Notes from the front – of the week 7/1/2015

Victory to SYRIZA – Strike a blow against austerity

The snap Greek general election on 25th January poses the possibility that an explicitly anti-austerity political party may top the polls in a European election for the first time since the imposition of austerity across Europe in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis.

At the point that the election was called, the left wing SYRIZA party was heading the opinion polls with a 30.4% share ahead of the previous largest party, Samaras’ conservative New Democracy party on 27.3%.

The Greek parliamentary system ensures that the largest party in the votes cast in a general election is awarded an additional 50 seats in the national parliament helping it towards forming a government in a situation of multiple smaller parties. However even if SYRIZA were the largest party and won the additional seats it is far from clear it would be able to form a government given the forces ranged against it.

Nonetheless, for SYRIZA to emerge as the largest party on 25th January would be a huge blow to the credibility of austerity policies across Europe whether or not it was then able to form a government in Greece.

However, with big business and all the mainstream political parties in Europe committed to the continuation of austerity, there is already a relentless and concerted international campaign to prevent a SYRIZA victory.

This has immediately taken the form of a series of political interventions from unelected bureaucrats and appointees from the European Commission and the European Central Bank attacking SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras. More seriously scheduled EU funds have been withheld from the Greek government until after the election as a lever.

At the same time the anticipated announcement by the ECB that it will begin buying Eurozone government bonds (‘quantitative easing’) is now likely to be linked to each government taking what it deems ‘appropriate measures’ to cover local risk. For Greece these measures are almost certain to include the continuation of austerity, no debt default and a range of other policies demanded by Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington.

The Troika of EU, ECB and IMF have no intention of letting democracy get in the way of austerity.
But popular opposition to austerity is growing in Greece and elsewhere as living standards are driven down. Anti-austerity parties Podemos and Sinn Féin are already regularly polling 25% and above in Spain and Ireland respectively. Unlike in most of northern Europe, where rejection of the mainstream pro-austerity parties has been mainly to the benefit of the right – with populist racist or even fascist parties chiefly gaining support – in Europe’s ‘periphery’, including Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, the radicalisation has been mainly to the left.

The rise of SYRIZA is the most advanced reflection so far of the growing mass rejection of austerity particularly in those parts of Europe most deeply affected by the crisis and subsequent austerity policies. However, as a coalition of forces arising from mass radicalisation it is no surprise that SYRIZA’s economic policy remains a work-in-progress. It is entirely correct to put forward policies of debt renunciation and anti-austerity. But its hope that Germany would hold back from sanctions against a recalcitrant Greece to defend the integrity of the Eurozone has been strongly rejected by Merkel. Her intervention in the Greek election has been to make it clear that Germany would rather a Greek exit from the Euro than accept a breach with austerity.

Socialists and anti-austerity activists in Britain have a particular responsibility to help SYRIZA in every way possible. It was Britain that primarily crushed the communist uprising at the end of World War II and more recently British banks benefited from the bail-out of Greece’s creditors.
The Greek Solidarity Campaign has a series of events during and after the election campaign and is a valuable news resource. Its activities can be supported here.

Cuba celebrates a victory – but the struggle for sovereignty continues

Obama’s announcement of the release of the Miami Five and the restoration of diplomatic links between the US and Cuba were a significant victory for the Cuban revolution, which has stood up to 55 years of sustained coercion from its mighty neighbour.

But Cuba still needs our solidarity as America’s intentions are far from benign, and the most damaging of its anti-Cuban measures – the economic blockade – remains in place. Republican majorities in both houses of Congress are firmly committed to maintaining an economic stranglehold on Cuba.

Obama did not announce the normalisation of US relations with Cuba out of goodwill. It was born of a political judgement that the US vendetta against its Caribbean neighbour was seen as vicious and vindictive across Latin America, and was therefore undermining the US’s attempts to reinsert itself in Latin American politics, which has shifted to the left and in an anti-American direction.

America’s attempted isolation of Cuba in fact isolated America across Latin America.

