The following is based on notes that our Political Education Officer, Valerie, took when Chris Williamson kindly visited Loughborough Labour Party and spoke about the media coverage of Venezuela.
Chris Williamson joined the Venezuelan Solidarity Committee when he was elected to parliament in 2010.
Venezuela is a developing nation but under Chavez and Maduro citizens in absolute poverty has been dramatically reduced. The country has the largest oil reserve in the world, the revenue of which belongs to the development of Venezuela for her people.
Chavez used the revenues from these oil reserves to address poverty and invest in public services such as education, health and housing whereas previously the oil revenues enriched the elites and foreign corporations. As these reserves have become focused on economic growth for the poor, the elites axiomatically lose their power BUT they are still fabulously wealthy.
Twentieth Century successive US Presidents to the present day have interfered in the region. Here and elsewhere during the Thatcher years and in successive years governments have increased inequality all over the world. Chavez made oil revenue a solidarity tool. See documentary on Youtube The Revolution Will Be Televised.
In 2002 a 48 hour coup occurred. (see John Pilger’s documentary - unmissable). Chavez was arrested and he spoke to Fidel Castro who advised him not to become a martyr. The coup was not successful. This Bolivarian revolution has never been accepted by the elites.
Chris acknowledged that there are difficulties and that the police and security services have ‘overstepped the mark on occasions’. But where perpetrators have been identified they have been arrested and charged There are conflicts which are patchily spread and geographically concentrated. Our UK news outlets, however, have given no information about human rights abuses to left wing protesters, and have implied that the responsibility for violence can only be placed at the door of the Maduro Government, implying it is a totalitarian state.
Oil values have collapsed. There has been an over-reliance on oil and 19 years ago when Chavez came to power the country was too slow in diversifying its economy, but changing an economy takes time and 19 years is a relatively short time, particularly when faced with internal challenges and external interference from the US.
US Latin American foreign policy continues to interfere with Venezuelan democracy and economic policy. US federal budget is sponsoring right wing opposition. There have been protests on the streets and their media have reported violence but the right wing opposition is organised and violent. A young Chavista was spotted having petrol poured over him and being set alight. This was after he had been beaten. The young man was 21 years old. This is not an isolated incident. Over one hundred citizens have been killed recently and majority of these have been at the hands of right wing opposition. There have been decapitations.
Nearly all Venezuelan media outlets are hostile to the government. When asked about the violence in Venezuela, Jeremy Corbyn called out the violence on both sides. Chris described economic sabotage where the economy is run by the elites who are withholding medicine and food supplies. Many protests are being concentrated in certain states.
US intervention includes not only Trump's activities but President Obama signed an executive order authorising sanctions on the pretext that Venezuela was a national security threat to the USA. Parallels - with the tactics to undermine Salvador Allende in Chile when Richard Nixon said he was going the “make the economy scream” in Chile. Following the coup d'état during Pinochet years death squads and torture were commonplace.
Life expectancy has increased
Infant mortality rates decreased
Massive investment in healthcare and education
Four year increase in school attendance
Investment in adult education
House building programme - 1.7 million affordable homes
Jeremy Corbyn praised this. Inflation is, however, high.
In 1999 Chavez called a Constituent Assembly Election which has been part of the constitution for many years predating Chavez’s election in 1998. President Maduro recently called a Constituent Assembly election in an attempt to bring an end to the violent street protests the country is more recently quiet. In recent state elections, Eighteen of the twenty three states went to the Chavistas. In 2018 there will be presidential elections and Maduro could lose; it’s a democracy. President Jimmy Carter has observed the elections in Venezuela and has reported that they are the ‘safest elections in the world’.
Western media does not cover other Latin American news.
Venezuela has 6 million Colombians living there, some are refugees (figure not given). After Syria, Colombia has the highest number of citizens who are seeking refuge abroad after Syria.
Brazil has placed a twenty year spending freeze on education and health. There have been massive cuts in their housing programme - all these policies are now enshrined in Brazil’s constitution. This was after the Workers Party President, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office by 62 senators on bogus trumped up charges, even though she had received 54 million votes in the previous presidential election. Former Workers Party President Lula is highly popular in Brazil but the current President Temer’s approval rating is only 2%. There is a broad constituency of protests against Temer’s reforms but these people have been brutally repressed by security services - there has been little or no news coverage in the British media of these events, even though a number of the Senators behind the removal of Dilma who in turn have been identified for corruption activity.
Ecuador: EXXON/CHEVRON, despite numerous claims and counter claims in the courts, still refuse to take responsibility for its obligation to clean up contaminated land that had been drilled from 1964 to 1990. (link) Ecuador has seen a six fold increase in endemic tax avoidance. A recent referendum about fund-holding in off shore tax havens resulted in the requirement that all who engage in this avoidance activity have a year to declare their interest(s). Ecuador has a ‘dignity wage’ (living wage) and a minimum wage policy. Companies must pay the minimum wage,but the dignity wage is discretionary. However, if companies do not pay the dignity wage then dividends cannot be paid to their shareholders.
Bolivia venerates Che Guevara. Their health programme is modelled on Cuba’s. The man who killed Che Guevara has benefited from Cuban doctors participating in Cuba’s health care programme in Bolivia.
Nicaragua: The Sandinista government has been returned. They have a tripartite system composed of politicians/unions/business to deliver reforms.
US interference in Latin America continues to but that is nothing new! The Labour Party is calling for self-determining nationhood across the world. International solidarity is needed to push-back of right wing resurgence to support progressive movements across the world. Chris stated: “Latin America was subjected to an extreme version of neoliberalism, that was inflicted at the point of a gun and resulted in around 40% of the population living in poverty”.
The UK Parliament’s all party parliamentary group for Venezuela seems to have been established as vehicle to attack the Maduro government and regrettably a number of Labour MPs have used it as a proxy war against the Labour leader, who has previously praised the progress made by Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.
Q: What part is the Church playing in Latin America?
A: Chris could not answer for Venezuela but did mention the Pope’s visit to Ecuador two years ago where there was large public attendance.
Q: Can we revive ethical foreign policy?
A: Ethical foreign policy is definitely uppermost in Jeremy Corbyn’s thinking. It will be delivered upon but ‘there will be compromises in power’. Stephen Sacker with Emily Thornberry have made known their real concern about the UK Press undermining the Labour Party’s values system. They have raised and are committed to ethical foreign policy. As regards President Maduro, Emily Thornberry has the same view as Jeremy Corbyn. Countries with socialist values are under internationally imposed duress and JC’s recognition of this is being used to undermine his authority in the UK.
Chris recommended Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of 1945 - post war Attlee Labour government.
Chris talked about his role within the Shadow Cabinet and spoke extensively about Grenfell Tower and allied problems of fire safety under this Tory Government