a coup and a canal

A member of the Campaign will be speaking in Bangor next week.



un coup ac un camlas…

Aelod yr Ymgyrch yn siarad ym Mangor yr wythnos nesaf.


beyond theory….

There were wishful thinkers who thought (or hoped) that the ALBA would grind to a halt with the death of Hugo Chavez. Their analysis is based on a number of assumptions. One of them is that the ALBA is a way of buying political influence through selling cheap oil. As this is the basis of much Western aid, perhaps this is partly understandable. Another is that the ALBA was the project of one man, and the talk of building a new economic and social model (Chavez’s 21st century socialism) was merely rhetoric.


In fact, the alternative institutions of Latin America and the Caribbean continue to be strengthened. In Nicaragua the Parliament has passed an Act concerning trade with Venezuela within the ALBA framework. The co-ordinating committee of CELAC (the Community of Latin American States -the new Organisations of American States without the United States and Canada) met this week in Havana to continue its work of developing the organisation. Has it been hi-jacked by the Left? Hardly. The ‘Troika’ of three countries which share the main organising duties at the moment are Cuba, Chile and Costa Rica. The only two things these countries have in common is the same letter of the alphabet, and a desire to become increasingly independent of the malign influence of their Northernly neighbours. The rest is up for discussion within CELAC.

And have the organisations more closely associated with Venezuela gone into a tailspin since President Maduro replaced Hugo Chavez? Last weekend there was a meeting in Caracas which has seen Petrocaribe expand. It is the solidarity organisation which offers Venezuelan oil on favourable terms, on condition that some countries use the savings for development. The US Nicaragua Network reported the meeting thus:

The presidents and prime ministers of the countries that are members of Petrocaribe met in Caracas on Sunday, May 5, and agreed to form an economic zone which would “develop productive sectors in the participating countries.” Petrocaribe is an association of nations that purchase petroleum from Venezuela on favorable terms which allow them to invest in anti-poverty and development projects. The members of Petrocaribe are: Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Granada, Guyana, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Haití, Jamaica, San Cristobal and Nieves, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Santa Lucia, and Suriname. Honduras and Guatemala were admitted as full members of Petrocaribe at this meeting. Upon arriving in Caracas on Saturday night, President Daniel Ortega said that a major development pole was being strengthened and consolidated in Latin America and the Caribbean around Petrocaribe and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA).

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro told Petrocaribe members that while the right wing expresses hopes that Petrocaribe will end, “Petrocaribe is just consolidating itself and getting stronger.” He predicted that the new economic zone, which will include “energy stability, financial stability and strengthened investment … will permit us to develop together.” He noted, “As [late President Hugo] Chavez said, in the past petroleum was an instrument of domination and now it has been converted into an instrument of liberation.”

In some ways understanding analysis of what is happening in Latin America, in Nicaragua and other countries of the ALBA, becomes more difficult, as their development models diverge more and more from our own experience of attacks on public services and living standards, under the cloak of austerity.

Two recent contributions look at what is happening in this context, one which looks at Nicaragua, the other the whole continent. In ‘Beyond Theory – the practice of building socialism in Latin America‘ – toni solo and Jorge Capelan give their usual robust and combative opinion of what is happening, and why many analysts from outside of Nicaragua and the region are getting it wrong. The article examines why the Sandinista government has maintained a working relationship with capitalists both within and outside the country, whilst at the same time moving the country towards socialism. It gives short shrift to the idea of a ‘pink Left’, and the idea that the experiments within the countries of the ALBA, but also within other countries in Latin America, are now beyond concepts of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.

It is useful to read Beyond Theory in conjunction with another continent wide analysis, this time from the introduction of a new book, Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: the future of 21st Century Socialism. In the introduction posted this week on Alborada, it describes the development of socialism in Latin America, in Cuba in the 60s, Chile under Allende, and Nicaragua in the 80s, and in more detail the events of the last decade or so.

