Over 500 people pack Latin America 2013 conference in London

Campaign News | Thursday, 12 September 2013

Solidarity, progress and optimism, in the face of orchestrated reaction

The 9th Annual Latin America Adelante Conference paid moving tribute to three giants of the progressive, revolutionary movement on Saturday 7 December.

The recent deaths of Nelson Mandela and Hugo Chavez and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Salvador Allende brought sadness but also hope in their example to over 500 participants packed into the TUC’s Congress House in London.

It was Mandela’s death that inspired Victoria Brittain to reflect on hearing Fidel Castro commit at Harare in 1976 Cuban support for Angola “until the end of aApartheid”.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Cuban forces’ decisive victory over South African troops at Cuito Cuanavale.

Victoria warned, “The threat of any different political path is exactly the same today for the USA as it was in the Cold War.”

George Galloway MP, also speaking in the opening plenary, picked up that theme by praising Chavez and warning that the latest attempts to destabilise Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela bore striking similarities with what happened in the past in Chile.

He too reflected on the Cuban victory in 1978 in Angola against the armed forces of apartheid South Africa and the fact that the first country and person Mandela visited after his release from prison was Cuba and Fidel.

While calling for solidarity with people abroad he stressed our duty to fight colonialism at home and condemned the “Gilbert and Sullivan farce of pensioners dying here from lack of heating whist we expend hundreds of millions of pounds to defend the rights of 2,300 settlers to live in the Malvinas”.

This was echoed later in the day by Alicia Castro, the Argentinean ambassador to Britain, who reminded delegates that Mrs Thatcher had talked to the military dictatorship from 1986 to 1990 about the Falkland Islands’ future but that today’s British government will not talk to the democratically elected government Argentina. Calling for nothing more than support for the opening of a dialogue between our two countries, she was warmly applauded.

Mohammad Taj, president of the TUC, set a tone for the day by underscoring how internationalism means learning from and seeing what can be applied from the progressive changes that are pressing forward in Latin America, despite ferocious right wing opposition.

In a workshop on Cuba, author Arnold August told delegates that “something was in the air” as regards to the case of the Miami Five.

It is too early to say an end could be in sight. But it is now critical that we create a “jury of millions” to put even more pressure on Barack Obama to act not only for justice, but also in the interests of both the Cuban and the American people.

That is why the Voices for the Five Campaign www.voicesforthefive.com is so important, along with the International Commission of Inquiry into the case, to be held at The Law Society in London on the 7 and 8 of March next year.

Over 120 participants joined the hundreds there who had already done so in adding their “voice” for the Miami Five. It takes less than a minute and can be done online here http://www.voicesforthefive.com/upload/

In a letter to participants, the Five expressed “our deepest feelings of gratitude to all our friends in the UK, for 15 years of solidarity and support”. George Galloway thought it ironic that they thank us - as fighters against terrorism and heroes to the Cuban people we need to step up our efforts to thank and release them.

“We have a duty to free them from their unjust incarceration in the US,” he said, as he urged everyone to get involved in the historic Voices and Commission initiative.

Family members of the Miami Five will travel to London as part of a high level Cuban delegation to take part in the Commission. The testimony of Rene Gonzalez - the one member of the Five to be released after serving every minute of his sentence - will be heard by the Commission of internationally respected jurists.

There will also be social and cultural events in addition to the legal process. Details will be available via www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk and www.voicesforthefive.com in January.

The joy of any Latin America conference is the breadth of discussion and debate. The sadness is that you cannot attend all of the 23 workshops!

With every country in the region represented and an incredible line up of speakers from politics, academia, journalism, solidarity campaigns, trade unions, embassies and the world of culture, it is an amazing melting pot of ideas and inspiration.

Solidarity stalls enable delegates to become more active by joining relevant campaigns, as well as providing a range of gifts and merchandise - all in opposition to global corporate interests.

Watching a film on the recent student protests in Chile and hearing from survivors of the 1973 coup you understand why it has so much relevance and importance today. Director Roberto Navarette made clear, “General Pinochet’s regime was not just a dictatorship, it was the imposition of a whole new economic model” of neo-liberal privatisation. Thousands of individuals suffered from imprisonment and torture then: the whole society still suffers today.

