Argentina: political outlook at the start of 2013

La Juventud del MST marchando en Buenos Aires

The year 2001 saw an uprising in Argentina as citizens rejected all of the old parties and took to the streets. Hyperinflation, unemployment and the near collapse of the Argentinian banking system led to mass demonstrations and ‘piqueteros’ blockading roads around the country. New social movements sprang up with neighbourhood assemblies and many workplaces were occupied and turned into workers co-operatives.

As this movement ebbed, the old parties re-established themselves. The current government of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner comes from the Peronist tradition and represents a particular strand of this tradition. This tendency is nationalist but left of centre. This government has nationalised important energy resources but has run into problems around their attempts to control currency exchanges and in the last few months demonstrators have returned to the streets both from the right and from the workers movement as the economic situation has deteriorated.

In this article Alejandro Bodart and Mariano Rosa, two leading members of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores – MST (Socialist Workers Movement) outline the current position in Argentina, the battles that are coming and the prospects for building a political alternative. The MST currently works within a broader coalition called Proyecto Sur (Project South) and has a number of members elected to state assemblies in Argentina.

Setting, conflict and elections

A first definition of the situation in Argentina serves to put things in place: the international crisis did not stop, nor the effects it has on our economy.

Industrial activity fell, led by carmakers and metalworking. The building sector had already reached a low in 2009, but that trend is now more pronounced. Inflation remains high and price controls are a fiction that cannot cover a nonexistent policy of industrialization accompanied by the complete lack of controls over large price makers. The parallel dollar soars, and the fall in the stock of that currency at the Central Bank, shows that large companies doubt the force of government to take care of business.

As for state finances, the situation is similar. Desperate for their emergency-election – this year there are parliamentary elections – and for economic reasons, the national government continues to cut funds to the regions, causing further strain on already beset provincial finances. There are several districts with financial difficulties, including the Province of Buenos Aires. Governors seek carbon taxes, while refusing to eliminate tax breaks on big banks, corporations and landowners. State and teachers’ salaries, pensions and social assistance programs are already feeling the effect of these decisions.

With things as they are, what comes next is the fight over who gets to pay for the crisis in our country. At the top, governments are scrambling to see who is responsible for most of the adjustment to be applied. Underneath, workers and the people gather fury over wages that are never enough, struggle against cuts in salaries, or loss of family allowances. There exists social conflict, and a teachers’ nationwide strike is on the cards. The truck drivers’ union marches – this is quite an important union. And trade unions opposing the government are calling for a CTA-CGT mobilisation, for March 14.

Government Setback

Last year ended with the confirmation of two key political points. The national government suffered severe setbacks, receding in popularity with many of their voters. This is important enough by itself and will have multiple consequences. But there are other factors that go along with this. That is that the governments declining popularity was seconded by the people’s rejection of the main policies of the bourgeois opposition. None is seen as an alternative to solve a situation that is worsening for most. That’s because, in addition to not offering solutions to the structural problems that we live with every day, they also govern against the people.

The combination of these factors provides an overview of great political debate, where millions are seeking a change, not convinced by the options provided by the current system. This can be seen in any conversation on the street, at work, in the schools and colleges.

 Electoral battle, and the alternative

Whilst we cannot discount sudden changes in the situation (given that since 2001 we live with a permanent social tension), the more likely outcome is that of an electoral battle which expresses the changes which erupted last year. This does not minimize the social conflict and the importance of mobilizing that the workers and the people are developing and will surely continue throughout the year. But it provides a tremendous opportunity to those who want to bring about change in the country. The worn out state of the old, presents a huge opportunity for an alternative political force to become strong and move forward as an alternative to the government and the right-wing opposition.

This may be the case with the candidacy of Senator Pino Solanas at the Capital, for the Movement South Project (Movimiento Proyecto Sur) which we, as the MST, are part of as its anti-capitalist wing. An achievement in the city could lead to a positive phenomenon with social influence. So, with our main leaders all around the country, we are committed to develop Proyecto Sur thoroughly, and fight any attempt to transform it into a new centre-left force. It would be really positive if – in this course of events – other anti-imperialist forces would also come together, that is, social movements and those left currents who – abandoning sectarianism – join us to fight for a fundamental change, in unity.

Three tasks for the coming months

A very important one is to support and participate actively in the struggles of workers and the people, contributing to the emergence of new leaders who replace the old ones within trade and students’ unions, or social organizations. It is a vital and present task, to guarantee that the thousands who come to fight come to recognize the usual traitors.

At the same time you have to accompany it with anti-systemic transformation proposals to end the sufferings of the underdogs, defeating the double discourse of ruling capitalists and old recipes that have already sunk us before.

Finally, we must be able to build an alternative to fight for these causes. And the election battle is a major challenge in this field. Here, as in the struggles, currents and their leaders are tested. And the results influence the daily fight.

The political landscape makes us very optimistic about the potential for progress in each of these areas. The international context does as well, with the peoples of Europe in the streets facing their capitalist governments.

To carry out all these tasks, across the country, it is essential to strengthen MST within Proyecto Sur. That is why we invite workers, young people, neighbours, social activists, artists, intellectuals, retired citizens, to join us and together build a party that is seriously determined about these objectives. It is our future that is at stake. No time to lose.

