January 29--Throwing Eggs on a Rock
In addition to the Iraq War, another big issue at the World Social Forum is neoliberalism and the fight against the World Trade Organization (WTO).
On Saturday I went to a panel entitled "The Battle of Hong Kong and Global Resistance to WTO and to Free Trade." Mikyuong Ryu from the Korean People´s Action Against Free Trade and WTO, Walden Bello from Focus on the Global South, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, and others participated in the event.
The WTO held ministerial meetings in Hong Kong in December, and people from around the world gathered there to protest.
In Hong Kong, the delegates expanded the power of the WTO. The regulations of the WTO can overrule a county’s own laws. As Wallach said, it´s "like having a gun at the head of democracy" if a country goes against the rules.
Ryu organized the delegation from South Korea. She told us that the South Korean government was ready to liberalize rice, the staple of Korean food. So 1,000 peasants, 150 workers from the health care and educational sectors, and students decided to go to Hong Kong in hopes of putting pressure on their government. "We were completely fed up with the neoliberal policies our government was forcing on us," she said.
Bello said that there were "militant, nonviolent" street protests. Korean farmers led the biggest march through the streets of Hong Kong. Some farmers and workers decided to swim across Victoria Harbor in order to reach the convention center. (See On The Line in the February issue of TheProgressive for amazing photos of these demonstrations.)
The demonstrators got near the convention center, and the police threw tear gas and arrested 1,000 people.
The police released most of them, but they detained 4. According to Bello, the police still have three demonstrators in custody.
While the demonstrators were nearing the entrance and the police threw tear gas, the governmental delegates signed an agreement that gave the WTO a second wind.
Ryu said: "When I heard the deal was struck, I felt as if we had been throwing eggs on a rock, as we say in Korea. But at the same times, I felt the great strength of what we can do if we unify and work in solidarity with each other. I particularly felt this when the 14 people were detained in Hong Kong and were about to be charged by the Hong Kong authorities. There was a massive movement all around the world, sending petitions and letters for their release. There were protests in about 20 different cities around the world. That gave me hope that if we put all of our strength together we really will be able to put an end to the WTO and also to the neoliberal regime itself. So from now on we really need to work together for the next few months, maybe a year, maybe two years. It´ll be a most crucial time when we really need to exert ourselves." Wallach echoed Ryu. The next year, maybe two, are crucial in the development of the WTO, she said. Activists have a short time line to organize.
Wallach suggested that activists look for the Achilles heel of their countries. For example, it would be extremely difficult for the USA to give up agricultural subsidies for American farmers. Wallach suggested that people educate themselves about the issue and visit their members of Congress and put pressure on them to not agree to bad trade policies.
On January 27 I attended a workshop entitled "La Walmartizacion." Labor organizers from the Union Network International spoke about the global fight against Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart recently entered the Central American market by purchasing a chain of supermarkets. This is one of Wal-Mart´s global strategies, which it is using in Europe and Latin America. Wal-Mart is now the largest private employer in Mexico.
Last August, members of UNI met in Chicago and decided to put pressure on the behemoth from Bentonville. According to Rodolfo Benitez, regional secretary of UNI-Americas, the company promised UNI a meeting, but it still hasn´t happened.
What is interesting about Wal-Mart in Argentina is that it is unionized. When Wal-Mart entered Argentina, about eight or nine years ago, it took over stores that already had union representation. In order to do business in the country, it had to do business with the unions, said Ruben Cortina, a unionist from Argentina.
Cortina said that multinationals have changed, and therefore the labor movement must change. "We need an international labor law," he said, since companies like Wal-Mart drive down wages worldwide.
"The labor movement must recapture what was lost during the era of neoliberalism," he said.
War Resister Speaks at World Social Forum, January 27. On January 27, war resister Pablo Paredes gave a talk at the World Social Forum about his federal case as part of an event organized by the Campus Antiwar Network. A military judge court-martialed him in May 2005 for refusing to serve in the Iraq War.
In his long, baggy shorts, white T-shirt, and dark blue knit cap, Paredes (www.swiftsmartveterans.com) hardly looked like the protagonist in what is a great story about standing up for one’s beliefs.
Paredes joined the Navy because he lacked access to a decent education. He was shipped to Japan and began to educate himself. He said he became familiar with the history of the United States, and of Latin America. He learned about the history of U.S. intervention. “That changed the way I thought,” he said. “It became difficult for me to wear the uniform knowing how much Latin American blood is on it.” (Paredes’s mom is Puerto Rican and his father is Equadorian.)
He said he was frank with his superiors, and told them he thought the Iraq War was illegal. His superiors sent him to board the USS Bonhomme Richard, a ship bound for Iraq.
Paredes decided he would refuse to board the ship and invited the press to come. The military didn’t know what to do, he said, because to arrest him in front of the media would have been a PR nightmare. They did not arrest him and much to his surprise, after he had said goodbye to his family and to his girlfriend, he slept in his own bed that night.
