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Americas Social Forum Continues Struggle to Dismantle Neoliberalism

Our America is on the march”, Paraguay president Fernando Lugo proclaimed at the close of the Fourth Americas Social Forum (ASF) that met in Asunción, Paraguay from August 11-15, 2010. America is on the march, Lugo repeated, but we have not yet arrived at our desired destination. We have a lot of work left to do, and the Americas Social Forum is one of the torches that lights our path forward.

Lugo’s presence and comments at a meeting of social movement activists highlights the aspirations, promises, frustrations, and contractions of the Latin American left. When the World Social Forum (WSF) first met in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001, all of the countries in the Americas except for Cuba were under the rule of neoliberal governments. The meeting proclaimed an alternative to militarism and the domination of people by capital with the bold claim that “Another World is Possible”.

Almost a decade later, the shifts evident in the Americas Social Forum point to profound changes that have accompanied Latin America’s dramatic shift to the left. Initially, social forums were to be a meeting of civil society, but now government officials are openly invited to the meetings and given a prominent platform to promote their messages. Discourses have also grown and matured. In addition to the original themes of opposition to militarism and neoliberalism, climate change and the buen vivir or living well are now prominent messages. Instead of meeting in countries with strong social movements (as with the first ASF in Quito, Ecuador in 2004), the forum has now traveled to the margins of where people might expect it to meet. But along the way, it empowers and motivates local social movements.

Opening march

As with most forums, the ASF began with a march through the streets of the host city. In Asunción, five thousand activists representing a broad variety of social movements paraded the five kilometers from the Consejo Nacional de Deportes where the forum was to be held, to the governmental palace on the waterfront in the center of town. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and participants walked into gorgeous sunset. Peasant and women’s issues had a particularly strong presence, both on the march and in the subsequent discussions during the forum.

The opening ceremony featured a mixture of rousing speeches and music, with a particular emphasis on Paraguay folk music. Ricardo Flecha performed versions of Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” in Paraguay’s national language Guaraní. The evening culminated in a speech by 1992 Noble Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú. Menchú has not been previously involved in the social forum process, including being conspicuously absent at the 2008 ASF in Guatemala in. In Paraguay, however, she had a prominent presence throughout the meeting.


Following the opening ceremonies, for three days about eight thousand activists participated in more than 300 workshops, lectures, panels, conferences and cultural activities. For those who have grown accustomed to the oversized and unwieldy World Social Forums, the Paraguay meeting was small, the grounds compact, and the program easily manageable. As is typically the case for social forums, about half of the participants came from the host country. Vía Campesina organized a campground to facilitate the massive participation of rural inhabitants from Paraguay.

The next largest delegation came out of Bolivia’s well-organized social movements. The Venezuelan government chartered several planes to bring activists to the forum. Neighboring Brazil, the home of the social forum process, also contributed a significant presence. Although the forum was formally a bilingual (Spanish/Guaraní) event, except for panels particularly targeted at Paraguay issues where participants tended to drop into the national language, as with previous ASFs it was largely a defacto monolingual Spanish event.

Although this forum was billed as the Americas social forum, many people referred to it as a Latin American forum. Frequent calls for Latin American unity echoed throughout the sessions. Coming on the heals of a very success United States Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit at the end of June, almost no activists from the north made it to Paraguay. Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), for example, one of the key players from the United States in the social forum process, sent a small delegation with four people.

Buen Vivir

Several years ago, Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca introduced the idea of the buen vivir or living well into Indigenous discourse. His argument was that the western world was based on material accumulation, and this led to resource extractive policies that was destroying the planet. Rather than trying to live better, he said our goal should be to live well. His suggestion has taken the Indigenous world by storm and now is a common theme in Indigenous summits. It has also been incorporated into the new Ecuadorian constitution.

At the Paraguay forum, the buen vivir with its accompanying concern for climate change had a prominent presence. Choquehuanca was also present, and actively participated on several panels. Forum participants picked up on these themes, and applied them to issues well beyond the Indigenous world. The buen vivir encourages a move away from an anthropocentric view of the world, and embraces the rights of nature. It also entails a different view of development, one that is not only based on material or economic factors. Rather than a linear notion of progress, this new approach embraces a more integral cosmology. As was apparent at the forum, Indigenous ideas of reciprocity and complementarity are having a broader impact on society.

Miguel Palacín, leader of the Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas (CAOI), emphasized alternatives to the death of civilization with the creation of plurinational states as has happened with recent constitutional changes in Bolivia and Ecuador. He pointed to two paradigms, one of the extreme individualism of the western world that we call capitalism that is based on accumulation. An alternative paradigm is based on the community rather than individuals, and emphasizes principles of harmony, equilibrium, duality, diversity, and complementary. Rather than a participatory democracy, Palacín argued, we want a communal democracy. The ultimate goal is to defend life.


After a day full of self-organized sessions, the first two days of the meeting concluded with ten concurrent panels designed to highlight the main themes of the forum. At a panel on the tensions between extractive policies and redistributive processes, Edgardo Lander from Venezuela talked about the crisis of capitalism, and the struggles of new leftist governments to build new and transformative systems. He noted that problems continue to exist, such as the dramatic increase of transgenic soy production under these progressive governments, in particular those in the Mercosur. It is not enough to break with capitalism, Lander argued, because public ownership of the means of production is not enough ; we need deeper transformatory changes.

