Corbynmanía – a Latin flavour to Labour

Argentina calls the radical new leader of the UK opposition “one of ours”

The rapid rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his leftist acolytes in the British Labour Party has been met with mixed responses in the UK but a thumbs-up in Latin America.

For the governing Conservatives, there was early gloating over a man deemed originally to be ‘un-electable’ but this has been replaced by worried, cautionary rhetoric.

In the Labour ranks, there has been elation, bemusement, uncertainty and angst.

Some of the loudest cheers of approval have come from thousands of miles away.

For Argentina, the election of Jeremy Corbyn is a decisive and positive move in support of a man whose politics resonate deeply with many people across the country and, indeed, throughout Latin America.

Corbyn has pursued justice for the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

He has led a UK parliamentary mission to the leftist Bolivia of Evo Morales.

He is blood brother to trade unions and a thorn in the side of ‘savage capitalists’.

He supports debt renegotiation and nuclear disarmament.

And the Latin links do not just exist on a political level: his second wife was Chilean and his current partner is from Mexico.

Finally, just this afternoon, on Tuesday 15 September, while he was addressing the British Trades Union Congress, he stood up for the rights of organised workers in Colombia, a notable right-leaning and Washington-minded Latin state.

Most tellingly for Buenos Aires, he is an anti-imperialist pacifist, in the true oratorical mould of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales or Cristina Fernández and he opposed the 1982 Falklands War, arguing for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

The current British government is intransigent.

It says it believes in the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination as underlined by their decision to maintain their status as a British Overseas Territory (and thus British nationality) in a 2013 referendum.

Case closed.

Or maybe not?

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Buenos Aires sees it as very much open.

In an interview with the Pagina 12 newspaper on 14 September, the Argentinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alicia Castro, said she feels “joy, a great satisfaction” after Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest.

She lauded his “emphatic show of solidarity with Argentina”, even going on to claim that “he is one of ours”.

Corbyn certainly has not followed the majority of his compatriots on the Falklands/Malvinas issue.

He is a member of the European Pro-Dialogue pressure group and in March this year questioned the increase in military spending in the Falklands by the UK government. (This blog reported on that at the time.)

In her interview, the ambassador went on: “his leadership can decisively guide British public opinion in favour of dialogue between the two governments”.

The swelling wave of socialist pride and power carrying Mr Corbyn at the moment certainly seems to have a momentum to it that comes from leftist Latin seas far from these shores.

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‘The Legacy of Hugo Chávez’

On Wednesday 30 April, a conference was held by Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute, to discuss the domestic, regional and international legacies of Hugo Chávez, the former Venezuelan president.

The first thing to say was that I was one of several people who arrived late at the talks because the UK capital was being disrupted that morning as a result of a strike by London Underground workers.

After a prolonged journey to the venue, I crept into the lecture theatre to hear Pedro A. Palma lambasting an economic legacy that he clearly thought was in tatters. Dr Palma, a Venezuelan economist who was a founding partner of consulting firm MetroEconómica, railed against “rampant inflation…an unsustainable situation”, saying that a “180-degree turn” was needed to try to save Venezuela. He referenced several slides showing different economic data and finished by outlining his fears that if action were not taken, there would be what he labelled “the materialisation of an exchange-rate tsunami”.

Someone who disagreed with Dr Palma was the next speaker, Arturo Sarmiento, the president of Telecaribe, a television station. He argued that 13 years of chavismo had led to political stability in Venezuela, and that despite his many critics, ‘El Comandante’ continued to win elections. He admitted that that opposition had been “castrated and suffocated” in many ways but was met by derisive cries from some members of the audience when he called the country’s electoral system “magnificent”. He said that the private sector must start to look at events in Venezuela in a different light and he ended with another statement that drew sarcastic chuckles from a few of those in the room. Mr Sarmiento believed that the arrival of Hugo Chavez into Venezuelan politics “helped avoid what could have been an even bigger social explosion than the French or Russian revolutions”.

Mr Sarmiento was well placed to comment on the media situation, and his response to a question about freedom of the press in Venezuela was firm. He said he had never experienced any censorship regarding any of his media ventures, going on to say that the press had a healthy role to play and that journalists were able to report freely in the country.

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

L-R: John Hughes, Canning House Chairman; Julia Buxton, Comparative Politics professor; Arturo Sarmiento, President of Telecaribe; Pedro A. Palma, Economist

Julia Buxton, a professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy, had given her introductory speech while I was enjoying the gridlock in Piccadilly Circus but I got a taste of her position on the domestic legacy when she answered a question about the record high levels of crime. She agreed that Venezuela was “unique in its levels of criminal violence” but noted that, although crime had risen, poverty had fallen. Ms Buxton called for a “national dialogue and a consensus” on disarmament, lamenting the high numbers of light weapons and small arms in circuit and what she called “the glorification of violence”.