Though the writers of Beyond Theory would disagree with some of the conclusions of the introduction (and at least one of the book’s authors, Roger Burbach, has been scathing about the new Sandinista government), there is also considerable overlap, coming from analysts from within the continent. With the defeat of the Left in Latin America by the end of the 80s, the re-construction needed was not only political, but economic. The ‘Lost Decade in Latin America’ to neo-liberalism was in reality nearly 30 years of attacks on ordinary people. The book sums this up in a nutshell:

The Brazilian political scientist Emir Sader, in his 2011 book The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left, argues that the setback for socialism was so severe that it is still recuperating to this day. Socialism can be part of the agenda, but the priority must be on forming governments and political coalitions to dismantle neoliberalism, even if that means accepting the broader capitalist system for the time being.

Sader made similar points in an earlier article (see here) where he charted developments in individual countries, and the push for regional integration. As all the pieces above point out in their different ways, to understand the pace and direction of change today in Latin America, and in countries like Nicaragua, we need to remember where they’re starting from, not where we want them to be in the future.

latin america and alphabetti spaghetti

Regional allies Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez at the Nicaraguan President's inauguration last week - Photo: David McKnight

Two articles on recent regional developments in Latin America give a good summary of the quest for integration, and the politics behind it.

The first, on venezuelaanalysis.com, gives an overview of progress in the ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas). “Chavez: Ortega’s Re-election is a triumph for Nicaragua” includes an interview with Campaign member David McKnight. He says of the ALBA programmes in Nicaragua:

“Ortega’s critics dismiss these as handouts but when you talk to people in some of the country’s poorest communities, as I have done, it’s clear that these programmes are making a real difference to peoples’ lives,”

The article also include’s one of David’s films on the ALBA, previously posted on the blog.

The second article is by Alex Sanchez, one of COHA’s most respected commentators. In “Placing CELAC in the proper Latin American context“, he gives an excellent, if sometimes sceptical summary of the development of CELAC – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It includes a good description of the differences between CELAC and the Organisation of American States, as well as how it fits in with the alpabetti-spaghetti that is Latin American integration.

5°C – the temperature at which the world burns

The world is once again girding itself for disappointment from the latest climate change talks, this time in Durban, South Africa. COP 17, or the Conference of Polluters, as some protesters are calling it, is likely to produce little in the way of good news for the global poor, who will suffer most from global warming. Most of the developed countries, the historic C02 emitters, are either not doing enough, or are rejecting the Kyoto protocols , which expire next year.

Leading the pack is the United States. They are demanding that cuts should be only voluntary, severely weakening the Kyoto protocol negotiated in the 1990s. More than this, the US is only offering cuts of 18% by 2020, with a baseline set at their 2000 omissions. Most countries with an ounce of integrity – and sense -want the baseline kept to the 1990 figures. The majority of scientists believe that if this is the outcome, then global temperatures could rise by 5°C by the end of the century.

So what is the problem with the US? Does the Right and Big Energy not believe the science? In public they are cast as doubters. The reality is that most of them do believe in climate change. They do believe in the predictions of the 5°C rise. And they do believe that many millions will either die or become climate refugees. But they just don’t care. They believe the rich will be able to ride out the 5°C rise by forcibly grabbing the resources – oil, food and water – by force of arms. And that they will continue to find enough allies within the global elites to ensure that the poorest countries are kept subdued.

There is, of course, an alternative. The past two climate conferences have seen some Latin American countries co-ordinating a different set of demands. Bolivia has led the way, with countries like Nicaragua joining them. In mid-November the ALBA countries met to hammer out a common position for the Durban negotiations (see here).

