What's up, Comrade Bush?

Cajoled for years to take on Western-style economic liberalism there's more than a wry smile on the

The irony has not been lost on the political leaders of Latin America’s insurgent left movements that the governments of Europe and the US are now taking measures that involve far deeper state intervention in the economy than actions they themselves used to harshly criticize when attempted in other regions.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez joked that George Bush “is finally beginning to understand the road to socialism” and notes that “he isn’t criticized for nationalizing the largest bank in the world.”

“What’s up, Comrade Bush,”* he said.

Jabs coming from the leaders of left-leaning governments, which now run the vast majority of the countries of Latin America, have flowed freely as they feel vindicated in their criticisms of neoliberal policy prescriptions and as some of their interventions into their economies have sheltered them to some extent from the colossal global crisis.

But they are coupled with a deepening of resentment over the vigour and force with which certain forms of free-market policies were proposed to them in the last thirty years, often imposed as the necessary conditions for crucial loans from international organizations such as the IMF.

Their anger at opposition coming from the north to their recent attempts to re-introduce elements of regulation and protection into their economies has only intensified as global market forces and unrestricted capitalism brought even the most powerful states in the world to their knees.

Soon after important election victories for the left in Ecuador and Paraguay, the influence of neoliberal economic and ideas and of the United States, already by all accounts at an all-time low, have taken another hit in the region with the economic crisis.

John Ross, who along with Ken Livingstone is providing advice to the Venezuelan government, said that “they have abandoned every policy that they've advocated that other governments should follow over the past 20 years. And they've adopted the measures that they've condemned other governments for taking.”*

These sentiments are echoed by even the most centrist of the region’s left-of-centre governments, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. "We did our homework — and they didn't, they who've been telling us for three decades what to do,” he complained.

And the normally reserved Chilean president Michele Bachelet felt secure enough in the changed political climate to make the following joke, in the US, about the country’s history of intervention in the region.

“Why has there never been a coup in the United States?” she asked a group of investors.
“Because there is no U.S. embassy in the United States.”

Bachelet, the country’s first female president and member of the Socialist Party, was imprisoned and tortured by the government of Augusto Pinochet who took power in a US-supported military coup in 1973.

She was forced into exile as the government killed thousands of supporters of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. The Pinochet government ruthlessly imposed neoliberal prescriptions and counted on Milton Friedman as an economic consultant.

But in the case of Chile at least the country did experience strong economic growth during the dictatorship. However, the movement of left leaders elected in the last ten years in the region was a self-conscious movement against neoliberalism, which in most cases led to unprecedented levels of inequality and historically low rates of economic growth in Latin America.

In many cases these polices were imposed under duress when these countries had their own crises. In 1982 when many Latin American countries defaulted on their huge debts to the developed world, rescue packages from international organizations influenced by the governments of Reagan and Thatcher were conditional on the acceptance of austere structural adjustment programs.

In theaftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the response from the IMF caused many commentators, especially in Asia, to complain that the measures imposed would never be so harsh if something similar happened in the West. Now that it has, leaders of the Latin American left are seeing it this way and many are disgusted at how easily the banks and rich are getting off.

Nicaraguan Congressman Edwin Castro said that "We think the Bush administration should follow the same policies that they and the International Monetary Fund have always told us to follow when we have economic problems.

"One of our economists was telling us that Bush has just implemented communism for the rich."

The Nicaraguan party to which Castro belongs is the Sandinistas, the leftist party violently opposed by the Reagan-backed Contras in the 1980s and which returned to power in 2006.

Hugo Chavez, elected in Venezuela in 1998, was the first of these left-leaning leaders to come to the fore and receives the lion’s share of attention due to his country’s oil money and his unique and controversial approach to public speaking. But since then, left-of-centre governments have also come to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and most recently, Paraguay.

Though the region will certainly be hurt by depressed commodity prices, to the extent that these governments have been able to push reforms past local and international opposition, taking forms ranging from political opposition, military coups to threats of capital flight, they have ironically served to insulate them somewhat from the current crisis.

For example, the FT’s Benedict Mander called the Caracas stock exchange an “oasis of calm” due to the country’s currency controls, implemented in 2003.

Reuters pointed out that: “Venezuela has suffered little direct effect from the market chaos because Chavez nationalised the most important companies that once traded on the minuscule Caracas stock exchange and because its currency is fixed by exchange controls.”

These kinds of economic policies, like those of Ecuador’s recently approved new constitution which allows greater government control over banks, are the exact opposite of the unregulated free-market policies promoted quite powerfully by international organizations and institutions influenced by the U.S., Europe and Japan. And pushing them through required facing stiff international opposition.

Eric Wingerter of left-leaning Latin America blog borev.net raised a comparison between the financial sector’s treatment praise of the U.S.’s recent forced nationalization of major banks and its reaction to Hugo Chavez’s decision two months ago to purchase a single and profitable bank on the open market.

The Wall Street Journal then claimed that move could lead to “mass withdrawls” that could “snowball into a systemic bank run that puts the economy and political system at play.”

Policymakers and analysts in the US and Europe will probably be concentrating on their own countries for the next weeks, or perhaps months. But if they ever turn back to Latin America, they will find they face a very difficult task if they would like to restore their credibility.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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