John Wilkin speaking at the TUC congress

We publish John Wilkin's speech at the recent TUC congress, where he is proposing Motion 79 on Venezuela, on behalf of NATFHE, the college and university lecturers’ union.

We publish John Wilkin's speech at the recent TUC congress, where he is proposing Motion 79 on Venezuela, on behalf of NATFHE, the college and university lecturers’ union.

President, Congress:

This motion on Venezuela has its origin in debates at NATFHE’s Annual National Conferences for two years in succession. At the time some delegates to NATFHE Conference, wondered what the events in an obscure Latin American country could possibly have to do with a British education union – or the wider trade union movement in this country.

Of course we take our international concerns very seriously and for a small union (soon to be part of a much larger one, we hope, when we come together with AUT to form the University and College Union) we are proud of the solidarity work that we do with links to trades unionists across the world from Colombia to Iraq, Africa and elsewhere.

Why Venezuela? An earlier version of this motion referred to the Bolivarian Revolution – a long slow burning process which started with the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998. I have a feeling that we should have kept the word “revolution” in the motion but other views prevailed and we left it out, in the interest of maximum support and unity at this Congress.

What is the Bolivarian Revolution? Well I’ve seen it at first hand. I’ve just come back from a holiday and solidarity visit to meet Venezuelan trades unionists and see what’s happening. Partly as a result, together with the work of a number of solidarity campaigns, we have a visitor here at Congress this week from the new national union organisation – UNT . I hope he is in the hall now because to Orlando Chirino, we say: Compañero de la UNT, bienvenido al TUC Británico.

NATFHE President
John Wilkin at the TUC

UNT is a new federation of unions which was formed in response to the 2002 failed coup d’etat and prolonged oil industry lockout organised by the employers and supported by the old unions of the CTV. Imagine the CBI sponsoring a national lockout supported by the TUC in order to bring down a Labour Government. They wanted to replace Chavez with a right wing military regime in the style of Pinochet’s Chile. No wonder Venezuela needed a new union federation.

Until recently 80% of Venezuela’s 26 million people have been excluded from the benefits of living in an oil rich country of great wealth and natural resources. For the first time in its history the government of Venezuela is pumping the oil wealth into the barrios of Caracas and the depopulated countryside of vast plains, rivers and mountains that border Colombia and Brazil. They are using it to create innovative health and education systems which emphasise development from within and the active involvement of the communities themselves. They call it “sowing the oil” so that present and future generations reap the benefits.

The oil money is being used on a massive scale to develop new social programmes which have really changed lives in the past 2 years. Most important of all is the so-called Misión Barrio Adentro which is an extraordinary medical programme staffed by hundreds of Cuban doctors and dentists working together with Venezuelan medics in the poorest neighbourhoods of Caracas and other cities. With expertise and support from Cuba, Venezuela is building a national health service, perhaps the first on the South American sub-continent to be completely free of charge and available to the whole population.

In Venezuela I found a tremendous sense of optimism and enthusiasm among people whose lives have been blighted for generations by a privileged controlling elite. It’s the same throughout Latin America wherever US policies of total subjection to the world market, with convenient lucrative access for US companies, have prevailed

Of course there is the Opposition. But it’s like the cucuracha – the cockroach in the song. Ya no puede caminar – it can’t walk because it’s missing a leg. Without financial support from its friends in Washington it’s going nowhere.

Since 2002 the revolution has gone from strength to strength. This is a slow burning revolution with an optimism that has to be seen. It’s a revolution with a sense of humour that can laugh at itself and its president. There have been no arrests or punishments for the opposition leaders who supported the coup and encouraged sabotage in the oil industry. Even the US opinion polls brought in to give comfort to the Opposition concede that support for Chavez is overwhelming and growing.

All this would be enough for us to congratulate and support the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela. But even more significant for us as British Trade Unionists who believe in social justice and an end to poverty in the world is its determined opposition to the neo-liberal economic system of the IMF and World Bank.

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is increasingly leading the way not just in Latin America but world wide to show what can be done by mobilising people and resources for the benefit of the majority not just the privileged few.

In Caracas a couple of weeks ago, an opposition supporter said to me with disgust about Chavez: “He’s even changed the name of the country” - Bolivarian Republic. The writings and doings of Simon Bolivar are not well known in this part of Europe, but they ought to be. When Chavez first came to prominence there was talk of a search for a “third way” which might be inspired by our New Labour. Fortunately they’ve moved on. It seems to me that the inspiration ought to come in the opposite direction. We could do with a bit of Bolivarianism in Britain an anti-dote to creeping privatisation and increased charges in education and health.

Above all we must do our utmost to support and work with our Bolivarian comrades in Venezuela to do our best to make sure that the Bolivarian Revolution does not succumb to its detractors and opponents wherever they may be.

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