hard to moderate both his image and his program in recent years. While he maintains that Brazil will not ratify the Free Trade Area of the Americas, -a potentially devastating blow to the hemispheric trade and investment deal -he has backtracked on his refusal to pay Brazil’s external debt, going to great lengths to appease international creditors such as the IMF.

As Lula discarded some of his more radical policies, he also discarded his trademark jeans and T-shirt style in favour of a suit and tie. At the risk of placing too much importance on politicians’ attire (Remember Stockwell Day and his wetsuit?), it is noteworthy that Ortega in Nicaragua also uses fashion to convey a more moderate image. Leaving his military fatigues in the 1980s, Ortega campaigned in 2001 wearing pink shirts, accompanied by the memorable slogan “El Camino del Amor”, the path of love. The pink was still too red for the Bush administration, and the State Department made shameless public statements linking Ortega to international terrorism.

One Latin American leader who still wears his fatigues and his paratrooper’s beret is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez, and the volatile situation in the country that is the world’s fourth largest producer of oil, was likely the most passionately discussed subject at the Guadalajara conference. Another bright spot in 2002 was the failure of the right-wing military coup against Chavez in April. Millions of poor Venezuelans – the oil-rich country has an 80 per cent poverty rate – from the countryside and the slums of Caracas took to the streets and won the reinstatement of the democratically elected Chavez. Chavez’s crime, in the eyes of the local elite, was to have dared to implement moderate reforms that benefited, or even potentially benefited, the poor. He passed a land reform law, which, although it has yet to be implemented, allows for landless peasants to occupy certain unused tracts of farmland. Efforts were made to supply slum-dwellers with building materials for housing. In December, 1999, more than 10,000 died when torrential rains caused mudslides and swept entire neighbourhoods into the sea, so perhaps the issue of quality housing had a certain urgency to the dangerous idealist Chavez. Worst of all, the demon had been calling for stronger supply restrictions by the OPEC nations, which threatened to increase the price of oil.

As the student conference closed in early December, the latest month-long “general strike” – more accurately called a business strike – was getting under way. Many delegates from Venezuela, especially those from Chavez’s Movement for a Fifth Republic, did not make the trip to Guadalajara, staying behind to confront the political battle at home. A small group from Venezuela, known as the Red Flag, made waves by using every opportunity they had to speak to violently denounce Chavez for not being revolutionary enough, not being a true Marxist, etc. In calling for Chavez’s ouster at this point, however, these holier-than-thou revolutionaries are essentially lining themselves up with the right-wing coalition that is desperately trying to overthrow the current government.

Overall, the impression that the conference left me with was that social movements were resurging across Latin America, that the tide of neo-liberalism was being stemmed, and that the future might even hold significant victories. Clearly the traditions of struggle that were so violently repressed in places like Argentina, Chile and Central America could not be suppressed forever.

What can the norteamericanos, including those of us in Canada, offer the movements in Latin America? Some coordinated and serious international solidarity would be a good first step. Shamefully, the April coup against Chavez was answered with barely a whisper from activists in the North. Most of us were as surprised as the U.S. government that the coup was overturned.

The key contribution we can make, however, is the rebuilding of our own movements. With a corporate zealot like Gordon Campbell firmly entrenched, and the zealous war-makers in the Pentagon plotting aggressions in Iraq and beyond, there is no shortage of urgency for the cause of social and global justice. Hopefully, we can appropriate some of the militancy found in Latin America on the road to some significant victories of our own.

Derrick O’Keefe, 25, is an activist with the Palestine Solidarity Group in Vancouver, Canada. Contact: (604) 512-9955 (cell) (604) 324-6059 (home)

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