This was the third meeting of the Americas Social Forum, and the first one in Central America. It first met in Quito, Ecuador in 2004, and in Caracas, Venezuela in 2006 as part of that year’s Polycentric World Social Forum. Although somewhat smaller than the previous two gatherings, the participation of 350 organizations in pulling together a wide range of events meant that it was a very rich meeting. Organizer Jorge Coronado noted that the forum needs to move with current realities, and that despite problems with a lack of funds and translations (the forum was a primarily monolingual Spanish event), the social forum process is "more alive than ever."
The forum ran from October 7-12, bridging two symbolically important dates. On October 8, 1967, Che Guevara was captured in combat in Bolivia. Sympathizers have subsequently celebrated that anniversary as the Day of the Heroic Guerrilla. True to form, the first full day’s activities closed with a special celebration of Che’s life. On the main stage in the Plaza of Martyrs at the University of San Carlos where the forum’s events were held, Cuban musicians played Nueva Trova music. During the day, Cuban veterans talked about Che’s life on the school’s Plaza of the Heroic Guerrilla, with a mural of Che and the Americas overlooking their activities. As with all of the forums in the Americas, red Che t-shirts were ubiquitous throughout the event.
Organizers intentionally organized the forum to culminate on October 12. Elites have historically celebrated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas as the Día de la Hispanidad, or Day of the Race. Leading up to the quincentennial of that voyage in 1992, however, Indigenous peoples began to commemorate it as a day of resistance.
Each social forum assumes its own character, and Jorge Coronado of the Hemispheric Commission from the Americas Social Forum, identified the Guatemala meeting as "the forum of resistance of the continental people’s movement." Coronado observed that participants debated "some of the most pressing issues that face social movement struggles: free trade agreements, neoliberalism, and the issue of mining, which affects rural and indigenous communities."
In addition to being a forum of resistance, the Guatemala meeting was an overwhelmingly Indigenous event. Because of the costs and complications of travel, most participants naturally come from the host country. Guatemala is the most Indigenous country in Latin America, with about 80 percent of the population belonging to one of 25 different Maya groups. As a result, Maya languages and colorful local dress were common throughout the forum.
In March 2007, Joel Suárez from the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba, invited delegates at the Third Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of the Americas to the 2008 forum. "For it to be successful," Suárez emphasized, "the forum must have an Indigenous and female face."
Last week, Suárez noted that "we tried to have a different kind of forum, one with a strong presence of women, Indigenous peoples, young people, and campesinos. I think we have seen a strong mobilization of Indigenous social organizations and young people, even children have had a presence in this meeting. Overall we are feeling really good about the event."
Indigenous and Peasants
Indigenous events at the forum were split along two different axis, betraying a lingering Indigenous/peasant or ethnicist/class division that emerged in a 1991 anti-quincentennial conference in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Organizations affiliated with Via Campesina met outside under the "carpa campesina" or peasant tent, whereas those more strongly identifying with the "Indigenous" wing of the movement gathered in an auditorium called the Iglu (Igloo).
Some delegates drifted back and forth between the two events, and some leaders presented at both events, but for the most part participants stayed where they had their organizational affiliation. The peasant tent had more banners and rhetorical slogans, whereas in the Iglu speakers disposed with much of those trappings. Beyond that, on the surface and in terms of content the two events seemed remarkably similar. Both had a ceremonial alter in front of the lead table, and both were heavily attended by people speaking Indigenous languages and wearing traditional clothing.
Discussions revolved around common issues of the rights to land and water and food sovereignty. The Via Campesina group emphasized on going issues of agrarian reform, but that issue was also present in the Iglu. Blanca Chancoso, an Indigenous leader from Ecuador and long a key player in the social forum process, pointed to the importance of land and resources in social movement struggles. "Water is not a commodity, water is life," she said. "We are also saying that land is not a commodity, land is life. The land is our mother and our mother is not a commodity."
Humberto Cholango, president of Ecuarunari, the movement of highland Kichwas in Ecuador, emphasized the broad nature of Indigenous struggles. "From a position of unity, we bring together other social forces, not only Indigenous peoples who have been excluded and abused," he said. "A large majority of compañeros and compañeras, young people, women, students, and workers are also victims of the neoliberal model."
