Houses of Parliament, London 2004-7-9
John McDonnell MP: Normally we invite people to sit round here, so if people feel uncomfortable, and they want to come forward. This room is a bit too structured for a discussion.
The purpose of tonight's meeting for me really, and for most of us, is to really have a debrief on the situation in Venezuela post the referendum. To discuss our own analysis of the situation there, and then more importantly, to talk about where we go in terms of campaigning, particularly in support of the Hands Off Venezuela campaign.
Now I want to try and focus on part of that. But just so you're aware of what's been happening within this place, within Parliament, with regard to the New Labour government. There has been a consistent body of MPs, and others, on the left of the Labour party, who have taken an interest, with regards to South America in particular. And it started, most of you will know, from the very early days, when we were kids, I suppose, when we were youngsters, around Chile and Allende, etc.
And when Chávez was elected, most I think felt there was a breath of fresh air and a real opportunity. And there was an atmosphere that was generated from Venezuela that went across the World, and through Left groups and parties, and discussions amongst parliamentarians, that here was an opportunity in which one of the richest countries in the world, potentially, could address poverty, could introduce elements of equality, basic human rights, respect for law and order, respect for democracy, etc.
And most of us felt this was such a new dawn, that what we should do is seize the opportunity and support the Chávez government. Not uncritically, you know I'm critical of any government, quite honestly. You want to ensure that where you think there are mistakes being made, you have a democratic discussion, you provide advice and assistance, and accept that at times there will be disagreements.
But what we saw happening, I think, under the Chávez government, with that attack on poverty, the campaign around literacy, the attempts to redistribute land, the attempts to establish basic human rights, trade union rights, etc., was such a breath of fresh air that we welcomed it. And most of us welcomed it because of that experience that goes well back to Chile and elsewhere, because what we were hoping for was that on this occasion, on this occasion, we would not go through the traditional cycle of the election of a Labour government by peasants, of a Socialist government of some sort, a progressive government of some sort by socialists, and by peasants and workers coming together, that would then seek to introduce attempts to redistribute wealth and introduce progressive policies, and then would be undermined, not by their own people themselves, but by international pressures, particularly from subversion from the United States, really in the traditional Marxist analysis of Imperialism. And we were hoping that this time international solidarity would be able to avoid that.
Well, initially of course, when the coup occurred, when Chávez was kidnapped and all the rest, I think most people felt fairly defeatist about that. What was reassuring about that was the ability of the people themselves to actually ensure Chávez' reinstatement. And maybe for the first time in a long period of time, it inspired confidence, not just within Venezuela, but I think across the World as well.
The issue then for us, of course, was with the build-up of the referendum, threats of strikes, etc., and the continuing undermining of the Chávez government, funded by the CIA, and all the rest of it, put the Chávez government into a precarious position. And we understood what our role was here. Many people understood what the role was, which was to launch campaigns in support of the Chávez government, to highlight what he's been doing, yes to have a critique of some of the mistakes that have been made, but also to demonstrate the overall progressive nature of the government itself. And to do everything that we could to protect the embryonic democracy that he was developing within the country itself.
And that's what we've done so far. And what's been interesting about it is when you engage in the debate about the Chávez government and Venezuela itself, and the positive response that we've been getting. We put down an Early Day Motion, several months ago, Early Day Motion 854, and thirty Labour MPs have signed the motion itself. Which on an issue like this actually is quite surprising. It's not automatic that you would get support on a motion like this, particularly when pressure comes from above not to sign progressive motions like this, supporting a government which this government, and others, don't support.
So it was quite interesting the response that we got. And it was because the number of people who've gone through that experience, with regards to South America, and the role of America. No-one more so than Jeremy Corbyn, who'll be here later. Just explaining to people that on this occasion, on this occasion, can't we just win? Can't we just support a government and maintain a government, and allow it the democratic right to ensure that it introduces progressive policies of behalf of it's own people?
And actually, we are winning. The fact that the referendum was won so overwhelmingly, against all the predictions, particularly within this place, and against all the briefings that were going out from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and elsewhere, privately and serupticiously, that the Chávez government was on the rocks, that this was an opportunity for the people themselves to kick him out, all that rubbish. Chávez demonstrated that actually the progressive policies that he's been pursuing, has built up a body of support. Democratic support, critical at times, but recognising that the most important thing is their ability to elect, and if necessary un-elect, their own governments without interference from abroad.
