Some thoughts on the Assembly

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We have lessons to learn from Latin America, a continent where political and economic ferment has been brewing. Francis Loh reports on a unique assembly of progressive intellectuals and artists in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

We were some 200 participants who had journeyed from more than 50 countries, from far and near, to this world-wide assembly of progressive intellectuals and artists in Caracas on 13-18 October 2008. The theme of the Assembly was ‘Transitions towards Socialism: Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Features’. The Assembly was organised by the World Forum for Alternatives (WFA) and the Network of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity, (Network-IADH). Thanks to its petrodollars, Venezuela was in a position to host the Assembly.

Among these 200-odd people, seven of us were from Arena. Lau Kin Chi, Dai Jinhua and Cynthia Yuen from China; Vinod Raina and MP Parameswaran from India; Arjun Karki from Nepal; and Francis Loh from Malaysia. Arena’s co-chairpersons, Kinhide Mushakoji and Lee Jun-ok, were supposed to join us but had to pull out at the last moment. Arena has been a part of WFA for some time.

I was excited when invited to the Assembly.  But I also pondered why I was so privileged. In fact, several of us had been part of a book project The Globalisation of Resistance conducted under the auspices of the Third World Forum and Tricontinental Centre, which Samir Amin and Francois Houtart had coordinated. Later, it also became clear that Samir and Francois were the two major people behind WFA, and had pushed for this collaboration between WFA and the Network-IADH. The latter was a Latin American-based initiative which had quite a clear focus (www.humanidadenred.org), while the WFA was more loosely organised and involved different region-based organisations, including Arena (www.social-movements.org/en/book/print). See Boxes A and B.

Setting the mood for the Assembly

‘…we can say, without hesitation, that the axis of world history has moved towards Latin America, where the most radical historical changes and the most original proposals for social transformation have been taking place in the last decades. However, this fact that has revitalised the world since the fall of the USSR, and that has renewed dreams and utopias, has also meant the arousal of threats and…direct interventions of the US empire on the continent. These interventions are not unrelated to those carried out in the rest of the world…

[Indeed these interventions have]… initiated the surge of huge movements of resistance against imperial attacks, as well as the solidarity among those alternatives that try to make this world a better place to live. We believe that the future of humanity, threatened nowadays in all the dimensions of the being, the existence, the thought and the action, by the project of world domination that the US is speeding up, depends not only on cultural resistance, but also on the construction of real emancipating projects…Therefore [we must take advantage] of this…gathering here [at this critical juncture of a global financial crisis] which is shaking the foundations of the system…as engaged intellectuals… to speed up the transition towards the only possible alternative for real freedom of the peoples and survival of the planet: the socialist society.

This struggle is nourished by the joining of two great networks…the Network of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity and the Network of the World Forum of Alternatives…There is a need of having those networks connected to other world networks and… with social movements, and taking into action all that is said. By doing so, all those networks would engage in the struggle of the peoples and arise in solidarity… to face the world’s… voracious and menacing threat represented by the US in its imperial expansion… The task we have… then, not only is hard and of great scientific demand [but is also] of great ethical responsibility.’

This call to build solidarity and to struggle was made by Carmen Bohorquez, the director-general of International Relations, Ministry of Popular Power for Culture, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in her welcoming address at the World Assembly of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity. She continued:

‘These words do not seem the nicest ones for a welcoming, but as we know you share the same anguish, may they welcome you and thank you for your visit that gives us the opportunity to discuss and also let you know about the experience of the liberating process that has started in Venezuela, the experience of the Bolivarian revolution, and to uncover the distortion of reality the media…is creating. May this experience contribute to strengthen the consciousness about the struggle in defence of the rights of peoples to decide their own destinies, which is the best way to understand the defence of humanity’.

Meeting and exchanging

Apart from Arena fellows, other Asians were also present. Among them were Indian activists like Yash Tandon (South Centre), Sandeep Chachra (ActionAid), Ritu Dewan (University of Mumbai) and Meenah Menon (Focus on the Global South); Makoto Katsumata from PRIME (International Peace Research Institute Meiji Gakuin University); and Chandra Prasad Gajurel (politbureau member head of International Affairs of the Nepalese Communist Party-Maoist, as well as a member of the newly established Nepalese Constitutional Assembly). Critical Chinese intellectuals like Wen Tiejun (People’s University, Beijing) and Wang Hui (Tsinghua University) and Leo Lin (Hao Ran Foundation, Taipei) were also present. The Arena fellows spent some time with them, discussing how the global economic crisis was having an impact on China, India and other parts of Asia.