Alejandro Bodart, General Secretary – Currently Deputy – MST.

Mariano Rosa, National Secretary of the Socialist Youth – MST

Radical Independence Conference and Beyond

Untitled-1Alister Black reports on the success of the Radical Independence Conference, and what comes next for RIC. He also looks at the issues facing socialists who are campaigning around Scottish independence and how best we can build a strong socialist force in the post-referendum world.

November’s Radical Independence Conference was a highly significant event both for the Scottish left and the independence campaign. It brought together 900 participants from a broad range of political backgrounds for a day of debate and discussion.

It sought to thrash out a radical consensus on the type of independent Scotland that we want – one where social justice, equality and workers rights were central. It talked about a Scotland where the environment and culture were cherished and peace and internationalism were at the heart of our policy.

Who was there? What was clear was that this was nobody’s ‘front’ organisation. The conference was attended by Greens, with Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie speaking at the opening plenary. There were also those who were not embarrased to call themselves nationalists coming from the left of the SNP and ‘Labour for Independence’ supporters. There were many from campaigns such as CND and those who were members of no organisation.

The socialist left were, of course, well represented. It was significant, given the poisonous splits of the past few years which have seen groups denounce each other in meetings, the media and the courts, that there was little visible rancour. Whilst there were not exactly hugs being exchanged, people listened to each other and behaved respectfully for the most part.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and International Socialist Group (ISG) were the largest contingents of the socialist left in Scotland who were present.

The mood at the conference was reminiscent of the social forums that galvanised much of the left in Europe and Latin America in recent years. Broad movements that could agree on much.

Unanswered Questions

There are some underlying questions that need to be addressed in regards to how RIC intends to participate in the fight for a Yes vote. Most agree that economic questions will be the key factors determining how most Scots will vote. RIC needs to make the case for independence in a way that demonstrates that jobs, conditions, social services, health and housing will be in a better place in an independent Scotland which rejects the capitalist consensus.

Just how to best organise across campaigns like those against cuts, the ‘bedroom tax’ and in defence of public services is more difficult. However, whilst important, campaigning on issues like Trident and Palestine alone, or focusing on campus votes will not win the thousands in the schemes and workplaces of Scotland  that we need to win.

Just what RIC’s economic vision is was also unclear from the conference which unfortunately did not have a session on the economy. Questions we need to answer include, what will we do with the banks, how will we secure the resources to make sure all Scots have a job, an education and somewhere to live?

Next Steps

Organisers and participants were on a high following the conference. It was no surprise therefore that proposals were soon made to step up and expand the remit of RIC. At a recent steering committee group an aside was made regarding changing the name of the RIC facebook page from Radical Independence Conference to Radical Independence Campaign. Moving from being a conference to being a campaign is quite a significant move and one which a few will have issues with. But with hundreds having contacted RIC on top of the 900 attending conference, it was to be expected.

The next steps planned are to hold local assemblies across Scotland, including areas where the left has never had a strong presence such as Inverness and Dumfries and Galloway. The aim is to form grassroots groups across Scotland with immediate campaigning priorities being voter registration and building for the anti-Trident weekend of action.

Another plan is for a series of ‘Red Papers’ from campaigners and academics laying out our vision of an alternative Scotland in more detail. A campaign appeal of £10, 000 has been launched.

Yes Campaign

How does this fit in with the official ‘Yes Scotland campaign, with its team of full-time staff, big budget and the electoral experience of the governing Scottish National Party? Yes Scotland also has plans underway to establish local groups across Scotland. For example they want to see a local group in every council ward in Glasgow and in every village and town in the nation.

The answer is that the independence campaign is a movement. It is a movement which ranges from wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs to impoverished socialists. RIC is the left of that movement. It aims to speak for working people, for the poor, for those who will suffer from cuts and from the crisis-ridden capitalist system.

Whilst attitudes towards Yes Scotland differ within RIC, many are active in both. Yes Scotland recently invited young trade-unionist Cat Boyd to speak at the well-attended Glasgow launch of the campaign on behalf of RIC and First Minister Alec Salmond sent a congratulatory message to the November Radical Independence Conference.

So far there is little evidence to suggest that the two are rival campaigns.

At launch meetings for the official Yes Scotland campaign, campaign officials have made it clear that the campaign will not be talking about policy or ‘taking sides’ over issues like council cuts. RIC is not held back by those constraints and it can speak for those for whom independence does not just mean hauling down the Union flag and replacing it with a Saltire.

What next for the Scottish left?

The success of the Radical Independence Conference has raised questions about the future for the socialist left in Scotland. If we can all get together in a room and agree on a broad range of issues, then why can we not have some kind of united front or electoral list in preparation for new political realities post-referendum, whichever way the vote goes?

Some, like the Scotsman commentator George Kerevan went further writing “New movements are difficult to predict or direct, which is why they are movements not parties. But the emergence of RIC suggests that there is a space in Scotland for a Red-Green Republican Left Party (or coalition of parties) committed to Scottish independence – a grouping that could command 10 or maybe 15 per cent of the popular vote on a good day.”

