A trip to London for the Latin America 2012 day conference. Although I’ve been involved with Cuba Solidarity Campaign for many years I’d never been to this before. I was able to combine it with some time with daughter and granddaughter and covering the gas man’s visit to their flat in the day.
Weather was cold and the Conway Hall similarly so, with hard seats for my bony bum. I lived for nearly two years around the corner when at University and used to go to the Sunday evening chamber music concerts here. They still happen. I remember an audience with average age that which I’ve now reached and string quartets seated around a standard lamp. But it was good for my growing musical appreciation – at that time I listened almost exclusively to ‘classical’ music, was only beginning to understand and appreciate jazz,and I’ve never had much time for pop, rock and so on – too predictable. These concerts helped me to a position where I’d generally prefer to listen to chamber music than orchestral.
Talking of predictable, the conference had the predictable elements – the confusion of Keynesian demand stimulation with socialist economic policy by several speakers, and the rather uncritical image of Cuba and Venezuela. A bit like reading the Morning Star. Not that I disagree with this particularly – given the multiple attempts to destabilise these people-centred governments and revolutions the priority is indeed to give political support, but the intellectual in me rebels against the punctuation of simplistic speeches with applause at the predictable moments.
After the set piece plenary I went to a session on Cuba’s socialist reconstruction. I wrote a pamphlet on this 4 years ago and it was good to catch up. I am of the view that Cuba is in good hands and that the reforms are the result of a democratic process of consultation and decision making. They are also focusing on the right things, local food production and the reduction of bureaucracy for instance. As speakers noted there is nothing in socialist theory, Marx’s analysis etc that suggests that small enterprises should be part of the state, and Cuba is moving in this direction with the unusual feature of extending labour protection to the self employed and privately employed, along with Cuba’s other social benefits (pensions, healthcare, etc.). Compared to the mayhem going on in the UK, Cuba is a positive example of how to deal with the global economic crisis while continuing to work in the interests of the people.
I would have liked more detailed analysis and some discussion of the dilemma of whether to focus on what Cuba is good at producing or on import substitution-like self-sufficiency (that goes beyond food production). This was the subject of historical debates after the revolution when Cuba’s speciality was still sugar. Now it has immense human capital and within the ALBA, this is what it tends to contribute most – health workers, scientists, educators, for example. But that cooperative alliance is a world away from the monotonously repeated dogma we hear by ‘our’ strategists that ‘we’ have to position ourselves for global competitiveness to stay on the treadmill of growth for ever.
The speaker from the Cuban embassy seemed to suggest that the dual currency has a protective role for the Cuban population, in that the moneda nacional, the non-convertible peso insulates people from global prices in convertible currency, , especially important for those with no access to CUCs – the convertible currency that circulates. The other view is that the dual currency is a source of inequality, but of course the source doesn’t lie in there being two currencies. This is interesting for those of us looking at the idea of local currencies too in the context of local economic resilience and a move to a steady state economy.
Which leads me to the next seminar – on Latin America in the global economic crisis and the lessons for Europe. Much of this I’d agree with, for example the Argentinian renegotiation of the external debt and the role of ‘vulture funds’ that have not accepted this. Moreover the move to State intervention, nationalisation of strategic industries and banks to give the government the tools to protect the population and to redistribute wealth. But each one of the three speakers used the measure of GDP growth to illustrate the economic success of the left governments in Argentina and Venezuela. I questioned this pointing out (in a rather garbled question) that GDP is a ‘black box’ within which it is impossible to say what the benefits are and that there are always dis-benefits (for example, GDP could include criminal monies laundered into the economy, luxury goods, and financial derivatives). Moreover economies can’t grow forever since we are already in ecological overshoot – exceeding the available biocapacity due to emissions and extraction. The responses to this sadly indicated a lack of understanding of the issues and the basic facts of ecological economics. I felt like a lone voice but someone came up later to compliment me on the question saying there was a lot of head nodding while I was speaking, so maybe it was less garbled than I thought… And then Ken Livingstone arrived and we were back to Keynes with a council house building programme to stimulate consumption – disappointing as the former zoologist can do better than that.
After a Palestinian lunch (tasty) I went to the session on Ecuador’s citizen’s revolution. Following a rather predictable and at times complacent morning, this was excellent, with clear and thoughtful presentations. Ecuador’s reconstruction is very impressive, on a par with Bolivia‘s and there is a stronger ecological current in the government. It remains somewhat unclear how conflicts between the ‘rights of mother nature’, written into the constitution, and the extraction economy will be resolved institutionally as they arise, but it is also clear that Ecuador is thinking now about transition to a post oil economy, both as producer and user. I rather wish I’d gone there in April. Robin Blackburn urged people to go and see for themselves, but elsewhere it was noted that the Andean countries are suffering from the impact of CO2 emissions on climate – hordes of European revolutionary tourists won’t help that. Robin has just published an interesting interview with the president Rafael Correa in New (and uneven) left Review. We also mentioned Ecuador’s ITT-Yasuní initiative in In Place of Growth.
There were other sessions I’d have liked to attend, on violence in Mexico and Central America, on Brazil’s hydro projects that threaten the Amazon ecosystem, and on the contradictory situation in Colombia where the Santos government is negotiating with the FARC (brokered by Cuba) but the killings, disappearances and displacements continue at the hands of the paramilitaries and probably hardline State forces.
But yes the message is generally hopeful one, of a region with multiple progressive currents giving answers to the political, ecological, economic and social challenges facing us all.