There were also two elderly Vietnamese comrades: Prof Dao The Tuan, in his seventies, had studied in Moscow, and had fought against the Americans and the French. He was still sharp and had critical opinions about dong moi. The other Vietnamese Trinh Ngoc Thai was only slightly younger; a former ambassador to France, he now heads an NGO involved in rural development work. They were keen to share Vietnam’s experiences.

This was a most pleasant and fruitful part of the Assembly for me: meeting with like-minded intellectuals from not just Asia, but other parts of the world. On my part, I interacted with a group of Arabs. There was Mostapha el-Gammal, an Egyptian who had written a book Chavez: Charisma, Revolution and Dialectics in Arabic. He debated whether Chavez was a mere populist or a genuine revolutionary. Basheer Sakr, associated with the Peasant Solidarity Committee Egypt, was keen to find out more about farmers threatened by multinational agribusinesses elsewhere, while Mamdouth Habashi from the Arab and African Research Centre in Cairo wanted to exchange ideas about how progressive intellectuals ought to engage with religious-based movements

I had a chance to chat with Africans like Samson Moyo, a professor in the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, Harare. He was critical of Mugabe but very much in support of his land reform programme. Langa Zita (an ANC MP, also leader of the Cooperatives and Policy Alternative Centre) provided background information about the on-going split within the ANC. There was also Peter Boyd of KwaZulu-Natal University and the Centre for Civil Society.

Apart from these conversations, I also had the opportunity to listen to well-known Latin American intellectuals like Martha Harnecker (an Argentinian professor who had written a book on Chavez and the Venezuelan revolution), Judith Valencia (Venezuela) and Theotonio Dos Santos (a Brazilian who was one of the founders of the Dependency school, whose writings I had first read in the 1970s).

Logistics

The conference was held in Hotel Alba, a luxury hotel taken over by the Venezuelan government from the Hilton chain in 2007. It was strategically located in the cultural hub of Caracas where the concert halls as well as the convention centres were located.

Each of us was required to prepare a paper related to some aspect of the general theme of the Assembly. These papers, however, were not presented. They were posted on the Assembly’s website for all to consult prior to our travel to Caracas. Instead, we were required to participate in workshops. During the first three days, the sessions were organised along sectoral lines viz.: democratisation; the agrarian question in an era of globalisation; segmentation of labour and trade unionism; and culture, media and multiculturalism.

On the following two days the themes were more global in scope viz critical alternatives to the neo-liberal economic order; challenges to the global political order; regional integration as an alternative to a unipolar world; and transition to socialism: economic, social and political aspects. Each of the workshops had to come up with a position paper highlighting key issues and problems raised, as well as suggestions on how things ought to move forward. The plan was to collate these reports together after the Assembly.

In the evenings, plenary sessions were held. These sessions were open to the public and focused on the transition to socialism in particular countries or regions viz: on Venezuela, Bolivia, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and the United States, the Middle East and the Arab World, Africa, and Asia. I was particularly impressed by the popular interest in these evening sessions and how members of the public engaged in exchanges with the speakers, all, in spite of relying on translations.

In fact, the one on Asia turned rather confrontational. On that occasion, the panel comprised Wen Tiejun from the People’s Univerisity in Beijing, Fikret Baskaya, a university professor and political leader from Turkey, Chandra Prasad Gajurel, the politburo member of the Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist, as well as an MP and member of the Constitutional Assembly of Nepal, and Arena’s own Vinod Raina. Not surprisingly, much of the discussion was located in the context of the unraveling of the neo-liberal global economic order.  There was much criticism of  how so-called socialist countries had adopted neo-liberal development strategies of development these past decades.

Learning about Venezuela’s Missions

Apart from meeting and ‘workshopping’, being present in Venezuela allowed one to learn more about the political ferment not just in Venezuela but throughout the region. Indeed, this political ferment stands in stark contrast to the focus on economic development and increasing de-politicisation of Asian societies during the same period. (In an accompanying report below I piece together my thoughts, based on discussions with people I met, as well as on readings on contemporary Latin America, about this political ferment and the new sense of regionalism that is emerging). In what follows, I share some thoughts about our guided tour of some barrios in Caracas and of our meeting with President Hugo Chavez.