Raúl Zibechi from Uruguay maintained that we have a lack of sufficient debates on the type of new models that we need to implement to realize our goals. Maybe there are no short-term solutions, he conceded, but we need to continue the debates. Zibechi also noted that these new governments increase social spending that reduces poverty, but it has not reduced economic inequalities. These policies combat extreme levels of poverty through implementation of some minor changes, but never addresses fundamental structural issues. Instead, these governments are creating new political elites that control and direct discussions while also coopting the left. These factors, Zibechi argued, is inhibiting the transformation of society.

One of the panels at the end of the second day of discussions returned to the theme of the buen vivir and the rights of mother earth. A featured panelist was David Choquehuanca, who first introduced the idea of buen vivir. He began by observing that we face two paths : capitalism and socialism. For capitalism the most important thing is money, and for socialism most important are people. In Bolivia, however, Choquehuanca said they are looking for a new way. For them, the most important thing was not money or people, but life. From this perspective, everything comes into question. Capitalism is the cause of climatic problems, Choquehuanca said, and for that reason they question development because it leads to disequilibrium. Politically, they are working toward decolonization and a recuperation of identities. We have to democratize democracy, Choquehuanca said. Indigenous demands go further than democracy, because they want to build consensus. Rather than human rights, they are looking for collective rights that include those of nature.

Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano built on Choquehuanca’s comments to talk about the significance of the new models of power that are emerging in Latin America. We are living in the deepest and most radical crisis that we have ever experienced, Quijano said, and the buen vivir emerges out of a history of resistance to that crisis. The resistance is for the survival of the species and conditions for life on this planet. He pointed to the need for a fundamentally anti-capitalist discourse. Buen vivir, Quijano concluded, is not only a sign of change, but also of a new process.

Fernando Lugo

The third day of discussions concluded with a panel on sovereignty and integration that featured Paraguay president Fernando Lugo. His Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales had also been scheduled to attend, but his presence was delayed until the following day. Lugo, who had just returned from São Paolo where he was undergoing cancer treatment, strolled up on the stage to thunderous applause. He was wearing a peasant poncho, and proceeded to read a short 15-minute speech. He talked about the social forum as the refuge of Latin American dignity, a factory of realized dreams. We want to regain our regional integration, he declared, as a model for the development of our countries. He emphasized the sovereign development of Latin American countries. Latin America today is the continent of hope for the world. Another America is possible, Lugo concluded, another world is possible.

Lugo left immediately after his presentation, and several other panelists continued the conversation. Camille Chalmers from Haiti positioned Haiti’s history in the context of the bicentennial of Latin American independence, and how Haiti supported Simon Bolívar and those efforts. Haiti, and subsequently the Cuban revolution, opened up a new path that is slowly being realized in the rest of the hemisphere, Chalmers argued.

Chilean Vía Campesina leader Francisca Rodríguez noted that we have successfully rid the continent of dictatorships, but we are still left with new forms of capitalism, and so therefore need to continue a struggle against neoliberalism. We need a strong and powerful peasant organization, Rodríguez argued, to realize this social and political process. Agrarian reform is central to demands for food sovereignty. Rodríguez ended with the slogan “globalize the struggle, globalize hope”.

Lugo returned the following morning for the closing of the forum, this time accompanied by his counterparts Evo Morales from Bolivia and José Mujica from Uruguay. The Polideportivo arena was more packed than the previous evening, with security officers swarming everywhere. Inside, loud music mixed with the roaring crowd. The closing ceremonies began with two Vía Campesina delegates reading the final statement from the forum. After reading the statement, the two delegates called on Lugo to ban transgenic soybeans. He nodded his head in acknowledgment of the message. Transgenic soy production has skyrocketed during his two years in office.

Mujica was the first president to speak, and he gave a very short speech, touching largely on issues of openness and diversity. Morales followed him with a much longer speech. He said he was happy to be at the forum, and to share the stage with his fellow presidents. Morales spoke of the many social conflicts, difficulties, and aggressions they faced. He spoke of the need to continue the struggle to govern without intervention from the United States or neoliberal institutions. He argued that they were realizing positive results, including a recent announcement that Bolivia has moved from a low to medium income country. Social forums are a great school for all of us, Morales said, and important issues are discussed there, including struggles against military bases and climate change. He concluded by noting that he emerged out of social movements, and that he was obligated by social forces to take the positions he does.

Lugo was the third and final speaker. His message was that “nuestra América esta en camino”, our America is on the march, but we have not yet arrived. We have a lot of work left to do, Lugo said, and the Americas Social Forum is one of the torches that lights the path. We are now realizing the dreams of independence leaders from two centuries ago for a unified Latin America. The presence of all of us at the social forum, Lugo said, provides a force to continue on an irreversible path. The forum is evidence of new winds blowing on the continent. The only guarantee we have that this process of integration will continue on the behalf of the people rather than privileged sectors is this mobilization, Lugo maintained. Popular participation is the motor of integration, of change, of cooperation. If new winds are blowing on the continent, we have to be alert to the risks and continual dangers inside and outside of Latin America. We need to construct new alternatives so that our dreams will be a reality. Lugo closed by thanking participants for being there, and proclaimed that another world, another America, another Paraguay is possible.

The presence of government leaders at a social forum that was originally presented as a meeting of civil society is not new. That tension has always been present, and perhaps reached a high point with the participation of Lugo and Morales together with Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil at the WSF in Belem, Brazil in 2009. Perhaps what was surprising at the ASF was how social forum organizers openly invited government leaders, and gave them a prominent presence on the program. All of these presidents have received criticisms from social movements, including Lugo for failing to stop the spread of transgenic soy production. The forum, which was originally conceptualized as a meeting of civil society, has become part of a dance between social movements and electoral politics.

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