“First, the main issue is the immense divide in wealth as the legacy of 90’s neo-liberal policies.”
“Second, populism and socialism in Latin America mean different things in each country, mean different things than in Europe, mean different things than they did in the 40’s and 50’s, and in the 70’s and 80’s.”
So opened Mr Reuben Cortina’s enthusiastic but cautionary survey of the prospects for workers and their trade unions under the wave of Left-leaning political upheavals taking place throughout Latin America.
Mr Cortina is a leader of Argentina’a largest labor federation. In addition he has played a prominent role in developing “Labor’s Platform for the Americas” a joint effort of ORIT (the Inter-American Regional Workers Association), CCLA (the Andean Labor Consultative Council, CCSCAC (The Central America and Cribbean Union Coordination), CCSCS (the Southern Cone Union Coordination), and the national central labor bodies of US, Canada, and Mexico.
The gathering was hosted by the Global Policy Network at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC.
The chief immediate impacts of the new governments, across all countries, are raising the minimum wage and improved collective bargaining rights. Asked to characterize the unions’ relation to their governments before and after the wave, Cortina said: “Simple,before there was NO relation; now there is discussion.”
Beyond that, Cortina went to some lengths to emphasize the necessity of understanding the unique problems facing each country as a foundation for appreciation of the challenges facing workers’ efforts to advance regional and continental economic coordination and development policies.
Argentina, for example has a legacy of the strongest “salarios” economy before the 98 financial crisis, meaning a large middle-class with smaller sections of entrenched poverty. It had the least history of strong Leftist parties since Labor has long allied itself with the Peronist movement. Its economy was the most diverse. President Kirchner came to power by drawing upon the new Labor led left-center coalition, but also weaning components of the business class away from the right once the latter’s alliance with the disgraced and corrupt Argentinian military blew along with the economic collapse of neo-liberalism.
Brazil, by contrast, though a much larger economy endemic and desperate poverty reaching up to 60% of the population, as well as a rich background of left-wing political culture. Left political parties that were formerly Communist-led there made sharp changes following the USSR collapse: 1) They dropped all ‘Communist’ nomenclature; and 2) they focused completely on mobilizing their labor base to form coalitions capable of seizing parliamentary and governmental power. At the same time, Cortina notes that Left-led unions in Brazil have carefully avoided losing their independence from the government just because one of their leaders (Lula)is in power.
Venezuela combines an oil-rich economy with one of the continents most primitive agricultural economies. There the sharp division between the industrial and rural sectors has led to an arguably compromised position of organized labor in the petro sector cooperating with Bush attempts to mount a coup d etat against President Chavez. Repairing the split between organized labor and the government there will be key to future developments, including labor partnerships to expand industrial cooperation through trade federations like Mercasur. Another complexity arises from Venezuela’s dependence on the US market for most of its oil sales despite President Chavez’ vigorous anti-Bush policy — no doubt resulting from Bush Administration attempts to assassinate him!
Chile, now led by Socialist Michelle Bachelet also inherits a country with rich political traditions, but divided between an advanced, but narrow metals industrial base and a backward agriculture. Formerly welded to US economic and hemispheric policy under the hated Pinochet, Chile has rejoined the other Andean South American trade federation, is seeking industrial integration with Argentina and Brazil, and has signed into law a free trade agreement with China, which gives Chile’s exports almost free access to China’s massive market.
Cortina observes the 70% Indio population alongside natural-gas resource dependence as unique features of the Bolivian union movement. The trade unions there, currently led by Trotskyists, are actively hostile to new President Evo Morales, who they view as insufficiently militant and too friendly with ‘compromiser’ Brazilian President Lula.
Cortina challenged US and European observers to take care matching South American political trends with there better know European ones that may use similar names but have different meanings. Just because Hugo Chavez visits Fidel Castro on his sickbed does mean the mutual endorsement that US right-wingers might assume.
As Fidel has observed, according to Cortina, Chavez has no political party, his real power resting on some generals and an economically very weak agricultural sector. What happens when resource prices — very high right now and good for many Latin American nations — go down? In addition, workers’ organizations are experiencing both a great relief at the new ability to participate in their nations’ political life, but are only now discovering their voice — or voices! Expect, he says, a growing diversity of opinion on how to confront very real problems of development, debt, education and democracy. All leaders, leftists included, will have to pass the test of measurable progress against the wrenching inequality oppressing working people. Not to mention attempts by foreign countries to intervene in domestic affairs.
Speaking briefly on Labor’s outlook on region-wide or continent-wide economic development and unity, Mr Cortina emphasized the importance of practical, as opposed to mere rhetorical or academic, industrial and infrastructure integration. Uruguayan Paper mills pour effluents into rivers that Argentinian farmers must use, causing conflict. Morales confiscates Brazilian Petrogas with any consultations, causing serious problems for Lula. Brazilian and Argentinian industries need more coordinated, rather than competitive, integration of supply chains. All countries need massive electrification and transport infrastructure.
Clearly energized and alive to new possibilities for his country and continent, Mr Cortina was trying to be sober. But his pride and enthusiasm for the efforts of his countrymen and class shone through!!
Stay tuned for big events south of the border!