Certainly the experience of similar parties in Catalonia, the Basque Country and elsewhere would support such a claim. There are real obstacles to overcome even with the lowest level of unity. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party around the Sheridan trial left a bitter legacy with many simply leaving politics and others deeply hostile to working with those who split ever again.

But nature and politics abhor a vacuum and there is clearly a space to the left of Labour and the SNP. New generations of activists have no interest in the splits of the past and will be attracted to organisations who are unsectarian and hold socialist unity as a principle. A new electoral list, coalition or party remains necessary to give us the strength to stand up to the neo-liberal onslaught that we will face regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

Scottish Socialist Party

The SSP has survived, although it is clearly in a much weaker state than in its heyday when it united virtually the entire Scottish left and had six members elected to the Scottish Parliament. The number of branches and activists has shrunk but recently it has been recruiting and holding well attended public meetings.

Attitudes towards RIC within the SSP are not homogenous. Some, particularly the youth, were enthusiastic and played a key role in building the conference and indeed, SSP conference voted to back RIC. Others within the leadership seemed suspicious and played down the potential for a big conference, a perspective that was not borne out. SSP co-convenor Colin Fox sits on the Yes Scotland board and has strongly encouraged members to throw all their energy into the official campaign with RIC being seen as a sideshow.

The Yes Scotland campaign is seen as a way to appeal to a broader layer of pro-independence activists both inside and outside the SNP and to hopefully bring some of them into the SSP.

Whilst ‘building the party’ is ABC for socialists and it is healthy to recruit to the SSP, it is not an end in itself and it is important that other socialists are not simply seen as rivals. The danger is that unless the party has a more strategic approach to the variety of social movements making up the pro-independence campaign it could lose opportunities and lose members. The SSP was founded on the principle of uniting the left and sectarian attitudes should be an anathema to it.

International Socialist Group

The International Socialist Group are one of the newest groups on the left. They formed recently from a split within the Scottish SWP which saw most of the youth and student members leave to form the ISG. The ISG have been the driving force behind RIC and have been able to work constructively with the rest of the left.

The largely student membership base of the ISG has advantages and disadvantages. Their members are young and have time, energy and elan – all of which have been clearly seen in the RIC. They reflect the makeup of the recent youth and student campaigns, inspired by the Arab Spring and the rise of Syriza in Greece. The downside of this is a lack of any base in the workplaces and communities and the problem of membership turnover as courses end. The ISG have been clear that they see their organisation as transitional and are open to collaborating with other forces.

Socialist Workers Party

As detailed in Gregor Galls article in this issue of Frontline, and many other places, the SWP are in crisis. The Scottish SWP are already reeling from the ISG split and now face further division. Leading members such as Neil Davidson and many of the key activists in Edinburgh have come out against the leadership. Whilst in Glasgow most seem to back the leadership.

The SWP has had some involvement in RIC and has continued to attend RIC meetings and events. Whilst there is an element of ‘kremlinology’ in trying to predict what will come next for the SWP, it is clear that things are moving. Another significant split in the SWP in Scotland will mean some kind of re-alignment of forces.

Everything solid melts into air

The Radical Independence Conference offered hope to activists in Scotland. In particular it offered hope to the new generation of young activists many of whom can barely remember the anti-war demos of ten years ago, let alone the poll-tax battle or miners strike.

Those older activists who have been through those battles owe it to them to listen. We also owe it to them to help teach the lessons of those struggles. To do that we need to think about what is best for socialism not just what is best for our particular socialist party.

We also need to consider the shifting elements of the Scottish left, the wider groups of unaligned activists and the thousands of current and former SNP members who are unhappy at the party’s shift to the right over issues like NATO membership.

There are no easy options and no guarantees of success in any strategy but socialists seeking to change the world need to recognise that Scottish politics is changing, with or without them.

Which Side Are You On?

Womens Support Group, Miners Strike.
Women’s Support Group, South Wales, 1984. Image

Bill Scott on a song of workers struggle which has lived on across the decades.

Come all of you poor workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
Which side are you on?

If you go to Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

They say they have to guard us
To educate their child
Their children live in luxury
Our children almost wild

Gentlemen, can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

My daddy was a miner
He’s now in the air and sun
He’ll be with you fellow workers
Till every battle’s won

 Harlan County

Mining originally brought relative prosperity to the poor hill farming communities of Harlan County Kentucky.  By the 1920’s two thirds of the county’s labour force worked in the mines and just prior to the Great Depression the county had risen to become one of Kentucky’s wealthiest. However the onset of the Depression saw the mine owners cutting wages and crushing any signs of resistance in order to maintain their profits.

The mine owners in Harlan were industrial giants US Steel, Edison and Ford. They not only owned the mines but company stores, housing, schools and even churches. Moreover through bribes and patronage they also effectively owned local police forces, Sheriffs, judges and politicians. To make absolutely sure of control the mine owners brought in hundreds of armed thugs of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency as mine guards. This same agency had been responsible for the Matewan Massacre in the neighbouring mining area of West Virginia (for a brilliant account of this earlier organising struggle see film director John Sayle’s masterpiece “Matewan”). Known as “gun thugs”, by locals the “guards” protected scab labour during strikes and evicted union miners from company housing. Due to their control of local sheriffs the mine owners were even able to have these private guards deputised.

