Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn may be the first leading British politician since Judith Hart in the 1970s to have detailed knowledge of the region and sympathy for its struggles. In this exclusive interview for LAB, Matt Kennard probes Corbyn’s views on Mexico, Brazil and other countries and his 40-year commitment to human rights and social progress in Chile.
Jeremy Corbyn is and has always been an internationalist. He links struggles for democracy and human rights across the world and has travelled extensively throughout his life. But Latin America, and especially Mexico, has a special place in his heartI glance over to his desk where a miniature Mexican flies above his papers. Further back is a framed picture of his Mexican wife Laura Alvarez at her graduation. His second wife, Claudia, the mother of his three sons, is Chilean.
The courage of AMLO
He is clearly enthused by the fact Mexico has turned red with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — the first time, he points out, Mexico has elected a real left-winger since Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s. He tells me he will be travelling to Mexico for the inauguration of AMLO in December.
“AMLO has shown amazing personal and political courage over many decades,” he says. “He was one of the most reforming of mayors of Mexico City in history. Indeed, it’s quite humbling when you go to the supermarket at the time of the month when the older people get their food vouchers, and they call them AMLOs.”
Corbyn was in Mexico for the 2006 presidential election which was controversially called against AMLO. “I saw for myself the size of the demonstration. Three million people demonstrated to demand a vote by vote recount. And then he ran again in 2012, and then ran a third time. And each time has shown incredible energy in touring the whole country, and speaking to vast numbers of meetings in very small towns. I understand that very well, I do it myself all the time, tour the country speaking.” We’re both of about the same age, both been in politics all of our lives, and both have an absolute commitment to human rights and to righting injustice. I support him in the difficulties I know he’s going to face in searching for all the disappeared, as well as dealing with the Ayotzinapa 43, and the dreadful case that that is”.”
The region’s diversity
Corbyn first visited Latin America in the late 60s when he was 20-years-old. He went to Jamaica with Voluntary Service Overseas and afterwards embarked on a solo trip around South America on his own, taking in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. He says he has since visited nearly every country in Latin America. He fell in love with the region.
“There is a huge ethnic diversity across Latin America that’s often not understood by people outside,” he says. “The diversity of Bolivia, for example, with Quechua being actually the dominant language not Spanish.When that diversity is recognized you tend to get more inclusive governments. For example in Chile, the great Salvador Allende recognized the needs of the Mapuche people, which had often been ignored until then. I see the strength of Latin America as bringing people together.”
The powerful opposition to social justice
But this is the side of Latin America that has inspired the left across the world in the past hundred years. But there is another darker side to the region that, in places like Brazil, is coming back. Corbyn adds: “I also see elites in Latin American that have been often interlinked with the armed forces and global corporations … hence the problems that the Allende suffered. I think an ongoing issue is the question of control of resources, and the economic development of the continent. I was looking at my diaries from 1969, and I’ve got an entry from 1 May 1969, in Santiago. That was the time when Popular Unity had been formed which led eventually to the election of President Allende a year later. remember it was a first-past-the-post system. So Allende got elected on, I think, 36% of the vote, something like that. He faced opposition from the very beginning, particularly from the mining companies, and the CIA, much of it led by Kissinger. It’s all very well recorded.”
Corbyn pauses then adds: “There are powerful forces that move around in the world that want to oppose those who want to bring about economic and social justice. The only way to combat it is insertion of democratic values and humans rights, and that is exactly what I’m determined to do.”
Do you worry, I ask, about the forces that brought down Allende doing the same thing to you?
“Well, I understand a lot of the media are very unkind towards me here; extremely unkind. I think what we showed in the general election and since then is that our ability to communicate with people was critical. Things like social media, and local organizations, have created a confidence amongst a lot of people in Britain that we can bring about political change, we can be a government of social justice and we’ll have foreign policy based on human rights and justice. I’m utterly determined to achieve it.”
“What I want to see is an insertion of democratic values across Latin America, that’s what has motivated me all my life,” Corbyn says. “That’s why I spent so many years active with the Chile Solidarity Campaign and Chile Committee on Human Rights, why I put an enormous amount of energy into making sure that justice happened to General Pinochet.” He is referring to the campaign which led to General Pinochet being arrested during a visit to London in October 1998 and held under house arrest until March 2000 before being allowed ‘on health grounds’ to return to Chile. “He didn’t get it ultimately, but he was destroyed politically when he went back. Even though I don’t think he should have ever been allowed to go back. He should have faced trial in Spain, but that’s sort of obviously historic now. What I want us to do is adhere strongly to the UN Convention on Human Rights, and in our case, European Convention on Human Rights. And give support to development of a human rights agenda, including supporting the Inter-American Human Rights court, and what it could empower and achieve because I believe that human rights is universal, therefore, there should be international jurisdiction on it.”