On the last day of the Assembly, we were taken on guided tours of several barrios to get a feel of what the Venezuelan missions were about. My group dropped by a neighbourhood clinic which was located in the ground floor of a block of flats. It looked like any middle-range polyclinic that one might encounter in downtown Kuala Lumpur, or Bangkok, or HK, except that this one provided services completely free-of-charge. Interestingly, it combined the provision of medical services with preventive health care extension services. It boasted, among other things, a minor surgical unit, scanning machines, a children’s health unit, a physiotherapy unit and an eye surgery section.

One part of the premises in the waiting area was a little out-of-character for a clinic. This might be called the political education unit where there were portraits of Chavez, Fidel, and Che Guevera (a revolutionary doctor, we are reminded). There were lots of pamphlets and newsletters to pick up; these were not just about keeping one’s self healthy, but about the lives and contributions of these revolutionary heroes.

We also visited Saaria, a densely populated area of high rise flats inhabited by the urban poor. I must say that I have visited sadder-looking slum areas in some of our Asian cities. In the open space in the midst of these flats was a make-shift market with long lines of people queuing up to buy meat, rice, pasta, milk powder and cooking oil at controlled prices. Other items were also on sale but at normal market prices. This was yet another mission, in this case charged with providing food security to poor communities, especially pertinent in a time of rising food prices.

Next we climbed four stories to the top of a building where a local community-based radio station was located. Yes, the state did not control the media as in so many of our Asian countries, Malaysia for one. It allowed the local media corporations linked to the global giants like CNN, CNBC, BBC, plus the powerful Catholic church to continue broadcasting. To combat this stranglehold, Venezuela has launched a new independent TV-station called Telesur,, which could be likened to Al-Jazeera in the West Asian context.

Chavez’s government also facilitated the establishment of community-based radio stations like the one we visited. Facilities were quite rudimentary and the recording room was quite make-shift. But the community was rather proud of having their own station which reported about local goings-on. The man in charge also explained that about five years ago, when Chavez had been arrested and a coup against him attempted, local radio stations like his had played a role in combating the propaganda from the mainstream media which claimed that Chavez had surrendered when in fact he had been arrested and held in an off-shore island. His station was attacked by anti-Chavez forces, he informed us. And they had to broadcast on the run.

Lastly, we visited a so-called Bolivarian elementary and high school, which was located in the vicinity of Saaria. Apparently, a Bolivarian school would provide comprehensive quality education, which combined sports and the creative arts, to the usual 3-Rs curriculum. It is actually about providing quality education with some choices for poor kids. After walking around the school, a group of young boys and girls performed for us, while their mothers served us a hearty meal of meat and corn soup, with bread – apparently, a treat for visitors to village communities.

Alas, we had no opportunity to visit the rural areas, which had generally been neglected by previous Venezuelan governments. Instead, past governments had paid more attention to the urban services and petroleum sectors to keep the country’s economy afloat. The result was rapid mass urbanisation, some 60 per cent of Venezuela’s population, and a wide gap between a small group of oligarchs on the one hand, and the landless, unemployed or underemployed masses – the lumpen – on the other. Despite Venezuela’s oil wealth, Venezuela did not even boast of a sizeable middle-class as in Argentina or Chile.

I have read that yet another of Chavez’s missions focuses on land reform in the rural areas. The latifundistas who had accumulated hundreds, even thousands of hectares of land over generations, but had generally left them fallow, were now asked to prove ownership of the various parcels of latifundio land that they claimed. This was because much peasant smallholdings had been seized illegally in the past. Under Chavez’s government, such disputed land has been reclaimed by the authorities and redistributed to landless farmers. More than that, the land reform involved providing follow-up technical assistance, plus help in marketing their products. If the land reform programme is actually so comprehensive, then there is real potential for farmers to earn a living, for the rehabilitation of the rural sector, and perhaps, even for reversing the urbanisation process.