Next up were Dick Wilkinson, a former UK ambassador to Venezuela and to Cuba, and Alicia Castro, the Argentinian ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela; they discussed Chávez’s regional legacy. For Mr Wilkinson, who met ‘El Comandante’ several times, the ‘participatory, not representative’ idea of democracy that Mr Chávez introduced was a refreshing method of engaging the masses. The Briton argued that there were four main groups into which you could fit Venezuela’s neighbours when it came to how they felt towards the former president:

1) Friends and supporters: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Caribbean nations

2) Who Chávez thought sold themselves to the USA: Colombia and Mexico

3) Suspicious towards his politics: Chile

4) Not hostile but viewed him with a certain condescension: Argentina and Brazil

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

L-R: Roger Cartwright, Canning House trustee; Alicia Castro, Argentinian ambassador to UK; Dick Wilkinson, former UK ambassador to Venezuela

Ms Castro spoke after Mr Wilkinson and she was in a combative mood. She denied that her country was condescending towards Caracas and opened her speech by saying “Venezuela is under an international media attack”. She thought that Chávez “gave Latin Americans hope of a better world”. There had been an enthusiasm across the region regarding the “challenge that Hugo Chávez presented to the neo-liberal agenda”, she stated and she went on to praise the “social revolution through democracy” that the socialist leader promoted.

In the questions that followed their discourses, the tension rose in the room as Ms Castro blithely swatted away some of the issues raised with short, snappy answers. She replied to a question from a Venezuelan about the issue of Caracas sheltering members of Colombia’s FARC rebels by asking how old the person posing the question was, intimating he was too young to know much about such matters. She was also robust in answering my question about how Hugo Chávez’s legacy could guide and shape the future of Mercosur, (which Venezuela joined in 2012), when set against the rising Pacific Alliance free-trade bloc. Ms Castro responded by focusing more on wanting to know why “British journalists” were fascinated by the issue of the Pacific Alliance, rather than the arguable politicisation of Mercosur and how the former Venezuelan leader’s policies would or would not guide Mercosur.

She closed with the above statement, a stance that provoked a lot of reaction online, with users both supporting her position and criticising her as a “true Peronist”.

(The third panel saw Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000-2008 and Diego Arria, a Venezuelan politician, discuss the international legacy of Hugo Chávez – this blog did not cover this final discussion)

A las urnas…

Eight Latin American countries go to the polls next year – what can we expect?

First up across the region are Costa Rica and El Salvador, where there will be legislative and presidential elections on 2 February. The Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla, is constitutionally barred from running for consecutive terms. So although the number of female leaders across the region has risen to four recently with the re-election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, it will soon drop back down to three as Chinchilla leaves office (Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina are the other two women leaders). In fact, although it is unlikely, the number could be down to two by the autumn – as Brazilians go to the polls in October. Back in San José, no one candidate is storming the race, meaning that the country could need a run-off to split the field, an electoral practice that is common in Latin America but that has not taken place in Costa Rica since 2002. Johnny Araya of the National Liberation party and Broad Front’s José Villalta look to be the strongest of the candidates so far.

El Salvador is another country that prohibits presidents running again straightaway and, as such, Mauricio Funes will be stepping down this spring. The leading contenders to take his place go head-to-head on 2 February, with a run-off scheduled for 9 March if needed. It is the smallest country in Latin America and much of the new president’s focus will be on gang violence, which has been increasing recently despite a truce between the criminals in 2012.

Next up is Colombia, which has elections to both houses of parliament on that Sunday 9 March. Nearly three months after that, on 25 May, is the race for the hot-seat as the presidential candidates face the public. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is going once more and it looks as though he will follow his one-time mentor, ex-leader Álvaro Uribe, in securing consecutive terms in office. Peace talks with the Farc rebels are currently taking place and Santos has said that 2014 will be a crucial year for peace – he feels that it is his national duty to see the talks through to ‘the end’. He has so far wavered between moderation and muscle: at once trying to maintain the talks without completing retreating from the hardlines drawn up by Uribe during his two terms in office – ten more militants were killed in a bombing raid just after Christmas.

But in Panama there is no chance of seeing the same face again as Ricardo Martinelli is leaving office. On 4 May the isthmus nation is due to hold legislative ballots to its one National Assembly as well as the ballot for the head of state.

The Dominican Republic has a vote for the chamber of deputies and the senate the week after, on 16 May. Only legislators are on the ballot papers in 2014 because Danilo Medina was voted into the presidency in 2012 for a four-year term.

Evo Morales, the charismatic Bolivian president, is seeking a controversial re-election next year on 5 October. Technically, Evo has served two terms in office – the maximum that a politician can reach in the Andean nation. But because his first term (2006-9) predated the constitution that was re-written in 2009, the courts ruled that his time limit re-started under the new legal framework in 2009, rather than in 2006. As such, he is free to run again next autumn. Another victory and a full term in office would take his reign in the mountains up to 2019, which at 13 years would be almost as long as Hugo Chávez served in Venezuela. Evo’s time in office so far has been celebrated and criticised and has swung from a defence of coca farmers, to facing protests over subsidy cuts and road-building plans, to a cosy familiarity with other leftist countries, such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

Brazilians head to the polls on the same day in October, also for a general election. The country has been a regular in the world news this year, from widespread and – at times – violent protests against poor public services, to the visit of Pope Francis, and the excitement about and criticism of the upcoming World Cup. The festival of football happens thee months before the election and although the soccer-mad nation would love to see a sixth victory for a seleção there have also been the calls for the money to have been spent elsewhere in the economy. Dilma has continued with the Workers’ Party’s statism but has not had quite the popularity that her predecessor Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva enjoyed. That said, her recent poll showings have improved from over the summer of civil discord and should be strong enough to see off her efficient main challengers, Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialists’ Eduardo Campos.

