Latin America 2017: One of the biggest and most important conferences in recent years
Campaign News | Tuesday, 5 December 2017
Latin America Conference 2017
Over 500 people packed into the TUC’s Congress House in central London for one of the biggest and most important Latin America conferences in recent years, taking place in an environment of escalating intervention in the region from US President Donald Trump.
The Latin America Conference is the largest event of international solidarity in Britain, now in its thirteenth year, and is a key date in the trade union and labour movement calendar.
Conference guests heard from a wide range of speakers including a special video message from Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of the Labour Party, and the acclaimed film director and campaigner Ken Loach; alongside many ambassadors, MPs, trade unionists, lawyers, academics, artists and campaigners.
The packed schedule included 24 seminars, two plenary sessions, a film festival, an art exhibition, the opportunity to browse solidarity stalls, and the conference culminated with a final rally in the main hall.
Ken Loach opened the conference, outlining how “US history in Latin America is cruel, brutal and shows that its claims to be interested in spreading freedom and democracy are a lie”.
The filmmaker posed the question, “What could Cuba have achieved if it had been left to fulfil its potential, without the US intervention?”
Diana Holland, Unite assistant general secretary and chair of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign said how “international solidarity can make a real difference”, and how the trade union movement stands for “peace, justice and international solidarity.”
Alex Main, from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC, gave an update on the Trump administration’s policies towards Latin America.
“Before I speak about Trump - it's important to remember that Barack Obama’s presidency was not a bed of roses for Latin America.
“There was huge military expansion in Latin America under Obama. And the great irony of Obama saying he wanted to end the blockade in Cuba - which he didn't end – was that this was quickly followed by signing off sanctions against Venezuela.”
“Marco Rubio has gone from being Trump's presidential rival to being his Latin America advisor” he warned.
“And Rubio is as hardline as they get on Latin America - so sadly, the empire is gaining ground under Trump”, he added.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), gave a rousing speech on Cuba’s achievements in education.
“If you look at Cuba, you can see that if there is the political will to provide free and universal education- you can.
“Cuba spends 13% of its GDP on education, almost three times the rates here. It’s a poor country, but still spends over half of its total GDP on education, health and social care.”
"Why does the US continue its blockade of Cuba? Because Cuba is an example - an example that can change the world for the better", Kevin Courtney added.
Seminars throughout the day took place on a wide range of countries from the region including Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, El Salvador and more.
Seminars on Cuba focussed on democracy in Cuba, Che Guevara’s legacy and Trump’s new Cuba policy.
In a packed standing-room only seminar on Cuba’s participatory democracy, academic Lauren Collins gave an insight into the island’s democratic process alongside statistics from the current round of elections taking place.
Academic Tony Kapcia, from the University of Nottingham, gave an analysis of Raul Castro’s legacy, with the Cuban president due to stand down in February 2018.
“The Cuban government is now much younger, much more female, than it was when Raul took office” he said “That is a legacy of Raul”.
Kapcia said how “debate and negotiation in all directions - upwards, downwards, sidewards”, embodies the entire political process in Cuba.
“The National Assembly (Cuban parliament) actually has the power in Cuba - but this doesn't get much press, as the western media coverage has instead always focused on the personality of the Castros”.
H. E. Teresita Vicente, Cuban Ambassador, said “We are used to very high turn outs in Cuba. In all levels of our political life, we are used to high levels of participation.
“We have one of the best gender balanced parliaments - around 48% of our parliament is women”, she said.
In a seminar on the revolutionary legacy of Che Guevara, following the recent 50th anniversary of his assassination, Bernard Regan, CSC National Secretary, spoke of his experiences on the recent NEU (NUT Section) delegation to Cuba:
“Visiting the schools in Cuba is a phenomenal thing. Seeing schools first-hand that provide free education for all Cubans.
“And Che's legacy is that educational achievement is seen as something to celebrate as something to benefit everyone in society, not as something to elevate you from the rest of society, as is often the case in our country,” he said.