Their negotiating position includes:

  • setting a target of a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures, though ideally at 1°C
  • setting a tax on international financial transactions, to raise $400 billion a year to tackle climate change
  • rich countries committing $100 billion a year to support developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change (a figure which was set at the last meeting, but for which commitments are sadly lacking)
  • calling on rich countries to commit 1.5% of their GDP for international assistance (current aid from most rich countries is below the 0.7% target set by the UN, and far less than the 1% of GDP needed to tackle climate change suggested by the Stern report half a decade ago)
  • rejecting forests being used as off-sets and in carbon trading, which is currently promoted by the REDD

This co-ordination of demands shows the increasing willingness of countries to work together, and for the ALBA bloc to gently move other countries to more radical positions. In Octoberthe ALBA b loc, the African Union and the Group of Least Developed Countries met in Panama to strengthen links. This weekend finally sees the launch of CELAC, postponed from July because of Hugo Chavez’ illness. It includes all the countries of the Americas, except the United States and Canada (see here).

The US reponse? Apparently President Obama is busily pandering to the Right within the Republicans and his own party, ringing up other Western leaders about what to do about the Nicaraguan elections, whilst members of Congress and the Senate line up to call on Obama not to recognise the results (see the Miami Herald). As US officials say that the Organisation of American States needs reform, they have not noticed, or are unwilling to recognise, that the OAS is fast becoming a thing of the past.

nicaraguan elections – part 3

A man protects his head from the sun with an election poster of frontrunner Daniel Ortega. Managua, July 2011

The Nicaraguan elections are fast approaching. The past few days has seen around 500 journalists accredited, including foreign reporters. Apart from a few disparaging articles, the international press has been silent on these elections, in contrast to past contests. This should change for the last week, with the arrival of foreign reporters in time for November 6th. However, the standard of reporting  is likely to remain dire.

The latest ‘indictment’ of the FSLN comes from Larry Luxner, who seems to have taken over from Tim Rogers on the Tico/Nica Times in listing the ‘crimes’ of the Sandinistas (see here for the full article). For an unbiased view of what is happening in Nicaragua he goes to, eh, Tim Rogers, with his new publication, the Nicaragua Dispatch (one of whose funders is the Nicaragua-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), a free-market business outfit). Whilst the constitutional maneouvring carried out by the FSLN to get Ortega to stand again is highlighted, it seems the real reason for discontent with his candidacy is i) 55% of the population think the Sandinistas have done a good job and ii) they have invested much of the ALBA money and Venezuela aid in projects and programmes benefitting the poorest.

The biggest slight a journalist can dole out to any Latin American politician is winning through being populist. A similar attack appeared on Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who romped home in the recent Argentinian Presidential election with 54% of the votes. She was able to achieve this sweeping victory according to the Washington Post by such underhand tactics as “economic policies rooted in heavy state spending whilst paying little heed to bondholders trying to collect billions of dollars in unpaid debt” and by presiding over an economy which has grown by 7.6% annually since escaping the clutches of the IMF, and “using the windfall to fund cash transfers to poor families, energy subsidies and other social programmes.”

Also during the week an 80 strong European delegation joined other foreign observers in Nicaragua, which includes the OAS and the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA). There are also Nicaraguan observer groups, including Ethics and Transparency, Hagamos Democracia and IPADE, which have been excluded from the official observer process because of funding links with organisations like the International Republican Institute. Nevertheless, the organisations say they will still field observers on the day.

Nicaraguans are counting down to the elections on November 6

Most commentators, from both the Left and Right, are now agreed on two things. Firstly, that the Sandinistas will win the Presidential elections, and may well receive enough support to win a majority in the National Assembly. Secondly, the popularity of Daniel Ortega stems mainly from his government’s social programmes and the healthy economy. Such has been the success of the programmes that Arnoldo Aleman, in one of the final rallies of the PLC campaign, announced that he would remain in the ALBA if he won.

We have covered this issue in some detail previously (see here). A more recent summary appeared on the Alborada.net website, in an article by former NSC trade union worker Victor Figueroa Clark (see here). The latest news of improvements arrived earlier this month, at the US Nicaragua Network reported:

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations said that Nicaragua has already met the first United Nations Millennium Development Goal by reducing its malnourished population by half. Nicaragua’s government programmes along with the projects on international and national organisations helped the country reach the goal. The goal had initially been set for 2015, but through various programmes focused on food security, including the Zero Hunger programme, poverty has been greatly reduced especially in the rural population. The FAO has worked with Nicaragua to finance the improvement of seeds and agricultural production.