A military judge sentenced him to 3 months of hard labor, two months of house arrest, demotion of rank, and loss of benefits. Paredes said this light sentence was a victory for the peace movement. In 2004, Carlos Mejia, another Iraq War resister, received a harsher sentence and received little media attention. Paredes said twenty-six journalists covered his case.
Last October, the Navy discharged the former Petty Officer “under honorable conditions.” He is now suing the U.S. government for its failing to recognize him as a conscientious objector.
Paredes said he is walking in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in the Vietnam War on religious grounds, and took his case to the Supreme Court.
Here’s an excerpt from Paredes statement during his sentencing:
"What I submit to you and the court is that I am convinced that the current war is exactly that (illegal). So, if there's anything I could be guilty of, it is my beliefs. I am guilty of believing this war is illegal. I'm guilty of believing war in all forms is immoral and useless, and I am guilty of believing that as a service member I have a duty to refuse to participate in this war because it is illegal."
(Paredes wrote an op-ed for the Progressive Media Project on February 24, 2005.)
Thursday p.m., Jan. 26. On Thursday night, writer Luis Rodríguez shared his poetry at a reading in the USA tent. He had to fight to be heard over the noise from the other tents nearby, but still the reading was enjoyable.
What I appreciate most about Rodríguez is his belief in transformation, that people can change and that art and creativity are crucial. He and his wife run a cultural center and bookstore in East LA called Tia Chucha.
You can find more info at his website:www.tiachucha.com. Rodríguez read from his memoir, “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA.” The book tells how he went from being a gangbanger in LA to the man he now is. He wrote the book for his son, who he saw falling into the gang life.
“Young people can change, can be transformed, with community and with consciousness,” he said. He added that the USA cannot continue to jail poor people and noted we have more people in jail than any other country.
“We need to reach out to young people,” he said. Young people need “a sense of purpose and a reason to live. The movement we are trying to create here [at the World Social Forum] is connected to this.”
Rodríguez also read some of his poetry to us, and defended the role of this art form. “Poetry opens sacred spaces,” he said. “Poetry opens doors we didn't have before. Poems need to be part of the struggle.”
In one poem, he asked: “What good is a country if you can’t eat? Hungry people have no country.” And he read a poem he wrote for his parents, who were immigrants from Mexico, called “Welcome to America.” Here is a line from it: “When it comes to not having a house, there are no borders.”
After reading several political poems, Rodríguez left us with a love poem he wrote for his wife. “Love keeps us moving,” he said. “Love has to be at the center of this movement.”
January 26. Today in the blazing Caracas sun, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign held a press conference to let people know, especially the international press, about the existence of poverty in the United States.
Cheri Honkala, national coordinator of the campaign, said she was “tired of our reality being hidden.”
Jeff Millard, a disabled Iraq War veteran, also spoke. “I'm here to let my country know that every bomb dropped in Iraq lands in New Orleans and explodes on the poor.”
Poet Luis Rodríguez is here, too, and he said that “the lie the UnitedStates has propagated is that everything is paradise. It isn't reality,that everyone has a house and has wealth.”
The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign held the press conference near the United States tent. Other countries have large tents nearby, including Brazil and the Occupied Territories. Tonight, Rodríquez is scheduled for a poetry reading at the American tent.
Last night while watching television, I saw Cindy Sheehan speaking outabout the Iraq War. Her message is being warmly received at the WorldSocial Forum.
She wrote from Caracas, “We as citizens of the United States of America must stop allowing our leaders to give the orders to kill innocent people.”
January 25. On the Way to the World Social Forum. Rain drizzled on the opening march of the sixth World Social Forum, but it didn't stop the party-like atmosphere.
The march had a strong pro-peace, anti-imperialist flavor, with Women Against War leading the way. U.S. activists Cindy Sheehan of Gold Star Families for Peace, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Global Exchange, and Cheri Honkala of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign were at the head of the march. They held a banner that read "un otro mundo es posible" (another world is possible), a slogan that has united the seemingly disparate groups that have come together at these World Social Fora.
Critics and activists have said that the World Social Forums lack a focus.
But there is something inspiring about seeing people from different organizations, such as the Christian Movement for Peace from Colombia and the U.S. labor group Jobs with Justice, walk side by side. One of the more striking moments for me was seeing a peace group from Colombia. They had their own band, with trumpets and drums and other instruments. They maintained a carneval atmosphere, while holding big black and white photos of people who have been "disappeared" during Colombia's unceasing civil war.
The march ended at a military park, where organizers had set up a huge stage. Bands from all over the world entertained the large crowd. In between sets, activists roused the audience with speeches.
Demilitarization is a main theme of the forum this year, and Cindy Sheehan set the tone with the short speech she gave from the stage. "George Bush is a coward," she said, and the crowd cheered. Her son and other people's children "were killed by lying cowards in my government," she said. "We have to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home. And we need to hold someone accountable for the deaths in Iraq.” Again, the crowd cheered loudly.