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Home > English > AI and the WSF > Reflections on the III Americas Social Forum, Guatemala

Social Forum of the Americas

Reflections on the III Americas Social Forum, Guatemala

Saturday 1 November 2008, by Michael Leon Guerrero and Cindy Wiesner

The 3rd Americas Social Forum (ASF3) convened October 7-12, 2008 in Guatemala City was an important and exciting benchmark for the global social forum process. It was grounded by its grassroots nature with strong participation of peasants, women, and indigenous peoples, and by the dialogues and debates of alternatives to neoliberal capitalism based on actual experience. We would like to share what we see as some of the key characteristics of ASF3 that marked the event as an important advance for the overall World Social Forum (WSF) process.

The central role of indigenous peoples and women – thousands of the indigenous people were represented from throughout Guatemala and the region. Many of them integrated into the National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples and Campesinos (CONIC), Waqib Kej, the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) and broader alliances such as the Confederation of Latin American Peasant Organizations (CLOC) and Via Campesina. The Central Plenary: "Failures of Capitalism: Our Struggle for Land Reform and the Integration of Peoples to the ALBA" was represented by all indigenous panelists, Daniel Pascual from CNOC, Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network, Moira Millán, Frente Mapuche y Campesino de Argentina and Mirallay Painemal, Mapuche de Chile, CLOC, Via Campesina. Indigenous communities throughout Guatemala are under attack by multinational corporations and the government for mineral resources, water and transportation infrastructure. This was a common theme throughout the Americas reflected in the workshops and debates.

Local, regional and international women’s organizations had a strong and visible presence at the forum – groups like the Sector de Mujeres from Guatemala, Mesoamericanas en Resistencia, Las Dignas from El Salvador, Health Network of Women in Latin American and the Caribbean (RSMLAC) with representation from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, and the World March of Women, which has been one of the central movement networks in the social forum process. The dialogues reflected the political advancement of feminist theory beyond the right to one’s body or the right to choose. Slogans, banners, literature, and workshops, consistently integrated the theme that the fight for sovereignty is a fight for one’s body and one’s territory/land and that feminist struggles include the fight against capitalism, racism, patriarchy and homophobia.

Feminists also generated one of the major debates within the forum as strong declarations were made denouncing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua for its ban on abortion rights. This was a concession of the Sandinista government to establish a coalition with the Catholic Church that could hold power in the country. Some local organizers and Sandinista supporters criticized the denunciation, asserting that the debate should not have been brought before the ASF.

The sharpening of common struggles – at the beginning of the decade, neoliberalism was symbolized by global financial institutions like the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G-8 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Largely due to the success of the global justice movement, these initiatives have either been defeated or stalled. The FTAA was declared dead and buried by Hugo Chavez and other Latin American Presidents in November, 2005 in Mar de Plata, WTO negotiations have met strong popular resistance and is currently in limbo, the IMF and WB have lost much of their financing and political influence.

In the absence of these common targets, however, the social movements have found it increasingly difficult to define common points of reference. Many of the movements reverted to local and national struggles against new bilateral trade agreements, national elections and other local fights. The overall themes defined by ASF3 helped to reveal and sharpen common trends, primary among these were:

 The militarization of the Americas. With the expansion of U.S. military bases, the revival of the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet, and an increase in covert operations by the U.S. against Venezuela and Bolivia, the fledgling Leftist governments face a renewed assault by U.S. imperial aggression.

 Bilateral trade agreements – Both the U.S. and Europe have begun to engage in negotiations for trade agreements with individual nations like Peru and Colombia, and regions such as Central America and the Andes.

 Environmental justice and sovereignty – Communities throughout the Americas are under attack for exploitation of energy, minerals, water and other resources. This is intensifying health and environmental impacts as well as global warming.

