Viaje al otro mundo

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the politics category.

Convergence Time?

I hope that it is convergence time. For me personally, things seem to be nearing convergence. Trip to Latin America and the World Social Forum, the Somerville report-back that’s been in the works for some time now, and the massive immigrant rights rallies sweeping the nation; Green-Rainbow Party organizing, with some really hopeful developments on the local level and some hopeful statewide campaigns; and anti-war organizing — mostly through a counter-recruitment campaign at Somerville High School with some big breakthroughs there; and the looming quest for a meaningful career change. Somehow, soon, these are all converging.

But that’s one person, and it’s pretty meaningless in context. The environmental and human catastrophes that are presenting themselves today obliterate my self-concerns, and they should obliterate all of ours. But we live in a society skillfully crafted on self-concerns. We are bred, very deliberately, to look past family towards our own fulfillment, to look past community towards ourselves. The toys, distractions, and “entertainment” increasingly poison us physically and spiritually, and we know it, but we are slaves to them.

What I am hoping is that a genuine convergence time is near, and there are signs that it may be. Apart from Bush talking about hydrogen cars to celebrate Earth Day, there are plenty of real signs that people are waking up to a genuine nightmare — and it goes well beyond climate change.

I wish I could clearly define the root of this nightmare — capitalism? greed? fundamentalism? the convergence of corporatism and government (ie, the too-little used f-word)? or better yet the triumph of state-less mega corporations over governments? Anyway, the nightmare reaches all of us, imprisons all of us, oppresses and represses all of us — some more than others. Our society, more or less, is The Matrix.

The nightmare cannot be narrowly defined. And any challenge to it must be broad.

I am happy to say that the April 29th rally, march, and festival of peace and justice in NYC is such a broad-based challenge. From the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, to the National Organization for Women, to the Climate Crisis Coalition, the initiating groups alongside United for Peace and Justice show an extraordinary promise for a new dawn of resistance and a renewed struggle for social justice. From the millions of immigrants and their allies that have taken to the streets, to the calls for a national immigrant strike on May 1, there has been reason to hope and reason to believe. Amazingly, this is all happening in the complete absence of an opposition party or strong visible leaders of any kind.

From the economic policies that force people to migrate for work in the first place and exploit them once they are here, to the environmental devastation and resource depletion by the industrialized world, to the fast-spreading mindless consumerism and individualism, to the obscene amounts of capital feeding the barbaric wars being fought, the human race needs convergence.

Another world is possible, but we’ve got to start building it yesterday.


Costa Rica and a recount election

The first 4 weeks of my trip did not feel like a vacation (and weren’t meant to). The last week, in Costa Rica, certainly did. But I just so happened to be around for a key presidential election. Bands of supporters for the two main candidates were out in force — some on motorcycles, some in cars, some standing on the streets — all with flags waving. Alcohol sales were banned on the days on either side of the election. And the two main candidates — Óscar Arias of the National Liberation Party (PLN) and Ottón Solís of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) — represented stark differences for Costa Rica. While Costa Rica is the only Central American nation to withstand Washington pressure to sign on to CAFTA, Óscar Arias ran in part to move CAFTA forward, while Solís ran on an anti-CAFTA platform, saying the deal had to be renegotiated for Costa Rica to sign it.

And while former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Arias was a 20-point favorite going into election day, the results were so close that a manual recount was ordered and the election is still too close to call. Though Arias held a slim lead on election day, the recount has swung in Solís’ favor, and both candidates appear to have gotten above 40%, making a run-off election unlikely (if no candidate gets above 40% a run-off election is held between the top two candidates).

While Costa Rica is known for its smoothly functioning political system and transparent elections, this time around irregularities are being reported and complaints are being leveled. It’s clear that whatever country you live in, you can’t take your voting system’s accuracy for granted.

The Boston Delegation and the World Social Forum

The Boston Delegation’s presence at the Forum was an interesting experience. After months of planning, holding 3 public meetings and many planning meetings, reaching out to countless progressive organizations in Boston, arranging airfare and hotel rooms for dozens of Boston activists, culling together a Boston Delegation proposal for our World Social Forum workshop, planning mission tours for the Boston delegates throughout Caracas, and opening the Forum with a big march across the city, the Boston Delegation culminated in two events — a workshop at the Carlota airport and a rally at Plaza Bolívar.