We did not visit the favellas either; these are the squatter tenements that had mushroomed on the hill slopes on the outskirts of Caracas. But I have read that here operates yet another mission. Instead of evicting these squatters, Chavez’s government decided to bring improvements into these areas provided that some tenements were removed in order to improve hygiene and sanitation conditions, to strengthen the foundations of dangerous slopes, and to allow for the realignment of roads so that the inner reaches of these favellas could be accessed by ambulances and fire-engines in case of emergencies. There was too much a sense of community in the squatter areas, those involved in this mission argued, for them to be dismantled, and the people evicted; after all, the goal was to build community, not houses per se! No, we did not get to visit these areas either.

Meeting el Presidente

Finally, we had the opportunity to meet el Presidente – for some of the attendees, the highlight of the trip. Impressively, President Hugo Chavez was only 45 minutes late for our appointment. He spoke for about one and a half hours, listened to questions from the delegates for another hour and a half, and then spent another three hours answering them, one at a time, right past midnight! .

The meeting area had been carefully securitised a few hours before he arrived. But there was no pomp and ceremony, as would usually occur when meeting an Asian head-of-state. Chavez dressed casually and his manner of conduct, without airs, set the correct mood for the meeting, putting everyone at ease. As we had all heard, he was an impressive speaker. He interspersed serious discussion with small talk about his relations with other leaders, referring to them by their first names – Fidel, Lula, Evo, Christina – holding the 200 of us spellbound for some five hours. Oh yes, he also had a good sense of humour.

Below, I wish to offer some snippets of how he engaged with us that evening. My intention is not to recount the substance of what he said (for that see Patrick Bond ‘Notes on the Evening with Chavez, 16 Oct 2009’ www.nu.ac.za/ccs or via www.social-movements.org/en/book/print).  Rather I wish to share a ‘flavour of the evening’ – of the spread of issues discussed and of his demeanour when doing so.

For instance, upon arrival at the Assembly, before he addressed us, he pulled out of his bag a bundle of books: Bolivar, Rodriguez, Fidel, Che Guevera, Garcia Marquez and Istvan Meszaros’ Beyond Capital: a Theory of Transition.  He had come to meet the world’s intellectuals, he teased us, so brought his books along, just in case!  He would quote from them several times in the course of the evening. From the outset he declared that the roles of writers and revolutionaries, the thinkers and the doers, were equally important. He talked about the transition to socialism in Venezuela, about learning from past mistakes, from Cuba, but also stated, ‘a socialist has to read and read, not be afraid of self-criticism. Awareness is a most critical ingredient.’

Appropriately, he opened with a discussion about the ‘economic chaos’ occurring in the world.  I paraphrase: ‘The gentlemen in Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley had demonised us and predicted our collapse for 10 years. But, today, Wall Street went down again. So President Bush announced new plans to nationalise the banks. Look, who is collapsing? Look at comrade Bush nationalising the banks when I was criticised for doing so earlier!’  Interestingly, this remark on ‘comrade Bush!’ made the International Herald Tribune headlines the next day.

He talked about revising Venezuela’s Constitution from a thick document written in inaccessible language steeped in legalisms to one that was slim, written in ordinary language, and accessible to the ordinary people, which one could fit into a pocket. Yes, the new Constitution which has been passed, also includes anti-neoliberalism principles. ‘Now, president Evo Morales of Bolivia is also trying to produce a similar small Constitution, also incorporating anti-neoliberalism principles.’

He was critical of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which worked in favour of the United States. So he cooperated with other Latin American leaders to oppose it. They pushed for a new regional initiative that would integrate Latin American peoples together.  He elaborated on the ALBA principles, which underscore the new kind of regional cooperation proposed.

This part of the discussion was interspersed with talk about Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Cuba, as well as of his numerous meetings with Fidel ‘who has now got a baritone voice’ after his operations. But he still shouts a good ‘Venceremos’.  ‘We’re good friends except when it comes to sports!’  He stated that he had learnt lots from the veteran revolutionary.

Thanks to Cuba, they have a model to emulate, to learn from. He talked about the joy of helping his people to read, to improve their health and living conditions.  It was on account of this that he was re-elected.  And when the coup against him occurred, it was put down by a popular uprising of the people he had provided for.

The last part of his talk touched on building a new South-South alliance. He talked at length about NAM and the G-77; too many speeches and generally ineffective. After it had been inactive for 25 years, he helped to resurrect Opec.  He wishes to establish a Bank of the South to combat the IMF and the World Bank.  He also talked about Venezuela and Latin America’s growing trade relations with China and others.