In a plenary session addressed by some of the special Latin American guests Carlos Fonseca from the FSLN in Nicaragua described some of the many achievements of the Sandinista government since 2007.

Jairo Diaz from the Patriotic March took the opportunity in the same plenary “to denounce the humanitarian crisis we are living through in Colombia”. The country has one of the largest economies in the region but also the highest levels of inequalities in the Americas.

But the people are not sitting back. They are organising in the face of fierce and brutal repression and continue to need the solidarity and support of the movement in Britain to strengthen their resistance.

Rodrigo Chaves from Venezuela is a former advisor to Chavez. He praised the late leader’s legacy as “inside our constitution”. He highlighted the difficulties in driving through redistribution in an economy 97 percent dependant on oil revenues and the importance of not only winning elections but of taking control of the finances.

Promising not to lose the social benefits or the social state they have created for the people, he decried the onslaught in the western media about problems in the economy.

Cuban ambassador Esther Armenteros addressed the plenary and then elaborated in a workshop on planned changes to the Cuban economy. She declared, “We will not go through shock therapy.”

Dr Tony Kapcia agreed, explaining how Cubans excel in having debates and negotiations at all levels in order to achieve consensus before important decisions are taken.

Steve Ludlam, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, described the recent proposals for a new Employment Bill. He highlighted the fact that since the draft proposal over 2.7 million workers have participated in forums to discuss it.

Over 171,000 comments have seen modifications, rejections and additions throughout the process. It is always a real pleasure hearing this level of detail about changes to the Cuban system and to have the truth explained.

Celine Meneses from Ecuador spoke in the packed closing rally with great passion about the changes taking place in her country. She invited delegates to visit and see the immeasurable environmental damage done by Texaco from 1964 and 1992.

The warmth of the response to Argentinean ambassador Alicia Castro reflected the universal desire at the conference for Britain to forge a new relationship with the people and progressive governments of Latin America.

Writer and activist Owen Jones developed that theme, pointing to some of the alternatives to the disaster of neo-liberalism that are being practically developed in the region.

There was wide recognition for his observation that the solidarity movements here are about defending progressive developments in Latin America from reaction, destabilisation and the kind of coups that characterised so much of the region’s history when it was firmly under US domination. But they are also about acting on that inspiration to win progressive change here.

With an historical overview of the last 30 years, Guardian journalist and regular Latin America conference speaker Seumas Milne identified the tide of progressive change sweeping the region over the last decade and a half as one of the greatest, though least remarked upon in the Western media, developments of our age.

“At the start of this century,” he said, “country after country in Latin America elected, and re-elected, socialist or social democratic governments, which meant that socialist Cuba no longer stood alone on the continent.”

He didn’t hold back from outlining the right wing agitation and propaganda trying to halt the process. “But we have reasons to be optimistic,” he said, “Because the process is continuing despite the very real obstacles.”

As always it was left to Jeremy Corbyn MP to close conference: he has spoken at every one so far.

Jeremy praised the organisers - specifically the Cuba Solidarity and Venezuela Solidarity Campaigns - and all of the 50+ speakers for their achievements and level of discussion they brought to debates.

Reflecting on the debate that was forthcoming in the House of Commons on Mandela, he said, as did so many at the conference, that he would remember his courage and commitment to peace, justice and sharing.

He would “close his ears to the appalling hypocrisy of the Tories,” who had nothing decent to say when children were massacred at Soweto or Steve Biko tortured to death in prison.

He condemned the Chilean “laboratory and experiment that ruined so many lives and families”, but praised Venezuela for showing that change can be achieved, and Cuba for continuing to act as a beacon of hope.

Jeremy urged us all to learn the lessons of the Chilean coup 40 years ago, stand firm in our beliefs and give solidarity to others - against Free Trade Pacts, against militarisation and US imperialism, and for an end to austerity at home and abroad.

As ever it was a powerful message of hope and a great way to end a wonderful day.

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