Cuban President Raul Castro’s gesture in shaking US President Barack Obama’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto, South Africa was a courageous one given Washington’s atrocious record on human rights at home and abroad, wars of aggression, imperialism, and the super exploitation of the planet.
The Cuban people, long a victim of US aggression – both economic and military – will hopefully understand their leader’s gesture as a brave and necessary one towards trying to build bridges between the Republic of Cuba – sovereign, proud, and dignified – and its neighbour to the North, despite it being a rogue state.
Isn’t it a sign of the times when a British prime minister visits China trailing a clutch of businessmen in his wake, desperate to attract investment to an ailing British economy?
Something approaching poetic justice describes the sight of the leader of this former colonial power – David Cameron – going cap in hand to a nation whose people it once regarded as subhuman to metaphorically genuflect in acknowledgement of its status as a global economic powerhouse.
Truly, China’s emergence as such is one of the most significant achievements of any nation in our time. In just three decades the most populous nation on Earth has transformed not only its own fortunes, but perhaps more significantly the fortunes of the entire ‘Global South’ in terms of the alternative developmental model it has offered throughout the southern hemisphere in countries whose economies have long been subject to the super exploitation of the West under the auspices of the World Bank and the IMF.
Since starting the process of opening up its economy in the late 1970s, China’s economy has enjoyed average annual growth of 10 percent, easily outstripping every other global economy, in the process confounding China-watchers in Washington and other Western capitals awaiting its demise. Even in the midst of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s, China recorded 7.80 percent growth in the previous quarter. Compare this to 1.60 percent growth recorded by the US economy in the same period and 0.80 percent growth in the UK and you begin to understand the extent of China’s success and the concomitant economic decline of the West by comparison.
According to the European edition of China Daily – China’s international newspaper of record – a recent tour of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) saw Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, meet the leaders of 16 CEE economies, announcing in the process a raft of new bilateral and multilateral relations that will manifest in Chinese investment in major infrastructure developments such as rail and power projects. These will include the construction of a rail connection from Budapest to Belgrade in partnership with Hungary and Serbia and a high-speed railway in Romania, adding to the construction of Serbia’s Belgrade Bridge over the Danube, begun in 2010, and a newly launched power plant project in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Europe, incidentally, now constitutes China’s main trading partner, worth a mammoth $546 billion (405 billion euro) in volume last year.
China’s success in adapting to a global economic recession caused by the preferred neoliberal economic model of the West, a recession which saw its main export markets in the US and Europe contract significantly, provides a salutary lesson in the crucial role of the state as an economic actor in its own right, rather than passive spectator looking on as the so-called free market runs rampant.
After years of focusing on investment and saving, China is now focused on stimulating domestic demand via a massive upsurge in urbanisation that has seen millions move from the countryside into the city. It is a process that has involved China taking advantage of its unique position within the global economy of being deposit rich, allowing it to invest in major domestic infrastructure projects to create the additional demand for employment that has resulted.
Another significant development is the announcement that by 2015 China’s currency – the yuan (or renminbi) – will be fully convertible. Up to now strict controls exercised by the Chinese government over its currency has allowed its exports to flourish and dominate global markets. Washington in particular has long railed against China’s refusal to allow its currency to float in order to stem the flood of Chinese goods into the US. Clearly, China now believes its economy is stable and strong enough to allow its currency to be exposed to international financial markets. It also means that in years to come the yuan will likely compete with the dollar as an international reserve currency, further weakening Washington’s economic hegemony.
However, despite being bitter economic rivals, the relationship between the US and China has for years been one of mutual dependence, with China holding the bulk of US dollar reserves and US hyper levels of domestic consumption a major driver of Chinese exports. Regardless, the ongoing dispute between China and Washington’s major East Asian ally, Japan, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands located in the East China Sea has been a source of continuing tension. Most recently two unarmed US B-52 bombers flew over the islands, along with Japanese aircraft, purposely breaching a Chinese air defence zone. Both Japan and the US refuse to recognise the zone, prompting them to engage in the aforementioned act of provocation.
Workers are seen in a workshop inside the PSA Peugeot, Citroen’s fourth Chinese factory in Shenzhen, south China’s Guangdong province.(AFP Photo / STR)
The unipolarity long enjoyed by the US is being increasingly challenged by China, Russia, and the other group of so-called BRIC nations – India and Brazil included – in a process that by necessity involves the careful management of US decline in order to forestall the risk of military conflict going forward.
Meanwhile, returning to David Cameron, as mentioned his visit to China this week comes as de facto recognition of its status as an economic superpower. Yet even so the abiding arrogance of a British ruling class which still harbours delusions of empire remains undiminished. The gall involved in any British prime minister lecturing his Chinese counterpart on human rights – as Cameron pledged he would during his visit – is surely the stuff of satire. Whatever human rights issues China needs to address, they pale in comparison to the crimes committed by a nation responsible for wreaking havoc and sowing carnage in and around the Middle East over the past decade.
Being lectured on human rights by a British government is like being told to sit up straight by the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
‘If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don’t ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers’.
‘I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself’.
‘Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose’.
I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.
‘I should tie myself to no particular system of society other than of socialism’.
‘Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and weaker, we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom’.
‘We know too well our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’.
This is the You Tube video of Kevin Ovenden’s speech at the International Anti-war conference in London last Saturday about Syria in several contexts:
1) the shifting balances locally (within and among the political and social forces in Syria underlying the awful civil war), regionally (in the Middle East and North Africa) and globally (the *relative* decline of US hegemony);
2) the ongoing – even if seemingly subterranean radial transformative process in the Arab region – and the all too apparent attempts to derail, corral and/crush it;
3) and lastly: the context of having a movement, with all its effects on the society from previous surges forward. It is valuable. It should be sustained and developed with unity of purpose (which include space for differences of assessment and opinion) and a clear opposition to the “main enemy… at home”.
It also sketches out some of the ways of conducting ourselves within a movement and within the wider left and progressive constituency which can contribute to growth and success, rather than losing sight of the core principles and struggles that bind us together.
One such issue is the struggle for Palestine and for the political transformations that will take both that and the societies across the region forward to a genuine freedom, which cannot happen under dispossession.
Developments 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.
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.
Matt Willgress (writing in a personal capacity) is the National Co-ordinator of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk) 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 www.latinamericaconference.org.uk and on facebook
That’s your lot for November/December. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up appears on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
I was pleased to be out knocking doors in Kingswood today with other GMB and Labour Party activists. Rowena Hayward, who is seeking selection to be PPC for the Kingswood constituency, was joined by myself (GMB branch secretary and PPC for Chippenham); Chris Watts (a GMB branch president and PPC for Devizes); Chippenham CLP activist, Carole Vallelly; and Norths Wilts CLP secretary, Pete Baldrey, who is an NASUWT activist and GMB member,.
Rowena is an inspiring potential candidate, and received a strong positive response on the doorstep. Rowena is the candidate that the Conservatives will fear, a determined and formidible local woman, with a track record of campaigning, strong Labour values, and the ability to build a broad coalition of active supporters.
The Transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill is passing through Parliament and is currently being debated in the Lords.
The third part of the Bill is particularly damaging to trade unions where there are proposals to alter the regulations concerning trade union membership records. The particularly worrying aspect of this part of the Bill is the number of people who will be able to look at trade union membership data which will include the government and employers’ agents. This is a direct attack on trade unionists.
A petition has been established, which makes the point that we can’t trust Andrew Lansley and his Lobbying Bill with union members’ personal data.