Uruguay is the last of the Latin American countries to vote in 2014, with a general election on 26 October. The little South Atlantic nation has been making headlines of its own this year, with a ground-breaking legalisation of marijuana and same-sex marriage. Its football team stands a good chance of doing well at the World Cup, with several tremendous players blooming right now. Its outgoing leader, José Mújica, has won widespread acclaim for his low-key presidency, as he eschews many of the presidential trimmings and stylings by driving himself in slacks and jackets to work from his small farmstead and flying economy class. And much of this contributed to Uruguay being the inaugural winner of The Economist‘s ‘Country of the Year’ award. Whoever takes up the mantle in Montevideo will certainly have interesting shoes to fill.

Feliz Año!

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.

An island life for me

Tempers have flared up again between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. Islands remain at the centre of many international territorial conflicts.

On Thursday 10 February Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, restated his country’s commitment to the belief that the four southernmost islands of the Kuril group remain under Japanese jurisdiction. His call comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the contested archipelago in November last year. During his trip Medvedev promised greater development and outlined an increase in military presence on the islands, clearly not a move that has been welcomed in Tokyo. Remarkably, the fractious nature of the two countries’ relationship over the Kurils means that they still have not got round to signing a joint peace agreement to end World War Two hostilities between them.

Islands are at the centre of an ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. The San Andres and Providencia group in the Caribbean has been part of Colombia since the 1920s but Nicaragua took the issue to the International Court of Justice in 2001, which ruled in favour of Bogota. Managua’s main argument is over location, and the islands are much closer to Nicaragua, but it would not be surprising if the tourist factor also plays a part in their disquiet: the islands are beautiful Caribbean hotposts, an English creole is widely spoken and visitor numbers are growing.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Source: marcellogentile1, YouTube, 11/02/11

At the other end of the Americas, there are The Falklands, or Las Malvinas, as they are known in Buenos Aires. A well-known island disupte which provoked a war between the two claimants in 1982. The UK posititon is clear: the islands were, are, and will remain British, for as long as the Falklanders themselves wish to remain under British jurisdiction (which at the moment they do). The Argentine outlook takes a similar line: the islands were, are, and ought to be part of Argentina. One only needs to look at an Argentine national map to understand the geographical stubbornness. But there has been a change of dynamic since 1982. Back then, Chile and the US both openly backed the UK, and Spain supported Argentina. But now many of Latin America’s leaders have openly urged the devolution of the islands back to Argentina, and idea rejected by London. Hugo Chavez famously railed against what he views as another example of ‘Western imperialism’.

The Kurils are next to Japan and form part of a territorial island link chain that goes north to Kamchatka. The Falklands are nearly 8,000 miles away from the UK. But the issue of island disputes is extremely old, complicated and is prevalent across the world (the examples above are just three of the more prominent disputes). It is not an argument that can be simply resolved by stating history, distance from home country or ‘proper ownership’.

Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1

Lula wading into choppy waters one last time

Never one to shy away from the chance to promote Brazil on the world stage – and try to reaffirm the country’s growing global stature – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the outgoing Brazilian president, has angered the US once more.

The government in Brasilia has announced that the time has come for the country to recognise the Palestinian state, a move which has immediately drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

Lula has played this game before. In May, he refused to vote for energy sanctions to be placed on Iran. Only Turkey and Lebanon joined his call-to-arms. Many saw Lula’s decision as a signal of support for embattled Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he had welcomed to Brazil on a tour earlier.

However, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor who will replace her mentor as president next month, has attempted to scupper claims that she is nothing more than Lula’s puppet. She has admitted that the Brazilian position on Iran was unpopular and warned that there will be a more ‘cautious’ foreign policy on her watch.

But Brazil is not the only Latin American nation to recognise Palestine: Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela have all formalised relations with the disputed territories.

Last month Uruguay joined the list and on 6 December Argentina added its name to the group. Latin American nations have powerful backers (Colombia – US; Venezuela – Iran) but are seizing the mantle more and more now to become outspoken defendants of global causes themselves.

They are still learning the trade, though. On 30 November, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, Kintto Lucas, made a forthright decision to offer the since-arrested Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, the platform to speak publicly. President Rafael Correa then rubbished the idea that an offer of accommodation would be made (in all likelihood because Ecuador will not escape complicity in the compromising cables).

Ecuador’s confusion demonstrates its infancy on the vocal world stage. Lula is no such paddler; he has been swimming against the current for a while. It will be up to Dilma whether to maintain Lula’s defiant oratory or to change tack and go with the flow.