I press him on this because so many of the big mining companies are registered in London, and communities across Latin America often feel they are given free reign to wreck environments and effectively loot countries wealth. “We are very clear that companies registered and operating in Britain must a) pay the tax in Britain not somewhere else, and secondly that we would expect and require them to adhere to environmental and human rights standards in what they do.” Are the regulations in place sufficient? “No I don’t think they’re strong enough,” he tells me. Labour’s policy is to bring multinational companies and their entire supply chain and subsidiaries under international human rights law, he adds. This is promising.
Britain’s Labour Party of Britain is nominally left of centre, yet at least since Tony Blair won leadership of the Party in 1994 – and arguably long before – it has allied with reactionary forces across the world, including George W Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. It showed no solidarity at all with the ‘pink tide’ movement of the late 1990s and 2000s which saw progressive governments come to power in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Brazil.
I wonder if that will now change under Corbyn, and whether the Latin American left can now expect solidarity from the Labour Party. “I’m very clear that we have to build an international movement, which deals with economic injustice and inequality, and challenges the neoliberal agenda…We need governments that think alike to work together on economic justice and we’ll absolutely do that… I had a very interesting visit to Bolivia some years back when I led a parliamentary delegation there. We were looking there at the control of water, and mining industries, but also the enfranchisement of the diversity of Bolivia. The idea that a non-Spanish speaking woman should be the author of the constitution of Bolivia was amazing and historic.”
No more arms for dictatorships
Corbyn has broken with decades of policy from all the main political parties, promising to stop arming the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia while it continues to destroy Yemen and cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. I ask if he will extend that policy to human rights abusing countries in Latin America like Honduras and Colombia. “So I’ve made it clear on Saudi Arabia, and am I concerned about human rights in Honduras? Yes I am. I was on a delegation to Honduras in 2014 and I was utterly shocked by the inadequacies of civil society control. And the figure I was given by the government itself was that over 90% of all murders are never resolved. In other words, there is a 9 out of 10 chance of getting off if you killed somebody. And the death rate was extraordinary, and I visited prisons in Honduras and one prison, where the prison governor met us outside, because it wasn’t safe to go in… for him, nevermind visitors. Well that is unacceptable, so there has to be an improvement in human rights there.”
I ask Corbyn about what he makes of the election of overt fascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. “Very nervous about the situation in Brazil, and the way in which Lula has been treated, and the way in which Dilma was removed from office. I met Dilma when she was visiting this country, she came to see me here, in our offices, and had a long discussion with her. I obviously hope the best for Brazil, but there’s got to be respect for human rights, there’s got to be respect for political freedoms, and there has to be respect for environmental sustainability for Brazil, and for the rest of the world as well.”
Drugs flow in one direction, arms the other
Corbyn agrees with AMLO that the “War on Drugs” should be reined in. “We’re looking at this from the point of view of the security and safety of the people who live in Mexico and the Merida plan did give a huge amount of power and money to the army, and the levels of violence have gotten worse in Mexico, and the disappearances are truly horrific. Andres Manual [AMLO] has got a huge challenge in dealing with that.
“What many people in the border states in Mexico told me, is that the problem is the drugs flow north because of the market in the north. The arms flow south, because it’s an arms market in the south. And the losers in all this,are the very poorest people from Central America who are merely trying to survive. So there has to be an economic development imperative across Central America which is about reducing and eliminating poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and so on. And having visited all of those countries, the numbers of people who live outside the formal economy, and the numbers of children who are living in desperate poverty are huge.
It’s a wasted human resource, and a wasted economic opportunity. Mexico is obviously a major player in this. Trump closing the border, well trying to close the border with Mexico, may mean that Mexico becomes more influential, not less influential, across Latin America.”
Before we finish up I ask him if he has a message for Mexicans as AMLO takes power, and he shoots back, in perfect Spanish: “Saludos y buena suerte para el futuro, y paz y justicia para todo el pueblo de Mexico.” He smiles and then says, tapping his Mexican history book, “I’m really looking forward to being in Mexico.”
A shorter version of this article also appeared in La Jornada, Mexico.