 Control over resources – militarization of the Americas accompanies the overall strategies of the U.S. and Europe to lock down control over vital natural resources. Trade agreements are accompanied by energy and security agreements like the Security and Prosperity Partnership, the Mérida accords, and the Plan Puebla Panamá. These pacts include massive infrastructure projects to move water, energy and minerals north, while the trade agreements move products south to the markets opened by the trade agreements.

 Criminalization of social movements – in addition to the mobilization of armed forces, internal security laws are being adopted by Latin American governments modeled after the U.S. Patriot Act and Homeland Security. Political resistance to neoliberal strategies are being violently repressed. Several movement organizers at the ASF3 noted that interrogations and monitoring of organizations, as well as political assassinations are increasing. An assassination attempt was made on one of the coordinators of ASF3 3 weeks before the forum convened. As Hector de la Cueva of the Mexican Network Against Free Trade (RMALC) recently commented: "the face of neoliberalism is now militarism."

Another World in Practice: Debate about concrete alternatives to neoliberalism and global capitalism

The central purpose of the social forum process is to define alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and throughout the globe, for a moment the social movements were all that stood in the way of the march of neoliberalism. Mass mobilizations were key in challenging the neoliberal juggernaut at the turn of the century, but it was clear that resistance had to be matched by a process to define alternatives to capitalism and the failed models of Soviet socialism. The World Social Forum (WSF) heralded that "Another World is Possible" and established a political broad and strategically diverse "open space" to define this other world. Yet discussions and debates tended to be theoretical exercises, lofty and ambiguous declarations, or strategic responses to struggles.

The latter half of the decade saw the emergence of electoral victories for the Left in a number of countries, particularly in Latin America: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Christine and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vazquez in Uruguay, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Raúl Castro in Cuba. Although these Presidents represent a broad political spectrum from the center-left to revolutionary ideology, they are generally aligned in challenging the neoliberal agenda that imposes privatization of public resources, domination of the market in determining social and political relationships, deregulation of laws that protect the public and the environment, and reduction of the government’s role to supporting corporate power.

The presence of most of the governments was strongly felt, although not officially (keeping in accordance with social forum principles). Two factors made their presence even more significant: 1) the backdrop of the ongoing collapse of the US financial sector, and 2) discussion about these Left experiments based on concrete experience and practice, not just on theory and ideology.

Alberto Acosta, President of the National Constituent Assembly of Ecuador, arrived with the new Ecuadorian constitution fresh in hand. The Constitution is founded in the concept of "buen vivir" or "quality of life" guaranteeing basic rights of all Ecuadorians to basic services such as health, education, water and electricity. They also establish the concept of "universal citizenship" meaning that all those who live within the borders of Ecuador, although not citizens, enjoy the same benefits of citizens.

Acosta said in a panel on the new socialist governments: "There will not be one recipe, we must all respond to our unique situations." He also spoke of the need to establish a "dynamic relationship between the market, the government and society." Acosta’s vision concedes that the market is important to the economy, but that it "must be in service to society, not the other way around. Similarly, all power cannot be centralized within the government. "We must humanize the government and civilize the market."

Evo Morales was scheduled to speak at the forum, but is currently confronting the challenge of the wealthy white oligarchs in the Media Luna region of Bolivia, who are fighting to maintain control of land, oil and gas. Morales has nationalized these resources in order to redistribute revenues to the entire population of Bolivia. In a statement to the ASF3, Morales also defined principles of "quality of life" as the agenda for Bolivia, challenging capitalism and imperialist exploitation of the Americas.

Defining "socialism for the 21st century", named by Hugo Chavez at the 2nd ASF in 2006, has become the new challenge for the emerging governments as well as the social movements. In a workshop packed with organizers and activists throughout the Americas, social movement representatives from Chile, Cuba, Brazil, and the U.S. spoke about the new opportunities presented by the Bolivarian Alternatives to the Americas (ALBA), a model of economic integration established as an alternative to the "free" trade agreements being imposed by the U.S. and Europe. The ALBA has now been signed by 8 countries (Honduras signed as the workshop was happening), which agree to share resources in a cooperative way. The ALBA is primarily anchored by Venezuela and Cuba who exchange oil and technical assistance for doctors and teachers respectively. The ALBA also makes room for participation of social movements through a special advisory committee, which is unheard of in other trade regimes.

