Dilma Rousseff, arguably now the world's most powerful woman, takes over the Presidency of Brazil in January. Now aged 63, Rouseff is a former leader of the resistance to a Western-backed military dictatorship (which tortured her) and in the words of British writer, Hugh O'Shaughnessy, her triumph "marks the final demolition of the 'national security state,' an arrangement that conservative governments in the U.S. and Europe once regarded as their best artifice for limiting democracy and reform [that] maintained a rotten status quo that kept a vast majority in poverty in Latin America while favouring their rich friends."
In Brazil, the right-wing generals took power in 1964 and repressed all progressive movements, crushing trade unions and organisations of socially excluded. The election however of President Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party) in 2000, with a programme of moving the country away from US domination alongside combining economic growth with anti-poverty measures, has dramatically changed the country. Whilst a decade ago many in the European and U.S. international media saw Lula as an extreme left-winger who would be unable to govern effectively, 24 million Brazilians have since been lifted out of poverty.
Due its size, these welcome developments have much significance beyond Brazil itself, but are also crucially one reflection of trends across Latin America - to differing degrees - away from neo-liberalism. As we face the cuts agenda of the ConDem coalition here in Britain, it can be a source of great inspiration - to the labour movement and beyond - that the mantra of 'there is no alternative' to cuts to public services and the 'free market' has lost its grip in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Eyewitness to Venezuela: Democracy & Social Progress
In October, I was lucky enough to be an election observer to National Assembly elections in Venezuela, in many ways the country that was the first to start this shift to the left across much of the continent when President Chávez was elected in 1998.
In these elections, while - against a backdrop of 12 years in power, worldwide economic recession and a united opposition - the Socialist Party did not poll as well as in some previous elections, it remained the party with the biggest support and a majority of seats. This was therefore the 14th out of 15 elections won by his coalition of supporters since 1998, all certified as free and fair by international bodies.
I was also able to see first hand the reasons for these electoral victories, and how during the past 12 years in Venezuela people's lives have been transformed. Free healthcare is being provided to 17 million Venezuelans for the first time with 20,000 new doctors employed. Millions have benefited from the expansion of education - with over 1.5 million learning to read and write, eradicating illiteracy.
Whilst in 1998 half of the Venezuelan population lived in poverty, with 21.6% living in extreme poverty, now millions are benefiting from a wide range of inspiring government social programmes, known as missions, aimed at reducing poverty and inequality; with the government redistributing to the majority of people the country's vast oil resources and revenues.
Less well known - but of great interest - are the huge steps forward in improving people's rights at work and defending their jobs - including many policies similar to those that trade unionists here campaign for and need all the more in these days of Conservative government and economic crisis. Venezuela has accomplished the following:
It has made outsourcing illegal, Increased pay for workers - the minimum wage is the highest in Latin America, Passed laws enabling the government to impose financial penalties on companies which do not jointly agree settlements with unions if there is a dispute and large scale redundancies can be reversed by the government. Made certain privatisations illegal and expanded the public sector, Removed previous obstacles to union membership, which has risen from 9% to over 23%. Improved pension provisions; with over 1.5 million now having a pension, from just 120,000 previously.
In the last few years - against the backdrop of global recession - Venezuelan state income has fallen dramatically, primarily due to falling oil prices. Despite this, this year, almost 46 percent of the government's budget is allocated to social spending such as health and education - with the government making a conscious political choice to not punish working people and the poorest for a global economic catastrophe that was not of their making.
There was, for example, recently a massive demonstration of university students from poorer backgrounds in Venezuela in favour of government attempts to expand education - what a contrast to recent events here!
Of course, these changes in countries such as Venezuela and Brazil have been deeply resented by conservative and right-wing forces elites in those countries and by those internationally that have lost out in the process of change, including US multinationals amongst many others.
Recently, it has become clear that such forces now seek to roll back social progress. In 2009, there was the successful military coup against Honduras' elected President Zelaya. Then, in 2010, right-wing elements hostile to the government in Ecuador kidnapped and tried to oust (and kill) the President, although they were not successful, with the people going onto the streets to demand the return of their President and parts of the army securing his release.
For progressives here in Europe, both learning from the Left in Latin America - and supporting them against forces seeking to halt their advance both domestically and internationally - is therefore of great importance.