The Coal mine owners fired, blacklisted and evicted any miners that even talked of unionisation. Union organisers were beaten and shot by mine guards, in many cases with the backing of the local sheriff.  As a result of falling wages and severe unemployment, 231 children died of malnutrition in HarlanCounty between 1929 and 1931. The coal companies then imposed a 10% wage cut on their workers in early 1931. Almost spontaneously the, as yet non-unionised, Harlan miners decided to strike, feeling that they “might just as well die fighting as die of starvation.”

Some 18,000 miners walked out. Hundreds of miners were fired and their families evicted for even discussing joining the United Mine Workers union. Most of these sacked workers moved to Evarts, one of only three non-company towns in the county. Sacked miners began raiding company-owned stores to feed their families. Baldwin Felts thugs abused miners’ wives and children and openly carried guns to cower any opposition. Sheriff John Henry Blair reported that during the strikes of 1931-1932, “I did all in my power to aid the coal operators’ Sheriff Blair, responding to a reporter’s questions regarding the use of guns, said, “Hell, yes, I’ve issued orders to shoot to kill”. The strikers responded by arming themselves.

As tension mounted the “Battle of Evarts” took place on May 5, 1931. Three guards and a miner were killed. Two days later, the Governor of Kentucky mobilised the National Guard, ostensibly to neutrally police the County – in practise the Guard disarmed strikers, broke up picket lines and guarded the mines and company stores.But sporadic strikes and armed conflict continued and by May 1932, eleven people had been killed: five deputies, four miners, a Young Communist League organiser and a local storekeeper sympathetic to the strikers.

Sheriff Blair arrested and imprisoned most of the known UMW organisers on trumped up charges related to the Battle of Evarts. One night Blair and Baldwin Felts’ “deputies” raided the home of Florence Reese, the wife of one of the few UMW organisers still at large. They wrecked the family’s furniture and put Florence and her small children in fear for their lives. But Florence, showing tremendous courage, demanded that they leave.

Eventually they did so but Florence wanted to set down on paper how she felt about the struggle that she and her family were engaged in.  She ripped a calendar from the wall and on its back poured out her anger and defiance –  the song she wrote was “Which Side Are You On?”. She set it to the tune of an old British ballad called “Lay the Lily Low”. The song is a call to all workers to support the struggle. As ever there can be no neutrals in such a contest – either you side with the strikers or effectively side against them. The song is also very much from her own viewpoint as a mother and daughter –concerned with the future for her children and for her father, already blacklisted by the mine-owners.

The Harlan County coal miners continued their struggle throughout the 1930s, and the violence also continued. More workers were evicted, beaten and killed. For the UMW the struggle took on national importance as previously unionised mines in other counties and states threatened to break their union contracts as they were unable to compete fairly with the low wages paid in Harlan. Kentucky folk singers Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland took up Florence’s song and popularised it at benefits for the HarlanCounty miners throughout the States. It became an organising song throughout the US as the new more militant unions of the Congress of Industrial Organisations fought recognition battles in mines, auto-factories and shipyards.

Union organisers finally succeeded in Harlan after another strike in 1939.A fifteen week all out strike by 9,000 miners culminated in the “Battle of Stanfill,” when the Kentucky National Guard shot and killed two miners and wounded several others. This prompted national press outrage directed at the mine owners and the Roosevelt Administration intervened to enforce Federal Law (introduced via the New Deal) which guaranteed workers the right to seek unionisation. The UMW signed an agreement winning recognition for itself and large wage increases for its members.

Civil Rights

But the story of the song does not end there. Aunt Molly Jackson recorded it and Pete Seeger, whose father was a folk song collector, took it up and recorded a version with the Almanac Singers (a group that sometimes included Woody Guthrie) and the Weavers. Then in the 60s the nascent Civil Rights movement adapted the song for its own use including new verses such as –

Come all you people
Lift up your voices and sing
Will you join the Ku Klux Klan
Or Martin Luther King?

Then in the 1972 struggle broke out again HarlanCounty. Miners at the Brookside mine went on strike over the Duke Power Company’s attempt to insert a No-Strike clause in their contracts. As ever local law enforcement sided with the owners. Threatened and harassed by armed deputies the miners were eventually barred by court order from mounting picket lines. Instead their wives, girlfriends and daughters mounted pickets on their behalf – and armed themselves to resist gun thug intimidation.

All of this is caught in the moving Oscar winning documentary “Harlan County USA” made by the women’s liberation activist and director Barbara Kepple. The strike ended after a year and the death of a picket with a, limited, win by the strikers. Kepple made a point of capturing the by then 70+ year old Florence Reece on film singing her inspirational song in support of the strikers and their militant female supporters.