However, the ALBA has not generated universal support. Indigenous communities are concerned about the agreement and what integration will mean. Despite the participation of Evo Morales and the Bolivian government in the ALBA process, many indigenous nations remain marginalized from it. In one of the large gatherings, an indigenous representative said, "this little word (integration) usually means that we lose our land and resources".

Challenges Moving Forward

Two key challenges face the evolution of the socialist experiments and the social movements in the Americas.

1) The need to assure that indigenous leadership is central to the process. Socialism for the 21st century cannot be realized without a true incorporation of indigenous thought, practice and vision where such a large percentage of the Americas is indigenous. Ecuador is one country that is grappling with this as their Constitution envisions a "plurinational" state.

2) The need for the feminization of the movement and a central role for queer and transgender people. Overcoming patriarchal leadership models will be key to building true democratic practice and allow for vital diverse leadership to flourish. 3) The need for African descendant populations to also have central leadership in the process. This has yet to be effectively addressed. Hopefully the location of the next WSF in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil will mark a turning point in participation by African descendants, as the ASF3 was for indigenous peoples.

ASF3 made great strides on these fronts, but there is still much work to be done. Although diverse representation and leadership in the process was strong, there was still a noticeable disconnect between sectors. Women’s movements primarily congregated around the Women’s tent, indigenous peoples centered around the IGLU (University building) or the Campesin@s Tent, social movements activities converged in the S10 building as did the youth. There were few moments where all of these different forces came together. When it did happen, the debates were dynamic, and challenging. The Social Movements Assembly was a reflection of this, and captured the overall spirit, character and substance of the forum. The closing march and rally were also a call for the deepening diversity of the Left. An important example is a leaflet put out announcing the closing march by the National Guatemalan Campesin@ Alliance- CNOC. It was titled: A Call to March on October 12. Day of Resistance for Campesinos, Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Descendants, Lesbians, Unions and Popular Movements.

The Process of the Americas

Participation from the U.S. was also key in ASF3. The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance brought 40 representatives from 20 grassroots organizations. Southwest Workers Union and the Indigenous Environmental Network co-organized workshops on the "Wall of Death" on the U.S.-Mexico border, climate change and environmental justice, the National Domestic Workers Alliance laid the groundwork to internationalize their network and organized two workshops. GGJ also held a workshop giving an overview of grassroots struggles in the U.S. The delegation met with representatives from the Hemispheric Social Alliance, which was established to challenge free trade policies throughout the Americas, COMPA, and the World March of Women. GGJ will seek to deepen relationships and build working partnerships with these groups.

In addition, the U.S. Social Forum National Planning Committee sent representatives and organized a reception to honor the Guatemala Facilitation Committee and the Hemispheric Council (HC) – the two bodies tasked with organizing the forum process. GGJ and Southwest Workers Union also had representation on the HC, participating in planning meetings over the course of the past year. GGJ had a staff person in Guatemala a week before the event to help coordinate with the local facilitation committee.

"The US Social Forum and ASF3 mark the closing of the loop in U. S. participation in the Americas social movements," commented Joel Suarez of the Martin Luther King Center in La Havana, Cuba, "Now we can truly talk about a process of the Americas."

In an op/ed piece for the Prensa Libre, Ileana Alamilla eloquently described the Americas Social Forum as a politically significant event in the struggle against tyranny. In her words, the forum was triumphant in "liberating the words that for centuries of silence have been held hostage." In Guatemala, we all witnessed a glimpse of what another America looks like and most important what it is saying to the world.

Michael Leon Guerrero and Cindy Wiesner are Co-Coordinators of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ): For more information about GGJ’s delegation to the Americas Social Forum, visit