The location and time of the workshop made for poor attendance — it was nearly impossible to find and the recommended Metro stop was a horrible choice, considering they had free bus service from a different stop. But a small team of Boston delegates took matters into their own hands and held signs and offered directions from the recommended stop. We started very late, and had about 5 people who were not part of the delegation in addition to about 30 delegates for the majority of the event. As more people filtered in at the end, and requests were made to hear statements from people who live in Latin America, things heated up. Ruben, our guide on one of the mission tours, gave an impassioned call for respect for artists and the importance of their work in the Bolivarian Revolution and any social movement. Shannon from the Boston Delegation followed with a response from a US artist echoing the importance and saying that real artists are making headway finally as so much art is getting tired and inauthentic. An artisan and merchant from Colombia spoke about their tough times and called for help from his US brothers and sisters. And a fiery young man from Venezuela spoke about his belief that there are US citizens who can help the Bolivarian Revolution because he fears every day that the United States is going to invade.

Things were cut short because of time constraints, but there was some hope that this represented a beginning rather than an end. Following the Boston Delegation event was a panel of Bolivarian Circles in North America, which included Eva Golinger, author of The Chavez Code, and Peter Camejo, Ralph Nader’s vice presidential running mate in 2004. Golinger blew me away with her portrayal of the US role in Venezuelan politics. The National Endowment for Democracy and USAID are knee-deep in disgusting anti-democratic activity, and the Pentagon has adopted a policy of asymmetric war against Venezuela. Camejo talked about the need for 2 tasks for US citizens — solidarity and a non-intervention movement. He also pointed out that radicalizations happen every 30 years in the US, with big ones happening every 80 years. This decade, he said, the two are coming together. Also on the panel was Dawn Gable, who was working in Venezuela as a biologist during the turmoil leading to the 2002 coup. She has since become very active in the Bolivarian Revolution, running a cybercircle and hosting webpages of Bolivarian Circles around the world. Jorge Marin, who runs the MLK Jr. Bolivarian Circle of Boston, emceed the event, and he was clear that it was crucial to extend the work of these circles beyond Venezuela. It was my hope that the learning process that was started by the Boston Delegation be continued via the Bolivarian Circle of Boston, changing the paradigm in which we view our work and learning from the Venezuelan people and from each other.

As a delegation, we had also decided to stage an action in Caracas. The plan was to hold a rally in front of the US embassy, but it was too remote and difficult to reach. We opted instead for the Plaza Bolívar where the mayor’s office is, and we would bestow our thanks to the mayor for the discounted heating oil from Venezuela. Our action was also a call for an end to the Iraq War and occupation and for the US to keep its hands off Venezuela. We had signs, like “Oil for Peace, Not for War!”, “Meester Danger — Hands Off Venezuela!”, “Chavez: Hero, Bush: Zero!”, “Tropas Afuera Ahora”, and of course “DARE to Keep Bush Off Drugs”. We also had our banners calling for an end to the war and occupation and a thank-you message to Venezuela from the Boston delegation for the discounted oil. The planning for the event was minimal, to put it gently, and actually most of the planning happened right then and there as we were setting up. People were asked to make speeches, lists of speakers were put together and changed, and the unscripted rally was going to happen one way or the other.

And as we started setting up in the busy plaza, the magic started to happen. First there was a young Caraqueña who wanted to hold a sign. Then a slow build-up of people who were curious about what was going on. Before long, we had complete strangers holding up our signs, kids fighting over signs to hold — and these kids were adorable — and a large number of interested and engaged spectators talking to us about our action. Once things started, it was a full-fledged rally, about to get even fuller. In the middle of Lyn Meza’s speech, someone from the mayor’s office worked his way through the crowd to offer use of a megaphone. By the time Jonathan Leavitt had the crowd singing and clapping and even dancing along to his Woody Guthrie cover, the mayor’s office was setting up plastic lawn chairs for people to sit in. And in the middle of a Vietnam Vet’s speech, we were being invited over to the center stage, complete with a full sound system. Before long, people were dancing salsa and singing along with impromptu contributors. I can’t describe in words the beauty and power of the things I saw that day, but seeing cute-as-hell six year old kids holding signs telling my government “hands off our country” can devastate you one moment, and seeing a gorgeous 80-year-old man dancing salsa to a Woody Guthrie song can make it all seem all right again.

I still don’t really know what solidarity is, but I know this was it.

And the calls earlier in the Forum for US citizens to act in solidarity, to stand up for what’s happening in Venezuela, and to call out against US intervention suddenly felt real. And the need to continue that solidarity once we returned to US soil felt ever more urgent. And the Boston Delegation, in my mind, for the first time, became real.

World Social Forum VI

The World Social Forum of the Americas in Caracas, Venezuela was an unforgettable experience. While the event, in this hotbed of political activity at this point in time, had limitless potential, it seemed to spark as much disappointment and frustration as it did inspiration and edification. What happened outside the constraints of the Forum itself felt more important than what happened within — yet the Forum must be credited with bringing tens of thousands of activists from the Americas and beyond to the streets of Caracas to witness the Bolivarian Revolution firsthand.

