par Michael Ramirez et Orion Cruz
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Prelude to Mobilization Efforts “A new world is being born. Utopia is here in South America,” Chávez affirmed in what Lula jokingly insisted was the Venezuelan President’s shortest speech in ten years (approximately 15 minutes). During his brief address, Chávez promoted the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America (ALBA). He also awarded recognition and praise to Cuba’s Fidel Castro for his dedication to the Socialist cause, which he sustained for half a century in spite of his country’s trade isolation from the U.S. From Chávez’s perspective, Cuba’s ability to endure despite rigid and unremitting punative sanctions being applied from the U.S. has helped build up the confidence necessary among Latin America’s multiplying number of left-leaning administrations to come together and articulate the need for a new world with new values.
Orion Cruz, COHA Research Fellow and WSF attendee, observed that Morales’ and Correa’s speeches were particularly emphatic regarding the environmental crises that the world is currently facing, as well as the necessity of meeting the ecological challenges that lie before us. Both leaders were similarly passionate in their description of the severity of such environmental issues and the way in which they connected to neoliberal economic policies. Morales’ speech, however, distinguished itself from Correa’s, because it came from the perspective that there is much to be learned from the world’s indigenous populations about how to live in harmony with Pachamama.
President Correa, who has recently emphasized the importance of committing to regional efforts to maintain “Mother Earth,” argued that the preservation of the world’s resources is “a necessity recognized even by technological experts.” He supported his position by pointing to Ecuador’s decision not to exploit some of its untapped oil reserves. This was somewhat ironic, however, because despite the fact that Correa is known to be more environmentally conscious than many other regional leaders, and that Ecuador’s new constitution allows for the extension of new rights for the country’s natural ecosystems, Correa’s administration continues to subscribe to policies which inflict great harm to the country’s environment. Oil and mining interests, for example, the former of which has admitted to dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water into Ecuador’s Amazon waterways, are still being forcefully protected from public protests. The violent police and army suppression of a number of demonstrations, mostly initiated by the country’s indigenous and mestizo populations seeking to move beyond the extractive economic model, has done irreparable damage to relationships with some of the country’s strongest and most environmentally conscious social movements, including the National Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador (CONAIE).
With regard to the many positive and hopeful environmentally-oriented statements made by these South American leaders, there is still much to clarify. For example, investing in alternative energy and fuel sources such as hydroelectricity, as in the case of the Itaipu Dam in the Paraná River, would allow the region to achieve the energy demands essential for economic growth, yet be looked upon with favor by many of those involved as environmentally responsible. However, if that energy independence were achieved, would there be a price at which it would be harnessed? In fact, hydroelectric dams are renowned for their disastrous environmental repercussions, which often include sizeable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (occasionally producing more carbon dioxide and methane than power stations reliant on fossil fuels), the damaging of riverine and land ecosystems, as well as massive flooding of the surrounding areas during construction. The Itaipu dam is a compelling illustration of this environmental catastrophe, with the construction of its reservoir requiring that 1,350 square kilometers of the surrounding ecosystem be flooded. As Latin America’s new generation of leaders, and events like the WSF gain traction and legitimacy, there are huge promises for the environment, but it will take serious and sustained pressure from activists to achieve real action.
Putting words into Action
Despite the WSF often being dismissed as a fading leftist’s fantasy, the 2009 convention marks the year that the gathering evolved into a high-minded and highly relevant vehicle. For many of those who attended Belém, the economic crisis was viewed as an enormous opportunity to bring down the current system and replace it with something new, forceful and transformative. There was a general acceptance throughout the forum that change was on the way, but no ascertainable certainty about the kind of change it would be. Instead, there was a focus on discussion about the sort of change that the people wanted to see, which overall was oriented away from the occasional amoralities of a free market system. At the minimum, it was identified that there is a dire need for economic and environmental practices to be restructured, which cannot be predictably achieved by means of the current laissez faire system.
Although the interests represented at the WSF came together with the intention to initiate a movement for social and environmental transformation worldwide, their ability to turn ideas into hard planning will, in part, be measured by the demonstrations at the opening of the upcoming G-20 summit in London. Regardless of the outcome, they will help delineate the world’s future economic woes. President Lula will be introducing a newly formulated manifesto for the development of more responsible financial institutions that more accurately reflect the development and growth of international institutions, aimed at gradually replacing or supplanting the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. The degree to which the G-20 countries acknowledge the Belém activists’ appeals will help predict the extent of the role their left-leaning ideas might play in cooperating with most developed economies in order to construct a new type of socially-oriented and just global economy.
If Belém and the protests during the G-20 Summit in London have successfully made a point, civil society groups believe their efforts will result in significant improvements. Although their pursuits may have to be far-reaching to make an imprint, Latin America’s voices have intensified as the hemisphere has emerged as the largest international supplier of raw materials. Feelings of solidarity and a sense of confidence have come out from the WSF, and while they have previously been stymied, this time they were being created within a somewhat more conducive global context. Even if the demonstrations do not amount to everything desired, under the current economic circumstances, the forum’s left-leaning advocates are standing on a much better practical footing than they have been in the past.
The Summit of the Americas
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will host the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain. Convening in April, this assembly will be focusing on human prosperity, energy security, climate change and sustainable development throughout the Americas. Among the voices being heard there, the various governments of the Western Hemisphere are prepared to address much of this agenda, as was outlined during the dialogues at the WSF.
The United States must be expected to support many of the objectives that emerged from Belém and follow through on some of them with a sense of urgency. It is, however, by no means certain that this will not require heavy negotiation. The Summit of the Americas may, in effect, turn out to be the initial dialogue that the Obama administration will want and need in order to engage in meaningful dialogue with left-leaning governments on such an agenda.
Given the Summit’s fractious history and the discontent expressed at the WSF, it would be foolish for Obama not to take seriously the opportunity of building a regional consensus which would be primarily beneficial to the countries to the south of the U.S. This would be especially prudent of Washington, since it has lost considerable influence in the region and now must commit itself to renovate its regional standing. At this point, it seems that many people, nongovernmental organizations, social movements and leaders within Latin America are dedicating themselves to economic, political and social change, but what is still to be decided is what will be Obama’s reaction. In any case, Latin America must decide whether to attempt to change the economic, political and social calibrations regardless of Washington’s support, or risk its new-found autonomy.
*Les auteurs sont des chercheurs au COHA
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