Another Two Worlds Are Possible?

At this year’s Ibero-American Presidential Summit and parallel Alternative Social Forum, two opposing forces in Latin America’s fierce polemic over the direction of its own social and economic progress were well defined. The twenty one presidents of Latin America were lodged in the most luxurious hotel in Boliva to participate in the XIII Ibero-American Presidential Summit. Meanwhile, blocks away in the same city, activists, farmers, NGO’s, professors and opposition leaders from all over Latin America set up their Alternative Social Forum in the city’s Autonomous University of Gabriel Morenos. The politicians slept in $200 USD a night hotel rooms with shiny bathrooms, room service, armed guards and air conditioned conference halls to talk about trade agreements, poverty, social exclusion and national debt. Those at the university slept on the floor, shared bathrooms and food and discussed, in the heavy tropical heat, trade agreements, poverty, social exclusion and national debt. The slogan for both the Presidential Summit and the Social Forum was “Another World is Possible.”

The two events approached the same issues from opposite view points. The Alternative Social Forum where the activists and farmers were meeting, rejected the FTAA agreement, harsh anti-terror and protest laws, the continuation of Bolivia’s Gas agreement and coca eradication laws. Those at the Ibero-American Presidential Summit were primarily supportive of the FTAA, united in thier “war on terror”, ready to discuss changes in Bolivia’s current gas agreement, but not wholly reject it, and planned to continue with the same stance on coca eradication as stipulated by intense US pressure on the issue.

The Ibero-American Presidential Summit

After the initiative of Juan Carlos I, the king of Spain, the first Ibero-American Presidential Summit took place in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1991. Since then, the Summits have taken place each year in cities across Central and South America, and have always included presidents from all over the continent, as well as those from Portugal and Spain. Every year the meetings are based on a different set of issues, such as health care, education, participative democratic procedures, globalization and regional integration, tourism, environmental issues and national debt.

This year, in Santa Cruz, the streets and intersections around the Tajibos Hotel where the Ibero-American Summit took place were roped off and lined with hundreds of police and military officials. People who lived and owned businesses near the hotel had to evacuate the area during the Summit. Only the presidents and thier officials, the workers at the Summit and the press were allowed to enter the hotel.

The Presidential Summit was all very well planned and controlled. Unlike the Social Forum, there were no improvised discussions, debates or panels. For the most part, when the official program called for their appearance, the presidents and their armies of consultants, advisors and body gaurds came out of their comfortable hotel rooms only to give pre-scripted and vague opinions on various issues.

Good Intentions, Fancy Hotel

Despite the highly controlled atmosphere and uninspiring meetings, some useful contacts between political leaders were made and politicians displayed good intentions in regards to the recent conflict in Bolivia. For example, Evo Morales, Bolivian congressman and coca farmer leader, spoke with Kofi Annan. The United Nations leader invited Morales to participate in an indigenous rights conference in New York City. However, Morales was unable to attend the meeting due to the fact that the US embassy in Bolivia refused to grant him a visa for the trip.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela spoke of the issue of impunity: “There is great guilt for what took place here in Bolivia in October. Those guilty people should be tried…Just as the men and women of Latin America should judge the savage neoliberalism that is putting an end to the people of this continent.” Many of the other president’s reserved and careful speeches paled in comparison to Chavez’s fiery discourses.

Fidel Castro could not make it to the Summit due to “agenda problems”, so the vice-president of Cuba, Carlos Lage, was sent his place. After stating that Castro was to double the amount of scholarships that were to be sent to Bolivian students to allow them to study in Cuba, Lage said, “Solidarity isn’t giving a limousine to someone, it is sharing what you have with others.”

However, for many, the gap between the rich facilities of the presidents and the extensive poverty in Bolivia, was hard to ignore. Maria Rodriguez, an activist student from the Autonomous University of Gabriel Morenos, commented on the Presidential Summit, “Yes, there are some good leaders at the Summit. They talk and talk about solutions, and many have good intentions, but why do they have to spend millions of dollars on security, travel costs, food and air conditioning, when there are people all over the continent going hungry?”