The logistics of the Forum were a nightmare and poorly planned. Events were scattered all over the city of Caracas, and some locations were very difficult to reach. Everything was behind schedule, while many events were cancelled without notice, often after a tough commute to the site. Too few events offered translation, and it ended up being very difficult to get much out of the workshops and panels. The one plenary session I attended, on the battle of Hong Kong and the World Trade Organization (WTO), was very good, and it’s clear that the next few months are very important for challenging the WTO.

Hugo Chávez speaking to a crowd of 12,000 people was a sight to behold — not a very forgettable moment. The passionate crowd was brimming with political chants:

  • Alerta! Alerta! Alerta que camina! Espada de Bolivar por America Latina!
  • El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!
  • Ooh! Aah! Chávez no se va!

Chávez himself broke into song, which I could have done without. Solidarity with Cuba was on display as a sea of over 1000 members from the Cuba delegation, all in red, sang and chanted and waved banners and flags. The victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia was highlighted again and again. And allied presidents Kirchner and Lula, of Argentina and Brazil, respectively, were praised (though Lula’s name was met with boos). Also, as was seen throughout the city of Caracas, there was a strong emphasis on history. Countless political and historical murals line the streets, and the people are reminded of heroes past and present. Powerful quotes are commonly found next to the portrait of the person who said it. There is also a lot of graffiti on the walls — all of it political in nature. The most impressive thing I witnessed was the level to which the political discourse has been raised — and it is completely open to all. There is a consciousness permeating the people of Venezuela that transcends politics and traditional class structures.

We toured the barrio El 23 de Enero, and the guide and community organizer told us about the change in political participation since Chávez became president. He said there were people active in politics in very partisan and closed groups, but after Chávez, ordinary people started organizing and they far surpassed the political groups. This neighborhood was built up under the leadership of Perez Jimenez, who was thought of us a dictator, and was overthrown on January 23, 1958. This was followed by 40 years of brutal repression in the neighborhood, to the point where local leaders felt it necessary to develop a militia. Once Chávez became President, many of the militia members helped organize the neighborhood to receive social services. We visited a school in the barrio which opens it doors to kids until 11pm with regular and after-school programs and offers 3 meals a day. We also visited a new community radio station — fashioned out of the former police station which had symbolized much of the repression. The station has only been active for 2 months and has already made an impact as it reaches most of Caracas. So far they have been playing an impressive variety of non-commercial and even revolutionary music, but the station manager believes all music is revolutionary. They hope to integrate more news and politics, but their main goal is to demonstrate to Caracas that 23 de Enero has culture.

Another thing that’s clear is that not everybody is thrilled with the progress of Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution. Common complaints were that Chávez is focusing so much on alleviating poverty that he is neglecting the basic infrastructure for a functioning nation. Garbage lines the streets, the streets are in disrepair, and when Chávez visits a neighborhood his people come in and fix things up ahead of his visit so he is oblivious. Many believe Chávez has an inner circle that insulates him from the reality, making it harder for things to improve (sound familiar?). Why is Chávez giving away discounted fuel to the richest country in the world? Why is he focusing so much on other countries when Venezuela’s own problems are far from over? These are the legitimate complaints. Then there’s the propaganda of the mainstream media, where editorializing and misinformation abound. And now, after 8 years in power, the Chavistas have developed their own propaganda engines, increasing the number of government-friendly stations, and have enacted laws that have forced the private anti-Chávez stations to tone down their rhetoric. After a change in the criminal code last March which expands Venezuela’s laws against insulting government officials, while other Latin American nations have been scrapping such laws, the country is now prosecuting its first defendant under this reform according to Reporters Without Borders. With propaganda on both sides of the debate, it seems to me that objective reporting is hard to come by in Venezuela (sound familiar?), but fortunately there has been and continues to be an expansion of independently owned and operated media as well as community radio and television stations.

I got the feeling from my brief visit that there is a change afoot in Venezuela that is too intangible to measure in economic indicators and poverty figures, but has embedded itself in the souls and spirits of the people. It is a change in attitude that is both simple and profound — that they have a say in what happens in their lives, in their communities, and in their country. And while improvements in living standards like access to healthcare, affordable nutritious food, and education have impacted the poorest of Venezuelans the most, it is the change in spirit and participation which will bring the longest term benefits to the nation, transcending Chávez’s presidency and hopefully outlasting it.