Some questions for Arena and Asian activist-intellectuals

1.    Clearly, we must pay close attention to developments in Venezuela and Latin America. For that’s where the action is!  I propose that Arena and Asian NGOs should maintain close ties and learn from the on-going ferment there.  The various missions that Chavez has launched require close scrutiny too.  Will they be fully realised now that the price of petrol has fallen so drastically and Chavez might not have the same easy access to petrodollars as previously?  Or will the human will that has been awakened carry things home?

2.    A global economic crisis is on-going.  There is need for Arena and Asian NGOs to debate and understand what is going on better. Some friends have shared articles with one another but there is not enough debate.  Is the neoliberal economic order unravelling? Or is capitalism itself under assault?  What kind of impact is the crisis having on our region as a whole?  What of China?  India?  Korea?  Southeast Asia? Malaysia? Whither the rural poor?  Whither the working class? And the middle-classes?

3.    The success of this Assembly in Caracas, which brought together 200 people, poses a challenge to the World Social Forum, which focuses on mobilisation of tens of thousands.  Some people in the World Forum of Alternatives, including Samir Amin, are critical of the WSF process. Is it time to take stock of the WSF?  What is the point for bringing so many people together in one locale for a week?  Is it more fruitful for the organic intellectuals to provide some kind of guidance expressed in the form of documents and declarations as this Assembly of intellectuals and artists was able to do?  Or has the WFA compromised itself by working so closely with Chavez’s government, notwithstanding his anti-imperialism and self proclamation as a socialist? Is this ‘collaboration with a progressive state’ contradictory to the mobilisation of ‘popular resistance and popular organisations’ that the WSF aspires towards? Put another way, should one be more popular-oriented or can one be more state-oriented if the state is regarded to be progressive?  Or should one do both?

It is appropriate to end this report with the following poem which was read by the famous anti-apartheid poet in the Assembly’s closing ceremony

There will come a time
There will come a time we believe
When the shape of the planet
and the divisions of the land
Will be less important
We will be caught in a glow of friendship
a red star of hope
will illuminate our lives
A star of hope
A star of joy
A star of freedom

In thanks to President Hugo Chavez and the peoples of Venezuela: Dennis Brutus

17 October 2008, Caracas


Box A: World Forum for Alternatives (WFA)

The WFA is an international network of research centres and progressive intellectuals from the South and North.  Created in 1997, it aims at supporting the convergence processes of social movements and the development of alternatives that are democratic, pluralist and sustainable, as opposed to neoliberal globalisation and the various forms of discrimination and domination.. The WFA supports the struggle against neo-liberal globalisation by collectively creating alternative instruments of knowledge and communication, and by opening international spaces for debate on alternative strategies of development and people’s innovative experiences. Put another way, it promotes a ‘globalisation from below’ in order to overturn the power relationships imposed by the global elite who maintain a world order that is unjust and unsustainable.. (www.social-movements.org/en/book/print)


 

Box B: Network Intellectuals and Artists for the Defence of Humanity (Network-IADH)

The Network-IADH is also a movement against all forms of domination. It evolved from a meeting of intellectuals and artists in Mexico City in October 2003 to oppose the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the military threats against Iran, and the ongoing hostility against Cuba and Venezuela, as well as the media, economic and financial war undertaken by the American government to dominate the world. In Jan 2004, a follow-up meeting of Cuban and Venezuelan intellectuals who shared the same sentiments was held in Caracas. United and motivated by the ideas of Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti, two great Latin American revolutionaries, these intellectuals further mobilised their counterparts from throughout Latin America to oppose American imperial expansion. Consequently, a World Encounter of Intellectuals and Artists ‘In Defence of Humanity’ was organised in December 2004 in Caracas with representatives from 52 countries in attendance. Since that meeting a network of these intellectuals and artists has been realised, various cultural and artistic actions taken, mobilising the group to participate in Social Forums and popular battles, etc.

From the very beginning, the movement had the support of Nobel laureates Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Rigoberta Menchu, Nadine Gordimer, Jose Saramago, as well as renown artists and intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, Ernesto Cardenal, Theotonio Dos Santos, Harry Belafonte, Ahmad ben Bella, Richard Gott, Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, Ramsey Clark, Samir Amin, Tarik Ali, Amina Baraka, and James Petras. Chapters of the Network have been established in most South American countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and also in Canada, United States, Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, (www.humanidadenred.org)

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