The rising tide of enthusiasm for Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is reaching Australia. This was seen at the Fourth National Latin American Solidarity Conference held in Sydney on September 29, the biggest such solidarity gathering in over a decade.
Convened by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN) and the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS), and hosted by the Research Initiative on International Activism at Sydney's University of Technology, the conference attracted 250 people to discuss "The Empire's Weakest Link: Venezuela, Cuba and the Rebellion in the Americas".
The tone was set by the Sydney premiere the night before of Five Factories: Worker Control in Venezuela. Introduced by former Victorian Electrical Trades Union organiser John Cleary, the film shows workers struggling to build their own organisations on and beyond the factory floor. Cleary, organiser of the AVSN 2006 May Day trade union brigade to Venezuela, emphasised the need for direct links between Australian and Venezuelan trade unionists.
In his greetings sent from Venezuela to the conference, William Izarra, Venezuela's former deputy minister for foreign affairs for Asia, the Middle East and Oceania, said: "The first world, the developed world, must open its eyes and direct its energy and resources to the peoples of the South … [In Venezuela] we are undertaking a great experiment … constructing a new political system. We believe that it is critical that the popular and political organisations in Australia … study and understand what the Bolivarian process means to the world of the South."
NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said: "The recent shift to progressive politics in a number of Latin American countries is significant for the people of Australia. The struggle for a fairer, healthier and more peaceful world is complex and challenging. The current political experiences across Latin America can only assist … people of all lands in this struggle." Greetings also came from the ALP president of the NSW Legislative Council, Meredith Burgmann.
In the opening session, Nelson Davila, Venezuela's charge d'affaires in Australia, spoke of the profound changes in the structure of the state undertaken by the Bolivarian Revolution in order to build its mass social programs (misiones). He linked these immediate mass campaigns to President Hugo Chavez's calls for the construction of a "new socialism of the 21st Century".
Davila explained that it is Venezuela's rejection of capitalism and neoliberalism that has put it in the US administration's firing line. The Venezuelan challenge is all the more worrying for Washington because the country is resource-rich and can provide an inspiring example, as well as alternative international political leadership.
Keysar Trad of the Islamic Friendship Association stressed that while it appears as though the might of the US empire is near-absolute, it is currently facing its most severe challenges, with Venezuela in the frontline. He told the conference that in the Middle East, communities are pressuring their own governments to show the sort of leadership that Chavez showed by withdrawing the Venezuelan charge d'affaires in Israel. "Chavez of Arabia" is a new rallying call on Middle Eastern streets: the Venezuelan president has inspired millions and "educated us all as to the meaning of solidarity", Trad said.
Federico Fuentes, the national coordinator of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, spelled out the impact of Venezuela's revolution across Latin America, stressing the nationalisation of Bolivia's gas fields by its first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, and the growth of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) as an economic integration project countering the US's moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas. Fuentes also noted the million-strong student strike in Chile in August, Mexico's gigantic street protests against electoral fraud and ongoing resistance in Central America as proof that the "rebellion in the Americas" is deepening.
Two major sessions assessed the challenges facing the Venezuelan and Cuban revolutions. Green Left Weekly journalist Stuart Munckton spoke about the complex struggle to make people's power real; AVSN activist and writer Jorge Jorquera focussed on the battle to build a new, popular state power even as the old, corrupt Venezuelan state machine tries to defend its privileges.
Cuban Consul General Nelida Hernandez explained that the strengthening of the US's economic blockade continues to cost her small island nation dearly — US$174 million in the area of transport, $62.9 million in nutrition, $48.6 million in health and $9.8 million in education in 2005 alone. Hernandez stressed the genuine uniqueness of the Cuban Revolution and the honesty of the Cuban leadership; without those characteristics it would never have survived the terrible days of the "special period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sydney University political economy lecturer Tim Anderson described how Cuba's economy is beginning to turn the corner as it makes use of its relations with Venezuela and China to tackle its biggest remaining problem, the collapse in infrastructure spending that began in the special period. Seeing Red managing editor Dick Nichols focussed on the struggle for socialist consciousness and commitment, especially in the minds of young Cubans, bombarded daily with the messages of capitalist consumerism.
The political struggles in Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, Guatemala and Colombia, as well as Latin America-wide themes (women's, indigenous, and gay and lesbian struggles, and continental economic integration) were discussed in 10 workshops.
In the final session, NSW Greens MLA Sylvia Hale, Joan Silk from the ACFS, John Cleary and AVSN national coordinator Roberto Jorquera described their visions of how to build Australian solidarity with the popular revolt in Latin America. Many of the suggestions raised in this session were concretised in the decisions of the first national consultation of the AVSN later that day. These included protest actions around the forthcoming U2 tour of Australia (U2's Bono is backing a video game that promotes the invasion and destruction of Venezuela) and a national sign-on statement calling for Chavez to visit Australia in 2007.
The consultation also resolved to condemn foreign minister Alexander Downer's attack on Chavez's UN General Assembly address and demand that all political parties dissociate themselves from it.
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