Latin America round-up

Chile: student uprising
In Chile, a series of strikes and occupations by students has become the first major crisis to be faced by President Michele Bachelet’s government. Student anger at inequalities in education had been simmering for years and protesters saw the opportunity to force Bachelet to implement the ‘social justice’ she promised during the elections last December. The protests began in Santiago in late April, sparked by the announcement of an increase in the fee students pay to sit university entrance exams. Sit-ins and demonstrations
spread across the country’s schools and universities, drawing students from public and private schools into a struggle to overhaul Chile’s unjust education system. Pupils from secondary schools also joined the strikes. Demands included free bus passes, free university entrance exams, a shortening of the school day, greater student representation in the education system and a guaranteed quality education for all.

The government initially condemned the demonstrations and refused to take the students’ demands seriously. Police brutality on their demonstrations did not deter the strikers and public support for them grew in the light of the security forces’ indiscriminate violence. After a national day of action supported by teachers’ unions and involving over 700,000 students on 30 May, Bachelet was forced to announce a series of reforms and an increase in funding. Student leaders rejected the proposals and a second day of action went ahead on 5 June. The national student assembly finally called off the protests on 9 June, agreeing to take part in the president’s newly-created advisory panel on education. Round One to the students.

James Doran

Brazil: breaking with Lula
Lula’s IMF policies have failed to meet the minimum needs of millions of Brazilian workers and have now forced workers to create a new labour confederation, Conluta. With over 2,700 delegates from 22 states representing nearly 1.8 million workers at its first conference in May 2006, Conluta presents an alternative forum for tens of millions of Brazilian workers. Founded by public sector trade unions representing metal workers and civil construction workers, Conluta incorporates employed and unemployed workers’ organisations, neighbourhood and rural workers’ movements, students, women, ecological and landless workers’ organisations. Representation at this first Congress was based on direct elections from democratic assemblies and represents the first major break with the Lula regime. As such, it portends a revitalisation of urban working class politics.

Rural workers continue to organise in the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST). Founded in the 1980s, the MST now has over two million members. It is the largest landless farmers’ movement in Latin America and has helped over 250,000 families win title to land. 350,000 families now live in settlements due to MST campaigns; they have created 1,200 primary schools and dozens of secondary schools. But 160,000 families still live camped under black plastic sheets, along highways or next to untended estates. Lula promised agricultural reform – 1% of the landowners hold 46% of the land – and he would not have won his presidency without the support of the MST. But the power of agribusiness has blocked change. Brazil recently overtook the US as the largest producer of soya beans and multinational corporations have taken over more land. The rural poor are continuously made landless, hungry and socially insecure. Under Lula, Rio Grande do Sul state settled only 100 families in three years. In Maranhão state, not a single family was settled in 2005. In 2005, 38 landless peasants were murdered by landowner militias, 28 of those in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

It is essential that the urban workers of Conluta unite with the rural workers of the MST in a common programme to stop the human and ecological disaster that is capitalism in Brazil.

Peruvian election: US client hangs on
In a run-off presidential election held on 4 June, the Peruvian ruling and middle class desperately turned to the corrupt Alan Garcia in order to ward off the challenge from Ollanta Humala who spoke for the 14 million, mostly indigenous, people who live in poverty out of a population of 27 million. Garcia ruined the Peruvian economy when he was president between 1985 and 1990; his government was a byword for corruption and he himself has just been indicted by a Chilean court for the murder of 119 political prisoners in June 1986.

Following Garcia’s victory by a margin of 5.2%, his party immediately endorsed the outgoing government’s Free Trade Treaty with the US. The new treaty limits Peru’s ability to renegotiate or cancel contracts with multinational gas and mining companies on environmental grounds, and forces the country to use international mediators. The US has now re-staked its claim on Peruvian copper, gold and natural gas. From 2007, 95% of farmers will suffer from subsidised US imports. A miserable subsidy package is offered to disguise the huge losses to Peruvian cotton, maize and wheat. Garcia’s role will be to manage the new treaty by stimulating food exports in a country where half the people struggle to eat at all. The Peruvian oppressed will not accept this for long: already on 4 July thousands of farmers blocked highways in protest at the Treaty whilst others marched on the capital, Lima.
Alvaro Michaels

FRFI 192 August / September 2006