The Alternative Social Forum

The Alternative Social Forum in Santa Cruz was a smaller version of what took place at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil last year. This forum’s goal was to “construct democratic debates of ideas, elaborate proposals, establish a free exchange of experiences and articulate effective actions that oppose neoliberalism and the domination of countries for transnational capital or for whatever form of imperialism.”

The Autonomous University of Gabriel Morenos, where the Forum took place, operates on a very low budget and is made up of run-down buildings that have been used for decades. Throughout the Social Forum its classrooms were packed with people from all over Latin America and the world. Delegations at the Forum included representatives from Brazil’s Landless Movement, an ATTAC coalition from Spain, indigenous groups from Ecuador, worker unions and activists from Chile and Argentina, students from all over Bolivia, cocaleros and farmers, human rights NGO’s and Bolivian congressmen and women.

“The idea isn’t just to protest the President’s Summit,” Maria Rodriguez said. “This is an alternative forum where people from all sectors of society can come and exchange ideas and try to educate each other.”

The events at the Forum revolved around topics such as the FTAA, environmental issues, the history of Latin America Social Movements, poverty, Indymedia, feminism, coca eradication, homeless children, agriculture and land issues. Though haggard from the traveling it took to get there, many participants were smiling, energetic and involved in deep discussions, some strumming guitars and selling leftist pamphlets and Che Guevara T-shirts.

Rafael Lopez, a Sociology Student at the University where the Social Forum was taking place, and who worked as an organizer for the event, spoke about his thoughts on the Presidential Summit, “I was going to try to work at the Presidential Summit,” he said, “just to see what it was like. But you needed to pass a special exam in order to work there.” He could not afford the $40 USD fee to take the exam. “If you didn’t pass the exam,” he continued, “you could not work at the Summit and would not even get a refund for your 40 dollars. This in itself limited the participation in the Summit to only certain economic classes.”

For weeks, Lopez and other organizers had been planning for the Social Forum, inviting speakers, renting sound equipment, reserving classrooms, and publishing flyers on the events. Lopez spoke about his participation, “We organized events with various institutions that indentify with the pueblo, the people of Latin America, and not with the elite politicians, such as the case with the Summit. This Forum is free and anyone can come here – the political elite, the opposition leaders, everyone is welcome. It is for all classes of people.”

Strength Through Exuberance

One morning at the Alternative Social Forum, a panel on the landless movement began in the center of the campus, under a huge tent. Representatives from Bolivia and Brazil’s landless movement spoke to a crowd made up primarily of farmers who, like everyone else, had traveled hours to arrive there.

“[Carlos] Mesa (Bolivia’s new president) just wants to tranquilize us so he can go ahead and do the same as Goni (the ex-President). He has a different discourse; he listens to the people, but the system has not changed,” said one of the Bolivian Landless Movement leaders. Many of the speakers on the panel were chewing coca from a huge pile of the green leaves which was spread out on the table in front of them.

In a nearby classroom, a panel was taking place to discuss the FTAA. The panel included a bearded man in sandals, a well dressed professor, a farmer with his hat backwards and an aging union leader. The union leader shook his fist in the air, “We are a colony of the US, we don’t own anything. We are at the mercy of US companies and neoliberalism, the monster with a thousand heads.” The crowd nodded. A fan on the cieling rotated weakly. Outside, a volunteer wandered past with an armload of foam sleeping pads. A bystander walked by with a shirt on that said, “Fertile Land For Everyone.”

There seemed to be a sublte, but notable overlap in vocabulary usage between George W. Bush’s discourse against terrorism, and the left’s discourse against neoliberalism and imperialism at the Social Forum. Leftist speakers were using the same vague and powerful words that Bush uses such as “evil”, “good and bad”, “justice” and “freedom”, to describe their “war against colonization.” The differences between the Bushites and the leftist opposition leaders in Latin America are huge. But it is hard to ignore the fact that a common enemy and scapegoat strengthens any movement or platform. It is also convenient for the left, and often well founded, to base all guilt for the poverty, social turmoil and economic instability in the region on “neoliberalism, the monster with a thousand heads.”

