An Invitation from the South

Editor's Introduction

This issue grows out of three months I spent in Latin America, meeting with social movement leaders, community organizers, writers, intellectuals, and ordinary people. Between October and January, I visited Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, Cuba, and Guatemala, looking for answers to a simple question. I already knew that many people in the Americas are rejecting “neoliberalism” (the face of globalized capitalism represented by large corporations, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank). But I wanted to know what the people of Latin America are creating to take its place.

I was especially curious because in the United States, we also have issues with neoliberalism. We're losing family-wage jobs and access to health care and affordable education. Like the people of the South, we find civil liberties, a functioning democracy, environmental protection, and the quality of life slipping away as corporate influence grows stronger and power shifts away from “we the people.”

So what can we in North America learn from what's happening in Latin America?

What I witnessed, and what I want to share with you, are signs of new societies struggling to be born. Like any human effort, the results to date are far from perfect. Yet throughout my travels, I found an ambition to take on the big issues confronting human society—to end poverty and social exclusion, to establish and deepen democracy, and to listen to indigenous teachings about self-determination and the protection of Mother Earth.

The people of Latin America are choosing to be creators of their own futures, neither the passive victims nor obsequious beggars of the global economy. No longer will they allow outside interests—such as the U.S. government—to undermine their elected leaders in favor of dictators like Augusto Pinochet. They have not forgotten the human rights abuses of the past, and they expect to bring to trial those responsible.

They will no longer sign on to trade deals that open their natural resources and labor to unregulated exploitation and make protection of their own economies impossible.

They are forming new trade relationships among themselves based on “solidarity”—the notion that for any to win, all must win. And they have closed the door on IMF domination of national finances (see page 47) and on the economic growth model that promotes greater wealth for those who are already wealthy. Instead, they are working to share the wealth and eliminate joblessness, illiteracy, and preventable disease.

I didn't find any utopias in the South, and few saints; some areas remain mired in violence and hopelessness. But I did find increasingly self-aware and powerful social movements that remain, nonetheless, decentralized and democratic. They are bringing leaders to power, holding them accountable, and pressing for yet more democracy.

And in gatherings at all scales—of governments, social movements, and indigenous peoples—there is vigorous debate about the sort of societies they want to create.

Where do we in the North fit in? Those I spoke to understand that the people of the United States take very different positions than the elites who run the country. (We used to have that problem, too, one Venezuelan co-op worker assured me.) They urged us to drop our fear, as they have learned to do in the face of government repression, economic collapse, and military coups. And everywhere I heard the invitation for those of us in the North to join the people of the South in creating a better world for all.

van Gelder. Photo by Martha van Gelder
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