At the same time international sympathy was growing with the five Cubans locked up in the States, convicted not of spying on the United States but of infiltrating Miami Cuban organisations planning terrorist attacks against Cuba. Their imprisonment also contradicted US’s claim to be engaged in an international fight against terrorism.

So while US-Cuban relations are being allowed to “thaw”, the US’s fundamental objective remains unchanged – the overturn of the Cuban revolution and the restoration of a client regime subject to US political control.

Nonetheless Obama’s move was deeply unpopular with the hard-line Republicans whose bottom line is that Cuba remains a pariah state. This is the second time that Obama has struck out against the Republicans in recent weeks. The first was the temporary amnesty for four-million-plus undocumented migrants resident in the US.

Obama’s manoeuvre on Cuba is an astute move, helping the US repair some of its relations in Latin America; he is already being widely praised in the region. The US’s campaign of interference in Cuba’s internal politics is far from over.

Venezuela sticks to left course as US imposes sanctions

Immediately after announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the US Congress, with Obama’s support, voted to introduce sanctions on Venezuela, restricting travel and freezing the assets of Venezuelan government officials.

This very public action against Venezuela follows a year in which the US also stepped up its range of covert activities inside the country to assist opposition forces, including the extreme right elements behind a series of terror attacks. The latter included poisoning water supplies with diesel, violence against social programme provisions and setting up armed street barricades that resulted in 43 deaths.

The sanctions and other actions in the US’s Venezuela destabilisation campaign are evidence that it remains focused on bringing down the government of Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro.

The USA sees an opportunity in the problems being faced by the Venezuelan economy, which was contracting last year. With its economy almost entirely dependent on its vast reserves of oil, Venezuela is being particularly hard hit by the collapse of world oil prices. While the sluggish state of the world economy is leading to a fall in all commodity prices, oil prices are particularly slumping as Saudi Arabia – at the behest of the US – prevented OPEC agreeing any reduction in production. With oil prices falling by over 50% in the last six months, the US aims to tighten the screw on oil-dependent Venezuela, alongside Russia and Iran.

These problems are exacerbated by the active sabotage of the Venezuelan economy by sections of Venezuelan capital, egged on by the opposition, for example through hoarding and creating fake shortages.

In response Maduro has announced a programme of economic reforms in the coming period, which emphasise public investment, social programmes, fairer prices and greater planning. Maduro will also visit China to seek additional financial assistance. China already provides huge support through an oil-for-loan agreement which ensures Venezuela cash up front in exchange for future oil deliveries.

Sinn Féin the winners from the Stormont Agreement.

The December Agreement between the north of Ireland’s five main political parties together with the British and Irish governments, marks a further advance for Sinn Féin.

The first round of talks with derailed when Cameron failed to come up with any significant financial concessions and tried to impose an agreement that would have meant further cuts and austerity.

It was Sinn Féin’s determination that the talks should continue – coupled with disarray amongst the Unionists who couldn’t agree on a single approach – that eventually meant an agreement could be reached with the British government having to make some real concessions. Achieving this agreement has avoided the dissolution of the Stormont assembly.

The five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a set of proposals on public finances that will ensure there are no reductions in any of the benefits locally administered by the Assembly. Where cuts are introduced by the British government the Northern Ireland Executive will cover the difference. This is a level of welfare that is unique to the north of Ireland.

Progress was also made on some of the outstanding issues of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement including the power to determine marches and parades being handed over to the Assembly.

Sinn Féin’s approach to the negotiations (Gerry Adams’ account can be read here), illustrates what can be achieved when the left pursues a strategy of leading whole of society – including those opposed in this case the Unionists – in the framework of defending the interests of the population as a whole.

British imperialism has nothing to offer the population in the north of Ireland. The more this fundamental contradiction is drawn out by the parties in the north, the greater the concessions that can be extracted. Britain imposes its will with ease when it can form a political bloc with the unionists. When there is any breach in that bloc, however partial, Britain instead has to negotiate.

To achieve any degree of political unity against Britain’s predations in the north requires a hegemonic approach. It is no accident that Britain has not yet managed to privatise water, introduce student fees or the Bedroom Tax in the north – other issues on which Sinn Féin plays a similarly leading role.