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the governing Conservatives, there was early gloating over a man deemed originally to be ‘un-electable’ but this has been replaced by worried, cautionary rhetoric.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

Pacha Mama Mia

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia face resistance from indigenous communities over environmental plans

When Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the leader of Bolivia in 2005 he also became the first indigenous president. He came to power on a mandate to govern with a sort of ‘indigenous socialism’. Morales has been a strident defender of the rights of Bolivia’s native inhabitants and their stunning natural environment. He always liked to equate their struggle against colonial invaders with his fight against foreign traders, the US and Western capitalism; politics with which Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader currently battling cancer, has identified very strongly.

But it has been six years since his arrival and the outlook is now different for Evo. In the past he has called any interference in the way-of-life or homeland of the indigenous communities ‘ecolocide’. Now he is the one being accused of destroying pacha mama. On 16 August indigenous activists took the first steps on a 233 mile-long protest march from the Amazon plains to the capital, La Paz. Normally, this would be a demonstration that Morales would be more than happy to join. But the march is in opposition to one of his policies, namely a government plan to build a 190 mile-long highway through a national park in aboriginal territory.

The road would potentially link the Beni plains to the Chapare, where Evo was a coca farmer before going on to lead a coca farmers’ union. Brazil has stumped up $420m for the project and certainly knows a thing or two about controversial environmental politics and upsetting local tribes, having given the Belo Monte dam the green light on 1 June. Foreign investors are on the horizon and the forest stands between them. Morales’ ‘indigenous socialism’ seems to be morphing into something more like ‘investment socialism’.

Ollanta Humala, who replaced Alan Garcia in the Peruvian presidency in July, has also found that he is having to alter the populist, pro-indigenous policies he has previously championed. In opposition he had been a creature in the mould of Chavez and Morales, denouncing free trade and capitalism but he has since ensured his new government is not seen as isolationist and instead said:

“We are building a government of national unity. This isn’t a Cabinet of the left or the right, but a Cabinet for all of Peru.”

He has angered native Peruvians with his plans for expanded oil and gas investment and exploration. And, just like in Bolivia, new roads through the Amazon rainforest have been proposed. The indigenous communities have criticised Humala and seem ready to rise, just as Bolivia’s Indians are now doing against one of their own.

Both countries could do with more infrastructural integration with neighbours and natural resources can be shared and developed but there is now a strengthening indigenous challenge. The once-quiet, Quechua and Aymara-speaking communities seem to have found a collective and growing voice.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.