1984 Miners Strike

The song again came to the fore during the 1984 Miners Strike. After six months of enforced silence due to vocal chord problems Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan made a triumphant return to performance at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh. He sang several songs in support of the striking miners and their families (the performance can be heard on the album, “Live in Edinburgh”). Amongst several additional verses of contemporary relevance was this –

Thatcher sent MacGregor
To smash the NUM
And break the workers’ unity
And I ask you once again

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

See here for the lyrics of Gaughan’s full version –

Billy Bragg appeared at several miners benefits with Gaughan and heard him singing his version of “Which Side Are You On?” prompting Billy to record his own version which like Gaughan’s had many new verses including –

This government had an idea
And parliament made it law
It seems like it’s illegal
To fight for the union any more

Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

A feature of the year long Miners Strike was the role played by the “Miners Wives”. The women of the coalfields, like their predecessors in the States came to the support of their husbands, fathers and sons. The Miners Wives Support Groups raised money, mounted pickets and sought solidarity from other workers. So great was their contribution that they had the support of the NUM’s President, Peter Heathfield, and General Secretary, Arthur Scargill, in seeking full membership of the NUM after the strike ended in defeat. Ironically only the unity of Euro-Communist officials such as George Bolton of the Scottish area with the NUM’s right wing prevented the women from winning full membership. Nevertheless many women, politicised by the strike, went on to make careers outwith the domestic sphere as community workers, councillors and MPs.

The Song Lives On

The song continues to be adapted and used in new struggles throughout the world. It has to my knowledge been used by striking workers in Japan and South Africa.  Natalie Merchant, the Dropkick Murphys and Rage Against the Machine have all recorded new versions of the song.

Perhaps the  most relevant up to date recording was Ani DiFranco’s which is featured in her 2012 CD of the same name.

DiFranco first performed the song in 2009 at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert in MadisonSquareGardens.   Di Franco’s version starts traditionally but then adds Occupy-style drumming and opens out to address current issues including environmental destruction, corporate greed and imperialist wars. Significantly it re-genders the song away from a call to men to struggle on behalf of their families to one where women fight on their own behalf –

My mother was a feminist
She taught me to see
That the road to ruin is paved
with patriarchy

So, let the way of the women
Guide democracy
From plunder and pollution
Let mother earth be free

I can’t help but believe that Reece and the women who won the Brookside strike would have no problems with these sentiments that are so applicable to the labour and socialist movement of today.

North Africa after the Arab Spring


Bill Bonnar looks at the current situation in North Africa’s diverse states in the wake of the momentous events of the Arab Spring.

When we talk about the impact of the Arab Spring, this has impacted most in the Arab states of North Africa. This covers the vast Saharan region and comprises Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Although all these states have marked differences they also have much in common. They share much in the way of a common history and culture shaped by the desert nature of their environment. Predominantly Arab and Muslim they have all been shaped by the impact of colonialism and the post-colonial settlements. They are also societies where modernism and tradition can conflict in dramatic ways. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and the following is a brief account of its impact on the above countries.

Tunisia – as stated earlier the Arab Spring officially began in Tunisia with the protest against police corruption and lawlessness sparked a nationwide movement for change. This movement forced the removal of the president and his immediate entourage and the holding of democratic elections. The resulting government, although Islamic in character, has pledged to protect Tunisia’s secular system.

Egypt – Mass protests led to the removal of the Mubarak dictatorship and the holding of elections. This has revealed a deeply divided society split between Islamic fundamentalist groups and an alliance of liberal, secular and non – Muslim forces.

Libya – an uprising in the east of the country supported by Nato led to the violent overthrow of the Gadhafi regime. The country is now government by a weak dependent regime while large parts of the country are effectively ruled by local militias.

Mali – An armed uprising in the north of the country supported by various Islamic fundamentalist groups led to the collapse of the central government and the military intervention of French forces primarily to protect French economic and strategic interests in the region.

Morocco – mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the government and forced the king to produce a new constitution agreeing some democratic reforms.

Western Sahara – controlled by Morocco there has been a dramatic increase in pro-independence activity and for the main opposition force; Polisario.

Mauritania – the country has witnessed significant pro-democracy demonstrations.

Algeria – mass protests led to the lifting of a 19 year state of emergency and the introduction of a reform programme.

Sudan – the long running conflict between the north and south of the country led to the south breaking away to form the new state of South Sudan.

In the case of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia three of the most entrenched regimes in the region were overthrown while the process of change is still very much under way. Few would have predicted the above just two years ago; what the next two years will bring is open to speculation.

At the heart of all the current conflicts is the fault line that runs through all Arab Muslim societies; the conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and secularism. Within this there is the conflict between conservatism and modernity, between progress and reaction, between democracy and authoritarianism, between Left and Right and around the issue of women’s rights and the rights of minorities.

Since all the above countries came into existence as modern states two broad visions of how society should be have emerged. The first is a society shaped by the values and institutions of an Islamic state. An Islamic state is not and can never be a democracy. Democracy implies that power rests with the people and that people will be responsible for how society is organised. In an Islamic state power rests with God and it is God who ‘orders the affairs of men’ usually through his chosen representatives; the Mullahs and Imams. The creation of an Islamic state is not just about how society is organised it also imposes a moral order on each individual sanctioned by law. The experience of Islamic states in the modern world is that they tend to be socially conservative, defend existing wealth and power, are authoritarian, intolerant towards minorities and institutionalise discrimination against women. The Left sometimes fall into the trap of mistaking the often anti-western radicalism of Islamic fundamentalist groups as something they can ally themselves to. Yet the reality is that the aims of such groups are entirely reactionary and lead to the creation of a society that the Left could never reconcile itself with.