This theme of unity and of linking struggles and bridging divides was a theme that ran throughout the forum. Even while many participants were happy to stay within their comfort zones, leaders were willing to participate on panels organized by others in order to strengthen and deepen alliances.
If the peasant tent’s main issue was agrarian reform, for the Iglu it was definitely plurinationalism, a topic that delegates repeatedly returned to over the course of four days of meetings.
The Guatemala forum came right on the heels of voters in Ecuador approving on September 28 a new constitution that embraced that country’s plurinational nature. As a result, that became a common topic of conversation at the Indigenous event. Ex-president of the constituent assembly Alberto Acosta is currently one of the Indigenous movement’s strongest allies in Ecuador, and he gave a rousing speech in support of plurinationalism at the inauguration of the forum on the evening of October 7 at the Plaza of Martyrs.
At a seminar on Indigenous resistance to neoliberalism, Humberto Cholango contrasted plurinationalism with pluriculturalism that tends to reinforce neoliberalism and the folklorization of Indigenous peoples. Plurinationalism, Cholango argued, was a broad political, social, and economic concept. It means fighting for a new political process, not just for a small representation in government, but for a new concept of state structures. He argued that plurinationalism opened up a path to a socialist state that would provide social justice for everyone in the country.
In addition to plurinationalism, "sumak kawsay" or living well, was a theme that ran throughout the Indigenous meetings and spread throughout the forum. Bolivia’s foreign relations minister David Choquehuanca had introduced this concept at the 2007 Indigenous summit in Guatemala. He noted that development plans look for a better life, but this results in inequality. Indigenous peoples, instead, look to how to live well, or "sumak kawsay" in Quechua. Choquehuanca emphasized the need to look for a culture of life.
Roberto Espinoza from the Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas (CAOI, or Andean Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations) emphasized "sumak kawsay" involved Indigenous values of reciprocity, and an emphasis on collective rather than individual rights. Benita Simón, a Maya delegate from the Guatemalan town of Huehuetenango, was one of many people who returned to that theme during the forum. "Good living for us is also taking the position of moving from actions of resistance to actions that allow us to take back power," she said.
During the forum, Indigenous organizations solidified their plans to hold the Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala (the Kuna name for the Americas) in Puno, Peru, the last week of May 2009. The meeting will begin with the second summit of Indigenous youth and the first summit of Indigenous women.
Indigenous peoples also discussed their participation in broader social forums, including the upcoming World Social Forum at the end of January 2009 in Belem, Brazil. Roberto Espinoza insisted that Indigenous peoples not only be a folkloric presence in these meetings, but be integrally involved with debates on substantive issues. There has been a problem of a lack of Indigenous representation on the International Council that organizes the broader World Social Forum.
Debates swirled around several issues of why that might be the case. Roberto Espinoza acknowledged that CAOI has been invited to site on the council, but with other pressing and more local issues it is often difficult to commit the resources necessary to attend these meetings. This reflects a broader problem with the social forum process, that it is often only those with the time, resources, and visas necessary to travel who attend them. Unfortunately, this all too often excludes precisely those whom the forum should embrace.
Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) who sits on the National Planning Committee of the United States Social Forum, however, found these efforts to bring Indigenous and peasant peoples into the planning of the forum an encouraging move. It adds a strength to the forum, he noted. While there are problems, they should not be insurmountable.
As Joel Suárez noted, the forum did have much more of a female face than many of the previous meetings. Women’s groups used the forum to build their ongoing struggles. Benita Simón declared in the Iglu "that the participation of Maya women from Huehuetenango in this space is part of a process, not a single event: our struggle will continue." Women’s organizations had their own tent, and a full range of activities.
At the forum, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, released a statement in support of Mesoamerican feminists. They urged government "protection and respect for the rights of women and feminist leaders." They expressed concern for the deteriorating situation of millions of women in Central America, particularly in regards to attacks on abortion rights and feminicide.
In particular, the Nobel Women’s Initiative pointed with alarm to growing state violence against feminists in Nicaragua, and in particular against long time leader Sofia Montenegro. Members of Montenegro’s organization, the Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres (MAM, Autonomous Women’s Movement) were present at the forum to make denunciations against Daniel Ortega’s government for these attacks. When Blanca Chancoso, for example, listed Nicaragua as part of the red tide sweeping Latin America, Gonzalo Carrión stood up to correct her, insisting that despite the historic association of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution with social justice the current government was not a leftwing government.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative stated with certainty that Another World Is Possible, "and that world must include gender equality and a life free of violence for all women." Women, they said, "are a central part of our dreams and actions to achieve a better world."
