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Social Forum of the Americas:
We demand justice across the Americas

August 6, 2004 | Page 11

SOME 10,000 people attended the first-ever Social Forum of the Americas (SFA), held in Quito, Ecuador, on July 25-30. Attendees came from throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond to take up discussions on the effects of imperialism and the Washington-backed agenda of free-market reforms known as neoliberalism--as well as the struggle for democratic control over natural resources, such as water and gas. The rights of indigenous people and of gays and lesbians provided a special focus for the SFA, as did the U.S. militarization of Central and South America.

TOM LEWIS and LANCE SELFA report from Quito.

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ECUADOR WAS a perfect site for the first Social Forum of the Americas. Everyday reality sharply illustrates the forum's main themes of economic inequality and social injustice.

Thus, the SFA opened on July 25, six weeks into a hunger strike of hundreds of retirees demanding an increase in their meager pensions. Two days later, the hunger strikers won a commitment from President Lucio Gutiérrez to provide more for pensions by raising taxes on liquor, beer and cigarettes.

The human cost of the 43-day strike was high, with 18 deaths among the retirees. The hunger strike--whose encampment in Quito stood only blocks from the main SFA sites--never strayed far from the minds of participants.

Neither did the ever-present reality of the huge U.S. military presence in Ecuador. The U.S. Southern Command is headquartered in Manta, approximately 200 miles from Quito, on Ecuador's northern coast.

An ad appearing during the SFA in Quito's main newspaper, El Comercio, invited bids on the construction of a new dock and support facilities for a U.S. Marine battalion in San Lorenzo. The contractor is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--whose project, from the point of view of many Ecuadorians, will only further erode their nation's sovereignty.

The urgency of resisting U.S. imperialism could be felt throughout the forum--for example, at a 150-strong session on "Under the Eagle: U.S. Imperialism in Latin America," sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change, publishers of the International Socialist Review.

As part of the forum, more than 10,000 demonstrators from 44 countries took to the streets of Quito on July 28 in a protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas and other national and regional trade agreements that the U.S. is pursuing throughout Latin America. Several confrontations with police, including a skirmish in front of the U.S. embassy, broke out at the end of the march. A half-dozen protestors were injured--one seriously.

Other buildings targeted for protest were Repsol, the Spanish-based multinational oil company, and the Ecuadorian foreign trade ministry. The march confirmed the assessment of Atilio Boron, head of the prestigious Latin American Social Sciences Council, at one of the FSA's sessions.

"Neoliberalism has attained almost all of its goals," Boron said, "but it has failed. It hasn't been able to contain protests from below." Instead," he said, "neoliberalism has created new forces of resistance."

Political debate at the SFA often focused on whether capturing state power should be an objective of Latin America's social movements. The view that the national governments can be circumvented--or that they have become irrelevant to the project of social transformation--was prevalent.

Against this view, Belgian agrarian activist Francois Houtart argued, "If changing the world without taking power means disdaining the importance of the political struggle, then it is purely a utopian formulation, an illusion. In fact, it reflects the way neoliberal ideology tries to eliminate politics by relegating everything to the market. We cannot underestimate the political field."

The dominant view among participants was that the nation-state should recover its former role as guarantor of social welfare by reversing neoliberal privatizations and funding jobs, pensions and basic services. This nostalgia for state-run capitalism was challenged by a minority that proposed a revolutionary socialist alternative.

This group pointed to the failures of politicians such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva and Bolivia's presidential hopeful Evo Morales to show how electoral strategies for bringing change from above are blocked by U.S. imperialism. Lula and Morales have had to play by Washington's rules to win and hold on to power.

In contrast, Peruvian labor leader Simón Lazara emphasized that "only a mass movement from below can achieve a society in which equality and solidarity replace hunger and oppression. The only viable way out of the crisis," Lazara said, "is a revolutionary fight for a world in which the majority of workers and peasants run their societies in their own interests."

Filipino activist Walden Bello, a leading figure in the global justice movement, also presented his alternative of "de-globalization." "We have no option but to dismantle, disempower or reduce the power of the key institutions--the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank," Bello said. "And we don't have to rebuild new centralized institutions."

"While we reduce the power of the institutions of global capitalism," he argued, "we can increase the power of regional institutions and regional trading blocks." Bello's message of reducing the power of the IMF and World Bank struck a chord with participants. But reaction was lukewarm to his idea of substituting regional institutions.

