Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CARIBBEAN: People’s Meeting Slams Neoliberalism, Calls for Justice

Jane Regan*

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti, Aug 26 2003 (IPS) - In the tropical forest not far from here 212 years ago, runaway African slaves gathered for a secret meeting and Vodou ceremony where they vowed to abolish slavery and French rule over their island nation, launching the 13-year revolutionary struggle that gave birth to the world’s first black republic Jan. 1, 1804.

On Aug. 21, the very anniversary of an event burned forever into Haitian consciousness, again a crowd gathered at Bois Caiman (Caiman – a kind of crocodile – Woods) to hold another candlelit ceremony. In the dark of night, as Vodou drums beat out sacred rhythms, people pledged to fight the injustices of neo-colonialism and neoliberalism.

This time the Haitians were not alone. Union leaders, women’s rights activists and other progressives from across the Caribbean joined them.

The midnight ceremony was part of the Third Assembly of the Caribbean Peoples (ACP), held in this northern coastal city Aug. 20-24. Some 1,000 delegates and observers from over 20 countries came together at the Jean-Marie Vincent Foundation, a school named after a militant priest assassinated during the three-year military coup d’état (1991-1994) against Haiti’s first democratically elected government.

”The Caiman Woods meeting called for a radical break with the system and values imposed by the colonial powers,” said Haitian agronomist Marcel Mondésir as he read the final declaration to an auditorium full of tired delegates late on the closing night, as the nightly rainfall finally let up outside the steamy hall.

”Just as (the revolutionary leader) Boukman did, today we invite the people of the Caribbean to stand up against capitalist globalisation and fight for new abolitions!"

As the assembly cheered, Mondésir, flanked by other members of the ACP executive committee from Haiti, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic, read off the list of targets for abolition: poverty, exclusion, foreign debt, discrimination against women, the international financial institutions (led by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund or IMF) ”which spread death” and cultural domination.

The declaration also condemned the Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA) as an instrument of ”recolonisation” and the ”imperialist military presence” in the Caribbean and in Colombia.

The assembly – attended by about 800 Haitians and 200 foreigners – included three days of meetings. Crammed into the auditorium, into cafeterias turned meeting rooms or seated in circles under shady trees in the yard, delegates – men and women of all ages – discussed the FTAA, Caribbean identity and culture, youth, and Caribbean social movements.

The final declaration called not only for abolitions, but also declared ”Yes, another Caribbean is possible!”

”Another world is possible!” is the slogan of the World Social Forum (WSF), a self-described ”open meeting place” of social movements, unions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), political parties, peasant and women’s associations and others, which first met in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 and which convenes in India next year.

Founded by unions in Trinidad in 1994, the ACP has a similar structure and objectives. The goals of the third assembly – held in Haiti to honour the 200th anniversary of the slave revolution victory – were to build a pan-Caribbean platform of social movements opposed to ”capitalist globalisation”, construct a ”sovereign Caribbean” guided by the region’s ”tradition of resistance and rebellion and multiple roots”, and contribute to building a federation of WSF regional platforms.

”I’m very satisfied with the meeting,” said Robert Sae, spokesman for Martinique’s National Council of Popular Committees (CNCP), as delegates milled around the auditorium waiting for the final declaration to be read Aug. 23.

Even though there were considerable logistical and scheduling problems – unsurprising in a country with only a few hours electricity a day, at best, and with highways more likely to be covered with potholes than asphalt – the assembly was pulled off and it offers a sign of hope, he said in an interview.

”This is part of the construction of an international movement for an alternative … (It) gives us great hope that we can take another step forward in the struggle for liberation, for democracy, for sustainable development.”

Sae’s CNCP has been involved in many such struggles in Martinique and is part of the independence movement there. Among the six resolutions adopted by the assembly was one condemning French, Dutch and U.S. colonialism in the Caribbean.

Local forums were held across Haiti in the weeks leading up to the meeting. They ended with calls condemning violence against women, the Haitian government’s application of IMF economic prescriptions and denouncing the political impasse that has contributed to the downward slide of Haiti’s economy and living conditions.

The assembly’s final resolution reflected these concerns, blaming the Jean-Bertrand Aristide government for the ”permanent violence” of the police and paramilitary groups against the people and the media, and also for his government’s ”servile” implementation of neoliberal economic recipes.

Outside the school grounds each day, street merchants crowded at the gate, hoping to sell a can of soda or a plastic bag of water so they might feed their children that night. They all live with Haiti’s daily violence and have seen their living conditions deteriorate as the local currency has plummeted, losing almost one-half its value over the past year.

But most of them are not members of organisations and did not even know what the meeting was about; they just knew it included 1,000 potential customers.

One man, who did not want to give his name, expressed little interest, saying, ”There are always organisations saying they speak for the popular masses. What popular masses?”

Delegates who found the meeting stimulating and a sign of hope also expressed concern over the next steps.

Maude Jeudy, a street merchant and the coordinator of a women’s group in the country’s southeast, said the assembly proved to her that the problems faced by Haitians were also being confronted in other nations, but she wondered: ”What structure is being put in place to follow up all the ideas we discussed? Concretely, what will come out of this?”

Among those attending was 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, from Argentina. In his remarks at the forum’s opening Aug. 20, he expressed hope despite the dire living conditions in Latin America.

”The APC is a concrete example of how people working together can change history,” he told the packed auditorium. ”The most important thing is for us to construct alternatives.”

But more than mass meetings are needed, said Victor Geronimo, from the Collective of Popular Organizations (COP) in the Dominican Republic and the general facilitator of the Convergence of Movements of the Peoples of the Americas (COMPA), which helped fund and organise the assembly.

”Every time we hold meetings like this we build solidarity, we build bridges, and we can then set ourselves concrete goals, design concrete actions,” added Geronimo, who called himself optimistic despite recent events.

Last month, Dominican police arrested Geronimo following anti-neoliberal demonstrations in his country that left four people dead. After national and international protests, he was released.

”The only thing stopping us is ourselves,” he mused. ”The assembly opened the way to many possibilities. It all depends on our capacities.”

With reporting from Gotson Pierre

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