Highlights of the 2nd Social Forum of the Americas

Recuerdos de la tierra Bolivariana! Memories from the land of Simón Bolívar!

We made our way from the Maiquetia airport by way of a 3 hour bus ride on winding roads through the Venezuelan Andes and arrived in Caracas on Monday evening - only 16 hours after leaving Boston! The excitement of the Social Forum of the Americas could already be felt on the streets of Caracas. Thousand of people had begun arriving from distant corners of South, Central and North America and even some from Europe. Some came by air, but many more came by bus, traveling many miles and many hours to be able to participate in this incredible gathering of people from urban and rural community organizations, social movements — including networks working on trade issues, small farmers and landless workers, indigenous peoples, industrial and service workers, women, youth and students, housing and homeless groups.

I spent the major part of the first day here working with Forjando Alianzas Norte Sur (ForAl) on the continuation of a dialogue between U.S. funder groups and representatives from Latin American networks and social movements. Those present decided to give some priority to supporting the fight against the Bush administration's restrictive guidelines affecting international grant making. Participants referred to this work as yet another form of resistance against the many forms of repression of social movements that the Bush administration has invented.

Then it was off to a march for peace and against war and increasing militarization that was the opening action and ceremony of the Forum. As the march was forming we found many of Grassroots International's (GRI) partners from Mexico, Central and South America gathered around the Via Campesina banner.

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We were greeted warmly by everyone, offered the now familiar green Via Campesina kerchiefs, and invited to march with the Via in recognition of Grassroots' work in support of small producers, indigenous landholders and landless workers' right to land and water and other basic resources needed to ensure the basic right to food and work for many of the world's hungriest and poorest rural people.

As we began to form the lines for the march I turned around and found that we were followed by a large red banner held by a delegation of Boston activists — the banner thanked Venezuela for the oil that Venezuela through CITGO has agreed to sell at a reduced cost to ensure that low- income Boston residents will have affordable heating oil this winter.

 

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As I moved to the front of the Via Campesina contingent to take a picture, I found that right in front of us was a contingent of Puerto Rican activists including friends who I have known for more than 30 years. Some of the most important relationships I have made during my lifetime were all present in one city block in Caracas, Venezuela. This is part of the magic of the World Social Forum.

 

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When after marching for about 12 kilometers we reached the stage where the opening speeches and cultural events would take place, I saw that Juana Ferrer of CONAMUCA — the National Confederation of Rural Women's Organizations in the Dominican Republic - was greeting the crowd on behalf of the Via Campesina. Juana, a dynamic organizer and energetic speaker was recently elected coordinator of the CLOC — Coordination of Latin American Rural Organizations. It is of no small significance that an Afro-Latina woman has been chosen to coordinate and speak on behalf of one of Latin America's most vibrant social movements.

 

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I quickly pressed my way forward through the tightly knit crowd and finally made it to the front - near the stage. After taking a couple of pictures for the GRI website I noticed that standing next to me was a gentleman from the Mississippi Workers Center, also Ruben Solis, an old friend from the Southwest Workers Association, and a young man named Emery, whom I later realized was a young friend I had met through Grassroots' former education and outreach coordinator, Nisrin Elamin. Emery is now working with Project South. All of them had come here from the U.S. as part of delegation called Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ). The GGJ organizations are sponsoring several workshops - among them a workshop to tell Latin Americans about the struggles of workers and farmers from the Gulf Coast of the U.S. who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina - they entitled that workshop "The Right to Return".

 

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It seems that people here were as eager to learn that there are people in the U.S. who are not happy with the policies and actions of the Bush government as we are to learn about and understand the struggles of the people of Latin America.

Later that evening, Camille Chalmers, veteran progressive economist and social justice activist from Haiti, who is the Executive Director of the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development (PAPDA) a Grassroots International partner organization in Haiti spoke to the crowd of thousands gathered at the end of the march. He stressed the fact that the presence of thousand of international troops on the ground in Haiti has not improved security for ordinary Haitians — and that the millions that have been spent on maintaining military presence might better have been spent on social programs and the reconstruction of his nation. Camille called out for the solidarity of Latin American social movements to oppose the occupation of Haiti by Latin American troops on behalf of the United Nations and the United States, and for social movements to push for the cancellation of Haiti's debt.

Corrina and I then walked another few kilometers in the dark back to the nearest metro station — by the way the metro in Caracas is fantastic — clean, modern, and efficient but almost excruciatingly full at all times of day and night.

This fantastically busy day was followed by four more days of dawn till dusk activities which due to how spread out the Forum venues were, meant many kilometers walked each day. I will try to present some highlights of some of the panels and events that I attended.

Day two began with the opening Assembly of the Social Movements of the Americas. The panel presentation began with representative from labor, indigenous, women, youth organizations and representative of networks working on peace, trade, health education, housing and the debt among others. After the opening presentations the moderator exhorted those present to remember that the Social Forum is a working space for the social movements to share information, experiences and learning about successes and challenges, but that it is also a propositional space where social movement activists can and should propose coordinated campaigns, define priorities and devise a working calendar for 2006. We were reminded that unlike the Social Forum, which does not seek to create a final declaration or document or calendar of coordinated work, the Assembly of Social Movements does seek to use this space as a vehicle to generate a working agenda and calendar for the year. Among the results of their deliberations is the affirmation to continue supporting the campaign propelled by the Via Campesina to get agriculture out of the WTO — but to that call was added the campaigns to get water, health and education out of the WTO also! The working calendar of the Latin American Social Movements for 2006 proposes four central campaigns, or hemispheric mobilizations, among a longer list of coordinated campaigns and actions, as follows:

1. Coordinated Mobilizations against the occupation of Iraq on March 18th 2006.
2. Impede the conclusion of the Doha Round of the WTO - for the next 3 months, while the WTO undertakes complex negotiations to complete the DOHA round the social movements have called upon each other to undertake coordinated actions to pressure national governments to turn back the failed Hong Kong agreement before the WTO General Counsel Meeting in May 2006. This represents the coordination of all networks working on trade regimes effecting agriculture water and services.
3. Protest the G-8 Summit, in July 2006, in St. Petersburg, Russia — responding to the call from a social movement in Russia to all social movements who work for peace, democracy and social justice.
4. Protest the World Bank and IMF Summit in September 2006. In support of a call from the social movements of the peoples of the global south, take up a plan for direct actions in front of the offices of the World Bank and the IMF in every country in September 2006 to protest the illegitimacy of the debt and to affirm that the peoples of the global south are in fact the creditors of a huge historical social, environmental and ecological debt owed to them by the governments of the North. The peoples of the South demand restitution and reparations.

Throughout the week there were hundreds of panels on peace and militarization, trade and the impacts of the WTO on basic resources, on indigenous rights and knowledge, on basic services, on biodiversity and the environment, and on local communities working together for survival. There were sharp presentations pointing out the ways that the World Bank and the IMF had set the stage for the WTO through privatizations and the weakening of national governments and national sovereignty. These all form part of what Latin Americans refer to as "neoliberalism" the prevailing economic strategy imposed upon the countries and people of the global South. The same global South where people have organized in converging social movements formed to fight for basic human rights and a better future — where people believe that a better world is not only possible but necessary.

Throughout the week there was a lot of talk about the ALBA - Bolivarian Alternatives for Latin American - a proposal put forward by Cuba and Venezuela just in time for the Summit of the Peoples of Latin America held in Mar del Plata Argentina to coincide with the Summit of the Americas (a summit of governments) in November 2005. ALBA was addressed in quite a few of the panel presentations with discussion on a broad range of topics of interest to a variety of social movements from energy and the environment to debt and trade. The ALBA is proposed as a Latin American alternative to the FTAA - or the ALCA as the FTAA is known in Latin America. ALBA proposes a different type of regional free trading community and advocates a socially-oriented trade block rather than one based on the logic of free trade oriented to deregulated profit maximization. ALBA proposes a regional integration in solidarity with the economically weakest countries, with the aim of achieving a free trade area in which all of its members could benefit.

But of course many questions about ALBA were raised, such as:

Will ALBA be negotiated by national governments or will there be inclusion of social movements and citizens in the designs of the ALBA?

Will it rely on exchange of resources and products built under the existing logic of capitalist economic development?

Will the development model involve a regional replication of northern dominated development or will it involve alternative development strategies, social inclusion, solidarity economies and other progressive proposals and alternatives that social movements have been envisioning and developing over the past decade?

There was a lot of buzzing in the hallways about what the ALBA might really mean — but it is the beginning of a concrete alternative that goes far beyond the Mercosur. The social movements throughout Latin America are preparing to engage actively in the debates that will shape this proposed alternative regional trading block. The ALBA presents a vision of great hope for Latin America as do the recent elections of left-leaning governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela that some U.S. media are now referring to as the "pink tide".

The social movements' final declaration held out the fact that these electoral victories would not likely have been possible without the continuous education, mobilization and pressure for change led by the social movements. Yet, people are under no illusions about what these governments might or might not achieve in the face of U.S. domination and increased militarization in the region — unless there is an active and mobilized citizenship. The social movements present from most countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean reiterated the need to maintain their autonomy from any and all governments and to continue to educate, mobilize and pressure for social justice.

A strange, but key, moment during the week was the social movements' meeting with President Hugo Chavez, held in a stadium where thousands of Venezuelans and visitors alike gathered to hear the president's message. It was high theatre - with 3 large video screens that projected the images of the stage so that those of us who were several hundred feet away would not miss anything. There were opening místicas and fabulous musical presentations to gear us up for the main event. On the ground floor of the stadium — the orchestra seats - the honored guests were seated, but instead of government officials and well known intellectuals, the honored guests at this event were representatives and delegations of social movements from all across Latin America.

Those who shared the stage with the president were also members of various social movements from the Caribbean and Latin America and even from the United States. To Chavez's right was Juana Ferrer from the CLOC and to his left was Blanca Chancoso, renowned indigenous leader, also present was Camille Chalmers of PAPDA. The two presenters that opened the program were a Brazilian man from the MST of Brazil and a young woman from the ATC of Nicaragua — both members of the CLOC-Via Campesina ( and GRI partners) and the US representative was none other than Cindy Sheehan — whom Chavez embraced warmly when he arrived on stage.

During his lengthy speech Chavez spoke of Cindy Sheehan's courage in facing up to Bush - calling Bush "Mr. Danger" and Sheehan "Mrs. Hope." Chavez spoke of hope for a new kind of socialism emerging from Latin America with both African and indigenous roots - a new socialism for the 21 century — that could be built throughout the hemisphere. Chavez went on to mention that all Latin Americans must seek solidarity and help from the honest and courageous people in the United States, courageous people like Cindy Sheehan, who also suffer as a result of the Bush government's policies.


Grassroots International and our supporters form part of that group of honest and courageous North Americans who believe that another world is possible and that we have a role to play in making it happen. Let's globalize hope!