As a movement that emerged out of the global south, the United States has always played a relatively marginal role in the social forum process. Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ) has worked harder than any other organization to bridge that gap. Once again, they brought an energetic delegation of several dozen activists from the U.S. to the forum. Michael Leon Guerrero explains that GGJ was formed in 2002 as a vehicle to "build a different solidarity with social movements around the world where we can start to talk about, together develop joint strategies around how we deal with neoliberalism and the conditions that are facing our countries." As GGJ delegation member and scholar-activist Walda Katz-Fishman from Sociologists Without Borders says, the forum has become "an important space for bringing social movements together across sectors, across race, ethnicity, gender lines."
The forum helped connect broader issues to communities of struggle in the U.S. Maria Poblet, from Saint Peter’s Housing Committee says that "as an organization that works with immigrant Latinos, we have come here to Guatemala to be face to face with the conditions that cause people to migrate." She was inspired by her experiences at the forum, and in particular the spirit of resistance in Guatemala in the face of extreme violence and repression. "Here we are in Guatemala that presents to us the challenge saying after 200,000 people disappeared from our country and were killed, we are organizing this forum and we are inviting you to participate," Poblet says.
Stephanie Guilloud, Program Director of Project South worked on the United States Social Forum that met last summer in Atlanta. She says, "we are also here to connect to the forum organizers and look at the design, the structures of the flow of the organizing process so that we can really get in line with global movements that created the social forum." The sense of belonging to a common struggle across the Americas motivated many delegates from the north. Jerome Scott from the League of Revolutionaries for a New America summed it up with the statement that "we’re fighting a global enemy, and therefore we are going to have to have a global movement."
Tom Goldtooth is very concerned about what is happening in the United States. "We are witnessing the collapse of capitalism," he says. He came to Guatemala to join with other Indigenous peoples across that Americas in opposition to "a neoliberal system that is not working and continues to oppress our people." He encouraged participants at the forum not to forget Indigenous peoples who are often at the front lines of struggles against mineral extraction and other devastating impacts of capitalism. Rose Brewer of Afro-Eco echoed the importance of engaging these issues, particularly those concerning free trade. "These are issues that have sometimes have been addressed but it is very clear here that both south-to-south and south-to-north fights against the FTAA have been successful." Brewer further pointed to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) as an encouraging development.
By the time of the closing march on Sunday, many international delegates had already returned home. As a result, the march become a primarily Maya Guatemalan event. The best organized delegations were from the Via Campesina-affiliated Comité de Unidad Campesino (CUC, Committee of Peasant Unity) and Consejo Nacional de Indígenas y Campesinos (CONIC, National Council of Indigenous and Peasant Peoples).
The march was advertised as a continent march of resistance of Indigenous peoples and nationalities of Abya Yala (the Americas), but explicitly Indigenous organizations had a relatively minimal presence. For example, the Coordinación y Convergencia National Maya (Waqib’ Kej, or National Maya Coordination and Convergence) who had organized many of the Indigenous events had only a small delegation. CAOI, the primary co-organizer of events in the Iglu, was largely absent, with the significant exception of lead organizer Roberto Espinoza reading a document drafted at the meeting on the main stage at the closing rally.
The Third Indigenous Summit held in March 2007 similarly ended with a massive march on Guatemala City’s main square. At that closing rally, as the sun set and a gorgeous full moon rose over the national palace, organizers launched three hot air balloons, two with the rainbow colors of the Indigenous flag. As the 2008 rally drew to a close in the early afternoon, organizers similarly attempted to launch hot air balloons. Wind gusts caught the first one, and it began to burn as it rose in the air. The second one burned even before it got off of the launch pad.
The 2008 Americas Social Forum was unique and successful, but that does not mean that it does not still face challenges that need to be overcome. Nevertheless, social forums still have an important role to play, and the future of the social forum process is promising.
Contact Marc Becker at: firstname.lastname@example.org