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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Latin America Longing for Another World

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jan 16 2007 (IPS) - The presidential swearing-in ceremonies of former guerrilla Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and left-winger Rafael Correa in Ecuador in the run-up to the 7th World Social Forum (WSF) are a graphic illustration of profound political changes in a Latin America that longs to see another world.

Today, Latin America is the region closest to fulfilling the emblematic slogan of the WSF, “Another World Is Possible”, in the light of the wave of electoral speeches that put neoliberal globalisation and U.S. hegemony in the dock in 2006.

However, when the time comes for these changes to find expression in terms of more political power for social movements, analysts offer a wide range of opinions, and both sceptics and enthusiasts often have their own axe to grind.

Latin American delegations will probably be the smallest among the 150,000 activists from over 100 countries expected to arrive in Nairobi for the first WSF to be held in Africa from Jan. 20 to 25.

The distance and cost of reaching the Kenyan capital will prevent non-governmental organisations and other groups representing Latin American civil society from sending large numbers of delegates to this 7th Forum, created as an alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual meeting of powerful business and political élites.

However, Latin America will no doubt be frequently cited in Nairobi as a concrete example of popular resistance to the unipolar world and its dominant economic model since the early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, based on free trade at any cost, and fiscal balance as a magic economic management formula.

Among the political events of 2006, the reelection of right-winger Álvaro Uribe in Colombia and the controversial victory of conservative Felipe Calderón in Mexico were victories for candidates friendly to the U.S. George W. Bush administration.

Washington could also be glad of the defeat of nationalist Ollanta Humala in Perú by social democrat Alan García, who nevertheless can claim a place in the broad regional map of the centre-left.

Correa and Ortega were the last left-wing leaders to be elected in a year that also saw the reelections of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, the victory of socialist Michelle Bachelet over rightwing business owner Sebastián Piñera, and the inauguration of indigenous leader Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia.

In Haiti, the region’s poorest country, René Préval’s victory in the presidential elections in early 2006 was another setback for Bush, whose government backed a coup against democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.

Heavily weighted to the centre-left, the South American political map has included the Tabaré Vázquez administration in Uruguay since 2005 and that of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina since 2004, while in Paraguay former bishop Fernando Lugo, an admirer of Chávez, looks like a possible winner of the presidential elections in 2008.

The Venezuelan president leads a movement towards “21st-century socialism”, and Ortega and Correa have joined his proposal for a Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a response to the Initiative for the Americas launched in 1990 by then U.S. president George Bush, father of the current president.

ALBA is also supported by Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Morales of Bolivia, while members of the so-called “pragmatic left”, like Lula da Silva, helped to sink the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the flagship of Washington’s policy towards the region since the 1990s.

Over and beyond categorisations that would label Lula, Bachelet and Vázquez as the “pragmatic left”, as against the “radical left” personified by Chávez, Morales and now Correa, nearly all these governments are at odds with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as demonstrated by the presidents of Brazil and Argentina.

Chávez, Morales and Kirchner are frequently depicted as the standard-bearers of “neo-populism”, but according to French political scientist and historian Eric Toussaint, Lula, with his aid programmes for the poor, is more populist than Chávez.

The increasingly marked turn to the left in Latin America has made it once again a laboratory for social and political experiments, where expert analysts, especially European ones, produce a wide range of opinions but have not clarified the role being played by civil society movements.

Chávez is a typical example of these different assessments. Some call him an “egalitarian strongman” and praise the pro-government April 13 Movement as the catalyst of popular participation initiatives through community activities such as checking drinking water quality, self-built housing, provision of basic services and promoting agrarian reform.

But at the same time the Venezuelan leader is seen as a “personalist strongman”, who, while radicalising the Bolivarian revolution by nationalising strategic industries, cannot withstand the temptation of “indefinite reelection” and a single party system, which places him closer to the failed bureaucracy of “20th century communism” than to “21st century socialism.”

Shortly before Lula’s reelection, Toni Negri and Giuseppe Cocco, Italian theorists of “alternative social movements”, criticised the “exaggeratedly nationalist” character of the governments of Chávez and Morales in an interview published by Argentine newspaper Página 12.

In contrast, they praised the governments of Brazil and Argentina for their responsible attitude in confronting the IMF and the Paris Club (which reviews and coordinates foreign debt), and for promoting the development of social movements such as trade unions and human rights organisations.

Negri and Cocco believed it would be desirable for the two largest South American countries, and especially Brazil, to move closer to ALBA, so that Lula “may learn from Bolivarian initiatives”, while the overly nationalistic aspects of the experiences of Chávez, and perhaps Evo Morales, might be watered down.

Dialogue between the new left-wing governments and social movements is not easy, as shown by the conflicts Morales faces in Bolivia, or the persistent movement for democratising education which is a permanent challenge to Bachelet in Chile.

For now, it can be concluded that neoliberal globalisation is facing determined opposition in Latin America on macroeconomic issues, and that this opposition includes demands made by the “Another World” movement, such as criticism of free trade and the need to review foreign debt.

As Correa rightly said in his inaugural speech as the new president of Ecuador on Monday, “the night of neoliberalism is passing”. The challenge now is for social movements to claim the dawn.

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