Meester Danger vs Mrs. Hope

Watching Chavez speak for 2.5 hours is interesting, though it would have been more interesting if I understood more than 40% of it (translation was available but I skipped it). I can’t count the number of times he mentioned he was opposed to imperialism and neo-liberalism with my available digits… I almost thought he was a Democrat the way he was defining himself by what he’s against… though ¨anti-imperialismo¨ kinda stands out in a sea of dense Spanish. The reality is that Chavez does articulate what he stands for, and he is actually helping to develop alternative politics and alternative policies. The Chavez government has been pushing and developing an economic alternative to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish). His alternative plan, ALBA, stands for Alternativa Bolivariana para la Amèrica. Though still in its early stages, it is clear that Chavez is forging alliances with other countries of Latin America as a way of developing economies without the structural adjustment agreements of the IMF/World Bank and WTO (privatize everything!).

What I will never tire of is Chavez’ nickname for George Dubya — Meester Danger — based on an American character in a classic Venezuelan story by Ròmulo Gallegos. I think he unveiled the nickname at the massive protests in Mar del Plata at the Summit of the Americas, where meetings on the FTAA ended in a deadlock. And with Cindy Sheehan on stage with him, Chavez started getting giddy about her role as a powerless mother of a slain soldier confronting Bush head-on at his Texas ranch and becoming a huge thorn in his side. And he asked, “¿Como se dice esperanza en ìngles? Hope? You are Mrs. Hope!”

And while I have more to say on the World Social Forum and my time in Caracas, I think the thorn in Mr. Danger’s side just grew a little bigger when Capitol Police decided to arrest Mrs. Hope for, well, pointing out just how many US soldiers have died in Iraq. Will they ever fucking learn? Don’t mess with Señora Esperanza!

More on the Forum later.

From San Jose, Costa Rica, hasta luego.

Caracas and the Bolivarian Revolution

The World Social Forum kicked off on Tuesday with a big opening march, and now Caracas is alive with many thousands of foreigners interested in the ongoing Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, and many thousands of Venezolanos who are allowed to participate in the Forum without paying. Walking the crowded streets of Caracas alongside delegations and participants from Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and more, it was clear that all eyes of Latin America are on Venezuela and Hugo Chavez.

Carrying on the independence struggles of the Simon Bolivar, and the themes of a unified Latin America of Che Guevara, there is a growing belief here that the chains of imperialism can be broken and that real independence lies ahead. The age of natural resource exploitation, environmental and social destruction, and stagnant and corrupt governments doesn’t feel so permanent here anymore.

Themes of cooperation, integration, and solidarity abound here. Evo Morales wasted no time since being inaugurated as Bolivia’s first indigenous President, and has just signed 8 agreements with Venezuela for greater co-operation, including Venezuelan aid for Bolivia to develop its natural gas infrastructure. Recently Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina had agreed to build a $20 billion gas pipeline between the 3 nations.

I skipped the events of the first day of the Forum to go on a tour of various social “missions” in the barrios of Caracas — seeing a quality community healthcare mission, a couple of worker-cooperative clothing factories, and a museum of contemporary art that has been bringing art to the people of the barrio and rewriting the definition of accessibility. From literacy to art to participatory citizenship, this ‘other world’ is looking to be a lot more inclusive. We (in the States) have a lot to learn…

Momentum for another world

Michelle Bachelet’s victory in Chile adds another push for change in Latin America. Though her center-left coalition has ruled the country ever since Pinochet was out of power in 1990, her election was by no means assured, as she had social taboos written all over her in a socially conservative and religious country. This Socialist, agnostic, single mother being elected president with a bigger margin than her predecessor is yet another strong signal of a shift in Latin American politics. And the people of Chile are reconnecting — through her — with Salvador Allende, the Socialist president who died during a US-supported military coup on September 11, 1973, which brought Pinochet to power. Allende está presente.

Viaje al otro mundo

I am off very soon for South America — on a five week journey which will take me to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

After finishing up over 6 years of work at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, I suddenly realized that I could finally make it to a World Social Forum. And not only that, but it was going to be in Venezuela!

The slogan of the World Social Forum, since its inception in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, has been um outro mundo é possível (Portuguese), otro mundo es posible (Spanish), or, another world is possible.

More recently, people have been saying that another world is happening, and indeed it is. In Venezuela, oil revenues are helping build a social infrastructure. Argentina and Brazil, under left-of-center leadership, have decided to pay off World Bank loans early as a way of breaking free from oppressive chains. And Bolivia, with its majority indigenous population and large reserves of natural gas, has just elected its first indigenous President — Evo Morales. Upcoming elections throughout Latin America in the next year promise to further weaken Washington’s neoliberal power grip on these nations.

Another world is happening, and I am very priviliged to be able to witness it first hand.