Nicaragua, Colombia and the Forgotten People of Saint Andrews

Sam Gordon reports from Nicaragua on the territorial dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia over the San Andrés Archipelago, Caribbean St Andrews. He outlines the background in colonialism, the impact on the ethnic group living there and the small matter of rich oil and fishing resources.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, in the Netherlands, is often swept by icy gales from the North Sea. But sometimes at least, the daily work of the jurists there gets to focus on sunnier climes, such as the Caribbean islands known as the San Andrés Archipelago.

That was the case in November of last year when the ICJ ruled that this group of islands and cays (low islands and sandy banks) were part of the national territory of the Republic of Colombia. The case was brought to The Hague by Nicaragua and contested by Colombia. As the court had already ruled that the three principle islands of San Andrés (St Andrew), Providencia (Providence) and Santa Catalina (St Catherine) belong to Colombia it came as little surprise that the smaller islands were confirmed as Colombian also.

What did very definitely cause a stir was that the surrounding seas were ruled as the maritime territory of Nicaragua. Colombia was not one bit pleased. Here in Nicaragua the mood after the ruling was one of national delighted, which lasted all of about 36 hours.

On the face of it this looks like a grudge that has rumbled on for centuries between the two countries and has been finally and definitively settled. However, matters in this part of Latin America are seldom that straight forward. And there is also the case of the people in this affair that nobody seems to be talking about.

More than likely the islands were first inhabited by Miskito fisher men and their families from the Atlantic coast of what is now Nicaragua. Then in 1620 English Puritans set up a colony.  Finding the land fertile and well watered the godly Puritans soon added African slave labour to their bounties. Although, judging by the last names of the present day inhabitants at least some of these Puritans were Scottish. It’s common in Central America, even to this day, to refer to any British influence as English.

How did all this Start?

The century and a half that followed saw a general squabble among European powers; particularly the British, Dutch and Spanish, for dominance in this part of the Atlantic. Countering this, British colonies of North America threw off the colonial yoke. Then, encouraged by this movement and the aspirations that swept in with the European Enlightenment, Spain too began to lose its grip on her colonies south of the fledgling USA. But by the time this happened Spain had already laid claim to the islands of the San Andrés Archipelago.

The struggle for Colombian independence from Spain definitively took shape in 1810. At that time modern Colombia did not exist as a nation state. It was part of a bigger territory known as New Granada, part of the Spanish empire in the Americas. But in 1822 Colombia claimed San Andrés as part of its new state.

During those turbulent times claims were made that rumble on today almost as if it all happened yesterday. As part of this process at least two regional identities have emerged in what is generally accepted as Latin America. The greater portion of the continent is referred to as South America.

However, from the northern border of Colombia, through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize the regional identity is Central American. Perhaps a note of caution should be added. Although part of the Central American land mass, Belize, where English is the official language, some would say the cultural identity is closer to the English speaking islands of the Caribbean.

Cultural and language identities apart, one physical reality can’t hide what for some has become a problem.

The San Andrés islands are closer to Nicaragua which is in Central America than they are to Colombia, which is in South America. Now add another dimension to that situation. The South American republic’s claim of maritime territory extends north wards absorbing San Andrés, pushing into what many considered Central American waters.

To Colombians, national territory is a particularly sensitive issue. In 1903, not surprisingly with pressure from the US Marine Corp, Colombia lost its northern state. This became the nominally independent Republic of Panama. By 1914 the Panama Canal, under US control, was built and opened. Thus the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were linked and opened to world shipping. But that’s another story.

The Nicaragua Connection

Nicaragua’s claim to sovereignty of the archipelago rested on the disputed validity of an agreement signed in 1928. With the Euerra-Barcenas Border Treaty Nicaragua accepted Colombia’s claim to the islands. This was ratified again in 1933. However, since the Sandinista Popular Revolution of 1979 this agreement has been called into question and repudiated. This is a view that has found favour with Liberals and Conservatives in Nicaragua, even after the revolutionary Sandinista government lost the 1990 election and spent 16 years in opposition.

The reason the treaty has been considered invalid by so many Nicaraguans is that it was signed when Nicaragua was occupied by US marines. At that time the ruling classes in Nicaragua, as represented by their two political parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, were in civil dispute.

The Conservatives could be said to represent ‘old money’. That is; traditional, land owning classes with an inward look on the national economy, strong on the Catholic Church and maintenance of the social order as it was and as far as they were concerned, ever would be. Historically their base has been located on the Pacific side of the country, around Grenada in the south of the country.

The Liberals were the ‘new money’. Their home turf was around the university city of León, also on the Pacific side of the country but much further north. They had an economic perspective that was much more export inclined. Never far removed from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, history shows that their sons and heirs formed the officer class of the emerging military establishment.

These warring factions represented instability for foreign investors, most notably US investors. From what we now know of US foreign policy it is hardly surprising that President Calvin Coolidge – remembered for his words, “The business of America is business” – sent in the US marines to facilitate a move towards a US interpretation of democracy. The logging and other companies such as Standard Fruit were facing difficult times. And Nicaragua was in Uncle Sam’s back yard after all.