Mercosur, South America's regional trading block, serves Latin American bosses, not Latin America's impoverished populations. And so far, Mercosur has proven willing to subordinate itself to U.S. and European interests.

Some 40 percent of Latin Americans live on less than $1 a day. The solution to this crisis lies not in isolation, nor in competing in the world market from a position of disadvantage. Rather, it lies in building solidarity between urban and rural workers of both South and North America. Together, they can wrest the wealth they produce from the bosses throughout the hemisphere who rob them on a daily basis.

Rafael Greenblatt, Peter Lamphere and Ashley Smith also contributed to this report.

"War on the Columbian people"

EDGAR PAEZ is a national leader of SINALTRAINAL, a radical union in Colombia that has been waging a battle against the brutal labor policies of the U.S. transnational Coca-Cola. He talked to Socialist Worker's PETER LAMPHERE.

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PLEASE TELL us about the struggle of the Coca-Cola workers in Colombia.

THE SITUATION for the compañeros who work for Coca-Cola is the same as for most Colombian workers. There is very strong repression and a policy to eliminate all social and political organization, including the peasant and indigenous organizations. Coca-Cola has been systematically repressing its workers. They have closed 11 plants over the last six months.

The national government, through the Ministry of Social Affairs, has allowed Coca-Cola to fire more than 86 workers in six other plants. This will mean the destruction and elimination of the union leadership. So Coca-Cola is not content with killing nine compañeros since 1994. It now hides with impunity behind the Colombian government.

They have thrown a number of leaders in jail, accusing them of rebellion and terrorism. Between the government, the paramilitaries and the transnational corporations, the bosses have ordered the destruction of Colombia's union movement.

IS THERE is a problem of temporary work in Colombia?

Yes. Labor flexibility has been widely introduced. Contracts are few. Of the 10,500 workers in Coca-Cola plants, 94 per cent are temporary workers. This means that the only ones who can organize themselves are those who have contracts directly with Coca-Cola. If temporary workers join the union, they are automatically fired.

IS THIS struggle part of the civil war in Colombia?

WE SAY that there is no civil war in Colombia. What does exist is state terrorism. The Colombian state has declared war against the Colombian people, with the help of the United States. Plan Colombia is a very concrete reality. It's a plan for war against our population, against our social organizations.

A few days ago, the government approved an antiterrorism statute. This says that the Colombia army can enter into workers' houses and union offices without a single police order. It also says that if the military commits crimes, they can remove the evidence. They can intercept phone calls and e-mail. They can pre-emptively detain people.

All of these policies contribute to workers' fears and keep them in poverty. Whatever demands we make of the transnationals and especially of the Colombian state--against privatization of the public sector or against antisocial legislation--is labeled rebellion and terrorism.

"We have returned to the mass struggle"

BLANCA CHANCOSO served as the coordinator and general secretary of operations for the Social Forum of the Americas. She also is the coordinator of the "Dolores Cacvango" Women's Leadership School (Escuela de Formación de Mujeres Líderes "Dolores Cacvango"). She talked to LANCE SELFA.

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WHAT RELATIONSHIP exists between the struggles of indigenous peoples and the struggles of the other social movements, especially those based in the cities and towns?

WE PROPOSED at the recent continental summit of indigenous peoples that victory in the indigenous struggle is not possible alone. But neither is a victory possible in the struggles of the non-indigenous workers without the support of the indigenous movement. We see a necessity to join together to strengthen our movements within the struggle.

HOW HAS the indigenous movement worked with the government of Ecuador to improve social conditions?

AT FIRST, after Lucio Gutiérrez came to power [as president] in 2002, we tried to take advantage of our position in the new government to develop state policies that would benefit the people and set in motion alternative policies that could guarantee civil rights for indigenous people.

But that turned out to be impossible possible because Gutiérrez allied himself with the transnationals and the military. The government has not permitted the development of any of the proposed policies that were the reason for the electoral alliance between the indigenous movement and Gutiérrez in the first place.

Now the indigenous movement has broken with the government and pulled itself out of the alliance. We have returned to the mass struggle against the policies of this government. At present, there is no relation between the indigenous movement and the government of Ecuador because Gutiérrez has chosen to declare war on us.

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