And what we're seeing for the first time I think in that zone, in that area, for the first time now we've seen an inspiration about what can be done as a result of that build-up of workers, peasants, coming together, within elements, I suppose, of the intellectual elite as well at times, but also particularly with international solidarity, to actually beat back the US.
There's arguments that have been put forward that maybe the US was distracted because of Iraq and all the rest, but I don't accept that. I think they did everything they possibly could - they threw the resources in, every mechanism they put in their own people to destabilise the regime, and the people themselves beat them. They beat the most, I suppose, the richest, the most powerful, the most tooled-up, and the most professional coup-organisers ever seen in the history of the world. And the Venezuelan people beat them!
I think we should take inspiration from that, and move forward now. I don't underestimate the role that Cuba played as well, in terms of the international solidarity that they showed as well, and it demonstrated to the Cuban people, too, that they have mechanisms of solidarity that will beat again the US onslaught onto them.
It's been a good object lesson in how you can defeat Imperialism but it's also been an objective lesson to most of us, in terms of how you have to maintain, at all times, vigilance. And that's our role now, I think, in terms of International solidarity, with regard to vigilance.
What I want to suggest here, is in terms of how the campaign goes forward now. Within Parliament itself we've now got thirty signatures on the EDM. What we need to do is make sure we bring those MPs together in a campaigning group itself, into Hands Off Venezuela, so that we have a Parliamentary voice for this campaign. On a regular basis, putting down Parliamentary questions, seeking adjournment debates, and other debates on the floor of the House of Commons, holding ministers of this government to account about why they're doing nothing to support the Chávez government, which is democratically elected and supported by their own people.
How we can then use the pressure on this government to put pressure on other European governments, particularly France itself. To prevent this continuous attempt to isolate and undermine the Chávez government itself, from Europe overall. And in that way of building up a Parliamentary campaign, when it is just - you know, I'm not a great believer of Parliamentary Socialism, but as a Parliamentary voice that will give the campaign, to support the work that we're doing on the ground itself.
It is all about taking it out to the wider labour movement. It is about using the vehicles that we have within the labour movement, across the political parties, but from my own view, particularly within the Labour Party itself. And that's why we launched the Labour Representation Committe, to bring the Left together within the Labour Party itself. Working with others that are outside the Labour Party, that we put this campaign as part of those demands with the LRC itself. So we drive that through the Labour Movement itself.
The other issue then is the work done so far with regard to the Trade Unions. I commend the campaign for the work it's done, particularly with regard to the NUJ, but now is the time to take it much further. If we look at what's happening around the Colombia campaign, and elsewhere, there's a breadth of support there that's been built up assiduously over time by professional work, and it does mean now to go into the Trade Unions and others and looking for funding to employ full-time workers to get amongst the Trade Unions, building up support within individual branches. Because as soon as you raise the issue, as soon as you put the arguments, as soon as you explain the Chávez programme, that he's introducing, they're attacking poverty and illiteracy, health programs and all the rest of it, it rings the same tone with workers in this country. And that is why I think the campaign within the Trade Unions itself is so critically important.
There are a whole range of other organisations that have now become engaged with this issue, and have been for a while. The Global Women's Strike and others have done a lot of good work. It's a broad popular front, pardon the expression, that is building on this particular issue in this country, and we've got to use every opportunity possible to ensure that the information goes out.
Our focus I think, in this building now though is, to be frank, to harass this government. Why hasn't this government taken a more progressive position? Why has it not made statements about the infiltration and the undermining of the Chávez regime, by the US? We know why it hasn't but we want to put them on the spot to explain that. We should be seeking meetings with the Foreign Secretary and delegations of MPs here to put them on the spot, to demonstrate that we are watching and breathing down their necks with their activities, to try and maintain some forms of accountability, even with this government.
But more importantly, to demonstrate to the Venezuelan people themselves, that they have people working in solidarity across the world in their support, who will not give up, and will not allow the Chávez government, or any other democratically-elected government by the Venezuelan people that's pursuing progressive policies, to be undermined by US Imperialism.
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