Someone in Nicaragua who didn’t see the unfolding events that way was Augusto Sandino. He and his followers waged an insurgency war – before such movements were thus labeled. So, Nicaragua signed the border treaty with Colombia at a time of particularly weak national government, occupation by a foreign power and an internal war of resistance against foreign aggression.

The Colombia Connection

We haven’t been given an account of the internal discussion of the jurists at The Hague but they didn’t accept the Nicaraguan argument that the 1928 treaty was invalid. The undeniable fact that the archipelago is approximately 220 Km (136 miles) off the Nicaraguan coast while lying  775 Km (480 miles) from Colombia doesn’t seem to have entered the case.

Given the decision of the ICJ it’s clear that Nicaragua lost out on its efforts to gain sovereignty of the archipelago. If, indeed, that was ever its intention. Yet the government made great sounds of delight. Why so? It seems more understandable that the social media ether was ringing with bitter recrimination from sections of the Colombian populous.

At a second glance Nicaragua has been granted a large track of Caribbean maritime territory which it had no claim to before. So what happened?

The answer to the second question comes from the chambers of the fifteen ICJ jurists holding court back on the shores of the North Sea. The 1928 treaty appears to have given much emphasis on the 82nd meridian, or line of longitude. This line runs north-south and lies west of the archipelago. The treaty gave territories west of the line to Nicaragua while those to the east, which includes the disputed islands, belong to Colombia.

The truth of the matter is that Colombia has assumed and practiced the public administration of the archipelago for decades. The islands were run as an integral part of the Colombian state. What can and has been questioned is the quality and purpose of that administration.

The Line from The Hague

Times have changed since the border treaty was signed, which is now almost beyond living memory. Apparently, in the 21st century, jurisprudence has also changed. The ICJ now places greater emphasis on the idea of a continental shelf. That has been defined by Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As far as the law is concerned a continental shelf is the sea bed and muddy depths that extend from a country’s coast line, usually for about 200 nautical miles, but not the deep ocean floor.

Draw a line going eastward from the Nicaraguan shore for 200 nautical miles and you go past, farther east, than the archipelago. To some that would put San Andres under the sovereignty of Nicaragua. But remember that the ICJ upheld the treaty that gave sovereignty to Colombia. The islands are now beyond dispute – at least legal dispute – part of the South American republic.

But economics goes beyond – perhaps deeper- than the law. Nicaragua has got no more land but has acquired a lot more sea. It’s not a question of, “There’s gold in them there hills.” But word has it that, “There’s fish under them there waves and maybe oil beneath them there muddy depths.”  For Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, that’s something to be delighted about. As the ICJ’s legal ruling is final and without appeal, despite the huffing and puffing of Colombia, that should point to political stability.

The People Nobody is Talking About

The islands which make up the archipelago cover an area of approximately 57 km² (22sq. miles), just a fraction smaller than the island of Mainland in the Orkneys. Estimates of the population vary but one source, said to be based on a 2005 census, says there are close to 60000 inhabitants, 18000 to 20000 of who are said to be Raizales.

These are the descendants of European puritans, Afro Caribbean slaves and indigenous people from Central America. Given these census figures it’s clear that the Raizales are a   minority marked from the Spanish speaking Catholic majority with their strong ties to main land Colombia. The Raizales have their own Caribbean Creole with influences from English and Africa languages. A good many are able to communicate in Spanish.

Their main political expression comes through the Archipelago Movement for Ethnic Native Self Determination (AMEN S-D). A starting point for finding more about the history of the Raizal and their troubled relationship with their Colombian colonisers is

Amen S-D claims to have a copy of a secret document of the Colombian government. This shows how Colombia has intended, since the late 1970s, to irradiate the Raizal identity and way of life, not only from the Colombian state but from San Andrés itself.

At this point it’s worth taking note of the warning President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gave regarding the regional role Colombia was assuming, when he compared Colombia to Israel in the Middle East.

Like the Zionist state, Colombia is well equipped with the latest US military hard ware.  Colombia is also operating on another low intensity, yet belligerent front. It has used religion and language to marginalise the Raizales. It has pushed them off their ancestral land and  encouraged South American settlers, so reducing Raizales to a minority people shunted to the edges of the local economy. And so denies them nationhood.

How will it all End?

Soon after The Hague ruling FARC representatives at peace talks with Colombian government representatives in Havana were asked for their views on the ICJ decision. But they said they preferred not to comment at this stage.

The Caribbean costal region of Nicaragua is separated into two autonomous regional areas, called North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). In many ways both these regions show language and cultural trends more closely identified with the islands of the Caribbean.

In recent years, under the present Sandinista government, road, air and river links between RAAN and RAAS and the Pacific and central zones of Nicaragua have improved. This seems to have quelled the sporadic talk of independence for the two regions. The ICJ ruling on San Andrés is unlikely to make any great change in that situation.

In the year 2000 roughly 10% of the Caribbean Sea, the part occupied by the San Andrés Archipelago, was designated the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Scientific Educational and Cultural Organization (UNSCO). The area’s coral reef, dry tropical forests, unique terrestrial and marine flora and fauna gained international recognition.

