From Pinochet’s Chile to Mexico today, Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn has a strong record of campaigning for social justice in Latin America.
On the one-year anniversary of the enforced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, protesters gathered outside the Mexican Embassy in London for four hours. During that time the UK Mexican consul stepped outside his door for just one minute. Why? To receive a letter from the newly elected leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn, delivered by London-based activists, expressing his deep concern about Mexico’s human rights situation.
As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mexico, Corbyn’s aim is to ensure human rights abuses there are not forgotten, and to re-evaluate UK-Mexico relations in light of Mexican security service involvement in such crimes in such crimes.
‘In Jeremy Corbyn our society has an international ally who won’t give up, because his heart is in it’, says a member of activist groups YoSoy132Londres and Justice Mexico Now. ‘We feel very happy and grateful. Not just for us, but also for the victims, their families, and the whole of Mexican society who suffer equally from state human rights violations.’
Corbyn has been campaigning for greater awareness of Latin American issues for well over 30 years, both inside and outside the House of Commons. After being elected as an MP in June 1983, it was just five weeks later that he first called on the UK government to reveal the extent of its aid to Central American countries that were implicated in gross human rights abuses.
Throughout the 1980s Corbyn repeatedly used his position in parliament to support those suffering at the hands of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, by condemning British arms sales to the Chilean military and pushing for greater security of human rights and opposition groups. This also included campaigning for the rights of Chilean refugees to claim asylum in the UK.
In 1998 when Pinochet was arrested in London for crimes against humanity, Corbyn played a leading role in the subsequent efforts to get him extradited to Spain to faces these charges.
Cristina Godoy-Navarrete, who arrived in the UK from Chile in 1975 as a political refugee, got to know Corbyn during the time Pinochet was detained in London when Corbyn organised a hearing at the Houses of Parliament where victims of torture, such as herself, recounted their experiences. ‘It has been so important to have somebody supporting human rights issues inside the Commons, otherwise they would have been completely forgotten’, she says. ‘He was working 24 hours a day. And it wasn’t to gain political support. He was doing it when it wasn’t cool. He did it because he is a man of conviction, and of principle.’
During his speech at the UK’s Latin America Conference in 2014, Corbyn highlighted the sense of hope felt in the re-election of President Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the election of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. He also stressed the need to stand in solidarity with Argentina as it faced attacks from exploitative vulture funds around the world.
‘There is so much we can learn from the history of Latin America’, he said. ‘From those people who have suffered so much, and who deserve our support and our solidarity. We need to learn from history, and learn that change is possible if we are strong and united.’
More recently, Corbyn’s longstanding relationship with Latin America has been recognised by a new Facebook page called Latinxs con Corbyn. The page was set up to reflect and encourage the UK Latin American community’s support for Corbyn’s Labour leadership bid and 2020 general election campaign. In the last few days before the election result was announced, the group arranged for him to address members of the Latin American community at a London rally that featured a range of community activists and musicians.
One of the event’s organisers was Carlos Cruz, a Colombian who heads the United Migrant Workers Education Project at the Unite trade union. ‘What he is doing is exactly what we are trying to do in Latin America. He is representing the interests of people who have no opportunities, who have been stripped of their dignity and their rights. He is bringing hope of a new future where we can reinvent politics and rebuild social mobility.’
Despite his overwhelming electoral mandate at the Labour leadership election, the resounding sentiment from both Corbyn and his supporters is that there is still a great amount of work to do. He stresses this is not a fight he can win on his own. Only with increased grassroots activism and support will Jeremy Corbyn have a hope of pushing Latin America to the fore not just as Labour leader but also as Prime Minister.
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue two (Winter 2015)