"Cubans point out that solidarity is about sharing what you have, not what you have left over"
“Che's legacy can be seen in Cuba's internationalism - sending more medics across the world than MSF & the WHO combined,” Regan said. “This started almost immediately after the Revolution, when Cuba sent medics to Chile assist with disaster relief following an earthquake in 1961.”
Dr Steve Wilkinson analysed Che’s speech iconic 1964 speech on imperialism as the United Nations and said how "Che embodied integrity… he said how revolutionaries should never lie - and the Cuban leadership has never lied to its people".
In a seminar entitled ‘Back to the Future with Donald Trump’, The Cuban Ambassador H.E. Teresita Vicente said “We are going backwards with Trump”.
She added “December 17, 2014, was celebrated in Cuba and all over the world. Re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States under Obama was a good thing.
“But they didn’t normalise relations, as the blockade is still in place and Guantanamo is still illegally occupied. And Trump has now began to move the process backwards again.”
Rob Miller, CSC Director said “Under Obama’s presidency the US carried out 49 fines totalling at almost $15 billion due to US blockade legislation.
"The extraterritorial US blockade of Cuba led to a Cuban student being banned from enrolling at the Open University this summer, purely on the basis that the applicant was Cuban.
“Following months of campaigning against the Open University, with the support of our affiliated trade unions, hundreds of MPs and thousands of campaigners, we forced the Open University to end their discriminatory ban of Cubans”, he said.
Former MP, broadcaster and filmmaker George Galloway gave a barnstorming speech in defence of Cuba’s achievements, despite all the difficulties from the US blockade.
“Imagine a Third World country, not just providing free schools for the blind - but providing better schools for the blind than here, one of the richest countries on earth,” Galloway said.
“Trump is now playing with Marco Rubio and gold-toothed pirates of the Caribbean in Miami, who would happily turn back the schools into casinos and bordellos like they were before”, he said.
“Cuba is not heaven on earth- no where is heaven on earth- but Cuba gives us a glimpse of a better world”, he added.
In a packed final rally, former Guardian foreign editor Victoria Brittain saluted Fidel Castro’s legacy, who died the night before the 2016 Latin America Conference.
“We remember with gratitude the legacy of Fidel Castro” she said. “Cuba's legendary internationalism, whether supporting African Liberation in Angola or providing doctors and teachers around the world, has changed millions of lives for the better”.
Andrew Murray, Chief of Staff at Unite made clear that "Trump stands not for isolationism, but imperialism."
“The old message of imperialism is; if elections don't give us the result we want, coups will. We have to stand with all Latin American countries facing the threat of US intervention”.
Galloway said “'Donald Trump is not the issue. This is an issue of empire. It's independence that the US cannot tolerate. It's sovereignty they cannot tolerate. Especially not in their 'so-called' backyard, which has been the case since the days of Monroe.'”
Paraphrasing Che Guevara, Galloway said: "The Cuban Revolution is the finest achievement of our age - let's pass it on to our children - and make not one but two, three, four Cuban Revolutions!"
Shadow Minister Chris Williamson MP warned how “Donald Trump's increasing US aggression against Latin America should remind us of long history of intervention from Brazil to Chile”.
Teresita Vicente, Cuban Ambassador, gave a rallying speech in light of the increasing threats posed by Donald Trump:
“We do not need the Empire to give us anything” she said, quoting Fidel Castro’s analysis of Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba.
“We do not destroy, we build... Our most cherished resource is our people. We are not you backyard anymore Mr Trump. Another world is possible!”, the ambassador added.
Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party and longstanding speaker of previous Latin America Conferences, sent a special video message recorded from Portugal the same day, where he was meeting with the Portuguese prime minister.
“I want to congratulate all the organisers of the Latin America Conference for their solidarity and their work for justice, democracy, peace and human rights all across the continent” he said, to applause in the main hall.
“¡Venceremos! [we will overcome], Corbyn added.
Further reading and resources:
The conference programme can be downloaded here
Photos from the conference are on the CSC Flickr page here
Read: Morning Star: Castro ‘Alive Forever’ In Fight For Another World report here
Read: Morning Star Conference Report: Corbyn can restore Britain's standing here