WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Presidents for Feminist Socialism

By Mario Osava, Inter Press Service, January 30, 2009

BELÉM, Brazil, Jan 30 (IPS) – “True socialism is feminist,” and is already being built, said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, standing next to three other South American presidents, all of them men, at a dialogue that took place Thursday at the World Social Forum (WSF).

“A new world is being born. Utopia is here in South America,” continued Chávez, in a speech in which he repeatedly mentioned Fidel Castro as the precursor of the wave of leftwing presidents elected in the region in the past few years, and of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). 

The presidents were speaking at the Dialogue on Popular Integration of Our America, organised by Via Campesina, an international network of rural movements and groups. 

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, however, highlighted a number of differences between “21st century socialism,” a vision he shares with the Venezuelan president, and “traditional socialism”. One of these is “gender justice”, to end discrimination against women, which the Ecuadorean state is promoting by, for example, paying equal wages to men and women government employees. 

“Ethnic equality”, or a society that is inclusive of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, and “intergenerational equity” are other differences, he said. 

But the most general criticism levelled by Correa at “classical socialism” is that it “failed to question the development” model promoted by capitalism, and merely proposed “fairer means of achieving it”, while accepting the goals of raising productivity and consumption. 

If China were to reach the same level of “development” as industrialised nations, the planet would be incapable of meeting the material demand, he argued. Today a different kind of development must be pursued, one which preserves nature, biodiversity and cultural diversity, he said. 

Twenty-first century socialism “is already in place”, recognising the supreme value of human work, defending life and the “social value” of ecosystems like “the Amazon rainforest, one of the planet’s lungs”. Countries of the Amazon region, unlike industrial nations which destroyed their forests, have conserved an environment that has “enormous value, but is without price”, he said. 

Leaving oil reserves untapped, as Ecuador is trying to do, is a sacrifice on behalf of humanity that “should be compensated with at least half the income that might accrue to us” from exploiting the oil, he added. 

In the face of global climate change, alternative development is today “a necessity recognised even by technology experts”, Correa said. 

“An alternative model already exists” in Latin America, and will be able to make great progress by means of regional integration, which already has financial instruments like the Bank of the South and a possible institutional framework in the Organisation of Latin American and Caribbean States, approved in principle at the regional summit in Salvador, Brazil, in December 2008, he said. 

Changes within the region, reflected in the presence of the four presidents regarded as being the most leftwing at Belém, owe a great deal to the WSF, the “assembly of humanity” which began meeting annually in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001, the presidents agreed. 

“Paraguay changed because of your social movements’ voices of hope,” said Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who took office in August 2008. He said he had participated in previous WSF gatherings as a Catholic bishop. 

Peppering his speech with anti-imperialist slogans, Bolivian President Evo Morales condemned foreign military bases on Latin American soil, the result of “American interventionism,” he said. 

Chávez filled his speech with jokes and anecdotes, and garnered plenty of applause when he declared himself “a feminist”, particularly from women participants who chanted “Just you wait, imperialist, Latin America will all be feminist!” 

Nearly 1,200 people participated in the Via Campesina dialogue, which was in effect organised by the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) of Brazil, a member organisation. Representatives of other social groups were invited. But only two women were seated at the table up front, together with eight men. 

Magdalena León, of the Latin American Network of Women Transforming the Economy, said that financial and food sovereignty, as well as in other areas like communications, are essential dimensions of ALBA and that small farmers, many of them producing at subsistence level, are the foundation of the “other economy” that is being built. 

ALBA is the brainchild of Chávez, and is made up of Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela. 

The absence of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a gathering of so many South American presidents “is a matter of concern because he is the host”, and a sign of “lack of interest in integration”, Pedro Quimbiamba, leader of Ecuador’s National Federation of Peasant, Indigenous and Black Organisations (FENOCIN), told IPS. 

The socialism championed by the four presidents attending the WSF, who support ALBA (although Ecuador and Paraguay have not yet officially joined), may be the reason for Lula’s decision, said María Gualán, a grassroots organiser for FENOCIN. 

Electing more women presidents in the countries of the region “is a matter of time”, Gualán told IPS, rationalising the predominance of male leaders as a delay in overcoming “machista” culture. 

For Ecuador to have an indigenous president, like Bolivia, will also take time, but “it will happen some day”, said the FENOCIN activists, both of whom are indigenous people. 

On a different issue, President Lugo of Paraguay said “we will not rest in peace, and our soul will not rest, until we attain that goal”, meaning a better price and “free availability” of energy produced by the Itaipú hydroelectric power station, which Paraguay sells to Brazil. 

Itaipú is shared by the two countries on conditions agreed in “a treaty signed during the dictatorships” in 1973, he said. Revising these conditions was one of the main planks of Lugo’s electoral campaign last year. 

Paraguay wants to “recover its dignity” and be “treated as an equal”, in fulfilment of a Guaraní prophecy, the president said. 

There is no reason for the dispute, according to the Brazilian government and the Brazilian administrators of Itaipú, because the price is fair and the agreement is greatly to the benefit of Paraguay. 

The construction of the gigantic Itaipú dam and hydroelectric station on the Paraná River, a border between the two countries, was financed by Brazil. 

For Paraguay, “A better deal than Itaipú could only be another Itaipú,” Nelton Friedrich, the Brazilian head of coordination and environmental affairs at Itaipú Binacional, the company that runs the power plant, told IPS. 

Paraguay earns 700 million dollars a year without having invested a single dollar. Brazil bore the cost of the works, and at one point the foreign debt incurred for the construction of Itaipú represented 20 percent of the total Brazilian national debt, Friedrich said. 

Furthermore, in the first few years of its operation, when Brazilian demand was too low to absorb a large proportion of the energy generated by the plant, the Brazilian government obliged electricity distribution companies to buy and pay for electricity from Itaipú, thus benefiting Paraguay, he said. 

Itaipú Binacional’s debt now stands at 18 billion dollars, and is falling. In 2023, when the treaty expires, the debt will be liquidated. Paraguay will receive half of the power station, whose market value today is 60 billion dollars, and will be able to sell the electricity to whomever it wants, he concluded. 

At present, Paraguay only consumes five percent of the electricity generated, and is obliged by the terms of the treaty to sell Brazil all the rest of its share of the energy at predetermined rates.

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