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"We are building socialism of the 21st century"

Monday 20 February 2006, by Judy REBICK

"We are building socialism of the 21st century, socialism with participatory democracy," the young political science student told me at the beginning of the opening demonstration of the seventh World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela.

This is one of three social forums this year in what they call the Polycentric Social Forum. One just wound up in Bamako, Mali and another will take place in Karachi, Pakistan in March. This is the forum of the Americas but the focus is Latin America.

The march was a lot less colourful and the event a lot more chaotic but the political discussion is deeper and more provocative. As one speaker put it in one of the opening panels, "We (in Latin America) have moved from the defensive against neo-liberalism to the offensive."

But there is no cheerleading here for the election of socialist parties across Latin America. And when they say socialist, they mean socialist. The election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, a social democrat who supports neo-liberal policies is barely mentioned, nor is the achievement of being the first female leader in Latin America.

There is some deep thinking and there are open-ended discussions about the experience of the last ten or 15 years in Latin America moving from the hopeful defeat of dictatorships through devastating neo-liberal restructuring towards an astonishing rise of the mass movements. From the Zapatistas in Mexico, to the landless movement in Brazil, to the Piquetaros in Argentina, to the rise of indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Columbia and, of course, Bolivia, the political balance of forces has been changed in favour of the poor and dispossessed. This is the reason, according to many speakers, for the election of left-wing governments - but now what?

As one Canadian labour leader attending the event put it, "We are left with more questions than answers." But the questions point the way, I think, to new political thinking about social change.

"If we look throughout history," said Ricardo Gebrim of the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, "we will see that no political party, no matter how left-wing they are, has been able to take political power without succumbing to the dynamics of electoralism and moving to the right. What we need to build is a powerful united political movement, like in Bolivia, that will take power at the right revolutionary moment."

Margarita Lopez-Maya of University of Venezuela says that when a revolutionary movement comes to power it has to destroy the neo-liberal state and create new institutions, like constituent assemblies. Can this be achieved by peaceful means, she asks?

"Pacific solutions depend on the lead actors and their moral strength and commitment to peace," she responds, "and also on the willingness of the élites to accept compromise."

On a visit to a barrio organized by Alternatives , a partner deeply involved in the organization of this forum, I got some idea of what they mean by these new institutions. "We mobilize the people to identify the needs in the community," a young organizer told us. "The government supports the solutions that we decide upon."

This community that started organizing in this way before Hugo Chavez came to power is more advanced than most. There is a food co-op, a health clinic and a communications centre, also run co-operatively. This is the socialism of the people, participatory and decentralized, that the Caracas student was talking about.

What the relationship is between mass movements and electoral politics is a huge topic of discussion here. Some argue that political parties will inevitably fail and others that social movements are too limited in their focus to successfully take power. But unlike debates on the left in past generations, the debates here at the social forum are thoughtful and engaging rather than confrontational and polarized. The feeling is that Latin America is in the midst of an historic moment of revolutionary change and they don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past that led to defeats of the left throughout Latin America in the ’70s and ’80s.

One of the most inspiring talks so far was from legendary indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso <> from Ecuador. She talked about the economic and social solutions that indigenous peoples bring. She explained the impact of neo-liberalism better than anyone I have ever heard.

"They want to base society only on the economy and also on the idea that only certain people are fit to rule. But they are responsible for these terrible circumstances...They have forced people to migrate and disintegrate their families. It is not that we are bad parents. It is that we don’t have stable work to take care of our children...They try and divide us. In Ecuador they told us that Peru was taking things away from us but it is the oil companies who are taking things away from us. We do not swallow these stories. We know what is really happening is that they want the best slices of the cake...What we want is a diversity of dignity."

She explained that indigenous people have survived 500 years for a reason and it’s not just because of their culture. "We have smart people; we know the reality better than anyone. We have economic solutions. We have barter like Chavez trading oil for Cuban doctors. We practice reciprocity. When you need something you give it without asking anything in return, like when Chavez offered help during Hurricane Katrina. We extend a hand to one in need.

"In Spanish you call that ’solidarity’ like the support that Cuba has offered all of us despite the blockade and economic hardship they suffer. And we have the idea of joint work, volunteer work that is not an obligation but a call to conscience to build together a community framework. These ideas and others like them can be the basis of a new economy, a plurinational, pluricultural state that we can build together."

"Let us jointly build a new power, a people’s power," she concluded, "to change the system, to get the things we really want and to make our dreams come true."