Despite these major gains in the fight against hunger, the FAO estimates that nearly a million people still suffer from malnutrition.

The challenges facing the new government after the November 6 poll will be the subject of our final post on this year’s elections.

nicaragua elections – part 2

When the votes are counted on the evening of November 6, one thing will not be in people’s minds – the Nicaraguan vote is effectively a referendum on the ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our Americas. Nicaragua is one of the key countries within the ALBA, and it could be argued that no country has taken the idea forward faster, with the exception of the founder member, Venezuela. Daniel Ortega, in his first day in office, signed his country up to the ALBA. Despite the economic advantages of the agreement, it would be no surprise if Nicaragua was pulled out of the regional agreement if Fabio Gadea or Arnoldo Aleman were to win.

Whilst some have portrayed the ALBA as merely a megaphone for the political views of Chavez and Ortega, in reality it is a series of agreements developing economic relations between the countries, which  also funds social programmes through Nicaragua’s purchase of oil on concessionary terms (for more on the social programmes see our previous post here ).

One person who has seen the benefits of the ALBA close up is campaign member David McKnight, who has spent seven months this year in Nicaragua. He spoke at a meeting in Mold last week about the changes he has seen in the country since his first visit in 2001, two years after he had attended the anti-globalisation protests that derailed the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle. He said:

In many ways it began twelve years ago at the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle which were about opposing neoliberal economics that were hurting some of the poorest people in the world. However, the protests were also about saying ‘another world is possible’ and that there are alternatives.

Shortly after the protests, I made my first visit to Nicaragua with Wales NSC and saw first-hand how Nicaraguans were suffering the impacts of eleven years of these policies. But also, how they were challenging them, with practical, on-the-ground examples such as fair trade cooperatives, grass-roots community organisations and innovative environmental projects. All of which had their roots in the Nicaraguan revolution.

In the eighties Thatcher, Reagan and the neoliberal economic gurus told us that ‘There – Is – No – Alternative’ (TINA) to neoliberal capitalism.

What Nicaragua, the Seattle protests, the world social forums, the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, the rise of radical and socialist governments in Latin America, the Arab Spring and the occupations like Occupy Wall Street tell us is that Thatcher and co were wrong.

There ARE alternatives – alternative economic and social policies to the beggar-thy-neighbour approach of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, of the so-called Washington Consensus that told some of the poorest countries in the world that there was no alternative to slashing public spending on healthcare, education, social welfare, agricultural subsidies to small producers. Economic growth would eventually occur and the wealth created would trickle down. Of course, nothing did ‘trickle down’. With bank bailouts, public spending cuts and other so-called austerity measures, many of us are now beginning to feel the sharp end of those policies.

And that’s why I am here. I’m interested in these alternatives, I’m interested in what people are doing to shape their own destiny, to create a fairer world. That’s why I have been going back to Nicaragua over the past ten years and why I decided to spend the last seven months there.

In an attempt to give you a glimpse of this I’m going to show a short video I produced for a Nicaraguan online news organisation that I’ve been working with – producing short news information films on different issues.

The film is about the impact that ALBA or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas has had on Nicaragua, particularly on the rural poor and on access to health care. ALBA is an alternative trading bloc based on solidarity and mutual aid and made up of several countries in Latin America including Cuba and Venezuela.

The basic philosophy behind the ALBA, and it’s non-market focus, is summed up in a short interview that David carried out with US activist Michael Albert in the Rebellious Media Conference in London earlier this month:

Without the ‘market mechanism’ offering ‘transparent prices’ (if there is, indeed such a thing due to the power relationships Albert describes), the ALBA, certainly in the case of Nicaragua, has been accused of, at best, being non-transparent, and at worst, corrupt. Some of these criticisms have been answered in a series of articles and videos on the tortillaconsal website, the best of which is here, which contains a summary of both the benefits of ALBA to Nicaragua and the structures under which it operates in the country.