In other talks, people spoke about their theater projects with homeless children, and about forming neighborhood groups and unions. One class discussed community protection of the environment, and another was entitled, “Resisting the Criminalization of Social Movements.”

Often the people in the panels were speaking to the choir. Still, in a country where many cannot afford to go to college or buy newspapers, these classes and panels were valuable. They clarified complex issues and talked about the laws, companies and systems of power that are pressuring many countries in the region.

At the Alternative Social Forum, seminar locations changed at the last minute and often even the organizers didn’t know where certain events were taking place. An impromptu concert would start up next to a soccer game while a children’s theatre production went on in the shade. At one point, a student next to an upside down American flag and a table of Trotskyist literature gave a fiery speech through a megaphone to a crowd of two people. What the Social Forum lacked in organization it made up for in enthusiasm and persistence.

Political Tourism

In the end, the final declaration of the Ibero-American Presidential Summit, which all participating presidents signed, cited social inclusion as a principal mechanism for the development of Ibero-American countries. The declaration also maintained that all participating countries opposed the US trade blockade against Cuba. It stressed the importance of debt reduction, the fight against corruption and the importance of education as a way to improve social inclusion and end poverty. (Opinion, 11/16/03)

Andres Oppenheimer, a journalist for the Miami Herald who has reported on twelve Ibero-American summits, warned that if the president’s are not forced to comply with the promises made at the summits, these expensive meetings could turn into simply an “exercise in political tourism.” He wrote, “They sign a declaration that many don’t have any intention to follow, nor demand that the others follow. How absurd! What sense does it make that Spain, Portugal and the twenty one Latin American countries that form the Ibero-American community continue with this yearly exercise of political hypocrisy?” (El Nuevo Herald, 11/18/02)

Though the reality gap between the Presidential Summit and the Social Forum was significant, some interesting exchanges between the two did occur.

The new president of Bolivia, Carlos Mesa, was invited to give a speech at the Alternative Social Forum. When he arrived, a writhing mass of activists waving anti-FTAA signs were there to greet him. During his speech, he spoke of the importance of justice for the victims of Bolivia’s Gas War and about the necesity to include more sectors of Bolivian society in the democratic processes of the country. When he said that his administration would analyze the FTAA and not oppose it entirely, the crowd began booing. Mesa yelled into the crowd, “You are not going to listen to promises I cannot keep!” Many nodded their heads in agreement.

On the other side of the city, Eduardo Medina, a Natural Medicine professor and organizer of the Alternative Social Forum in Santa Cruz was asked to speak at the Presidential Summit as a representative from the Forum. Medina gave his speech in front of the twenty one presidents of Latin America. Among the conclusions from the Social Forum, Medina spoke about the rejection of the FTAA, a modification of the Bolivia’s hydrocarbon law, an end to impunity for crimes the state has committed against the people, a fair distribution of land and an end to the violence that has developed out of the US’s war on drugs.

In an interview after the speech, Medina said that the declaration he read “was not created just to protest, it was created to suggest proposals. We, the people of Bolivia, and those who were at the Social Forum, need to participate actively and speak out.”

Long winded speeches and self congratulation, something that neither politicians nor activists are safe from, were abundant at both events, showing that the biggest challenge for each party may be transforming their words into actions. At the end of the weekend, each president from the Summit left in separate private jets to thier respective countries and political parties. Those from the Social Forum headed home in overpacked buses over bumpy roads. In this way, the participants from both events shoved off to thier other possible worlds.

BENJAMIN DANGL is a journalist working in Bolivia. He can be reached at:


Benjamin Dangl teaches journalism as a Lecturer of Public Communication in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont. He has worked as a journalist across Latin America and written three books on Bolivia, including The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press, 2019).