Any off shore petroleum exploration and production is not welcomed by AMEN S-D.

Much of the traditional way of life of many of the Raizales has its economic base in fishing. The ruling by The Hague guarantees the islands and therefore Colombia, a 12 mile territorial limit in the now Nicaraguan waters, surrounding the islands. Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega says he will respect the traditional fishing customs of the island people.

But the greater oceanic area surrounding the islands may offer a greater threat to the Caribbean environment. While Nicaragua doesn’t have any real fishing fleet of industrial scale on the Atlantic coast it does have trade and cooperation partners with countries possessing sizable fishing industries.

Most notable are Russia, Japan and Taiwan. Riskier than direct development, exploitation if you prefer, of the fish stocks of these seas is the threat of indirect fishing through rent. If agreement were reached on the exploitation of these fishing grounds, between liquidity strapped Nicaragua and a third party fishing nation, a question has to be asked.

Who will monitor, oversee, and hold to account the operational activities of international fishing? If self regulation in banking is anything to go by sustainable fish stocks and the accompanying biosphere diversity are under threat.

Meanwhile, land purchase, hotel and resort development for high end tourism by non San Andreans continues. So too do decreasing living standards, low paid jobs and greater Colombianisation of the Raizal people. But since it’s all on a tropical paradise, under clear blue skies, no one is supposed to complain.

Crisis in the SWP

SWPGregor Gall writes on the crisis developing in the Socialist Workers Party which has set the focus on issues of democracy on the far left.

The unfolding crisis in the biggest organisation on the far left in Britain, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), is fundamentally about its political method of operating. What has triggered the crisis is the way in which an allegation of rape by a woman member against a membership of the leadership has been handled internally.

What has happened is that this event has lifted the scales of many members’ eyes, and now with this epiphany, they now see their party and the way it is being run in a very different light. That the event is connected to sex and the way in which leaders of the far left treat woman members is now new. We only need to recall recent events in the Scottish Socialist Party over Tommy Sheridan and back in the 1980s the case of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP).

Democracy on the Left

When a member joins the SWP or some such far left organisation, they invariably join and sign up to an existing regime and set of politics. Few have the ability to make any changes to these as a condition of their joining. More often than not, even the most scrutinising new recruit will not have peered into the issues of the way the party they have just joined in run internally.

There is, indeed, almost no need – and no stimulus – to do so because when joining, new members do so in high level of enthusiasm and commitment to the existing regime and existing set of politics. Essentially, they want to be active within the existing set up and for the existing set of politics.

It is only when they have cause to question what the outcomes of their efforts and that of their party’s efforts are that the possibility of criticism arises. This mostly obviously comes from situations when the overblown perspectives of the organisation on its own growth and influence – or the course of the class struggle – are never realised or never come to fruition.

The normal response of individual members is to either leave, drop out of activity or try to ignore the patent feelings of the leadership by being active in their own small way in a non-party campaign.


Why does situation arise? It’s essentially about the way in which far left organisations are asymmetrically dominated by their leaderships. All subscribed to the Leninist convention of democratic centralism – which is often characterised as maximum discussion leading to a collective decision by which all members are then bound to and bound to implement so that the organisation acts as one.

Fine in theory but the practice is that the convention has been used to do three things. The first is to create a leadership which chooses who the leaders are in a self-perpetuating manner. This means the central committee chooses the central committee. The second is that the central committee selects and control the party workers. Party workers have no independence from the leadership. The third is that criticism of the leadership is not only seen as disloyal but also illegitimate, dysfunctional and deviant.

Having, in the case of the SWP, the ability to form a faction or speak to other members through an internal bulletin in the run up to annual conference means that for the rest of the year, criticism and debate are not just curtailed by stamped on.

And when the leadership wins its positions are each annual conference by dint of these methods, any critic has to wait for another nine-months before being able to constitutionally put their head above the parapet.


Only every so often does the kind of crisis that the SWP is going through now erupt and startle – if not dislodge – the leadership. But the tentacles of this authoritarian control structure remain because quite often there is no possibility of change.

Again either people leave in large numbers or the organisation disintegrates because there is no mechanism or culture available by which to replace the existing leadership yet also at the same time maintain the organisation. The future of the leadership becomes intrinsically bound up with the future of the organisation.

There has to be some midway point in far left organisations between the authoritarian regimes which enable everyone to act as one but with democratically arriving at what this should be, and on the other hand, the form of network where everything is loose, anything goes and people do their own thing (or not).

Both throw the different babies of effectiveness and democracy out with the bathwater. While the internal regime of the SSP was far from perfect, it did have legitimate permanent factions, a plurality of opinion and a genuine ability to criticise the leadership without being demonised or shouted down. This at least marks out the SSP experiment as something worth studying, not least because the internal regime was effective in making the organisation an credible organisation to those outside it.

If there is anything good to come out of the current SWP crisis, it must be that the far left looks at itself more closely and in a mature, self-reflective way in order to address these issues. It palpably is not growing as it should at the moment and the internal regime it adopts has much to contribute to this failing.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire and author and editor of various books on the left in Scotland including the forthcoming, Is there a Scottish road to socialism? (2013).