• São Paulo Forum: The Experience of a United Left and a Changed Latin America

  • By Maite Mola , Obey Ament | 06 Dec 13 | Posted under: Latin America
  • For almost a quarter of a century the Latin American left has stood as an unprecedented example of collaboration, reflection and debate.

    Since its creation, the São Paulo Forum (FSP), which unites more than 50 parties of the wider political spectrum of the Latin American left, has turned into a joint platform for the convergence and coordination of solidary action generated by its constituent forces; however, it has established itself as neither a new international working men’s association nor a joint political programme.

    Diversity, unity and openness are the elements its members deem vital in order to gain access to political power and to reach the goal of regional progressive integration.

    The idea of creating this platform arose during a discussion between Luiz Inácio da Silva, leader at the time of the then recently founded Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), and Fidel Castro, then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. In June 1990 the ‘Meeting of Left and Anti-imperialist Parties and Organisations of Latin America and the Caribbean’ took place. It was launched by the PT in the city of São Paulo.

    This first meeting took place in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Debates and campaigns in the media about ‘the death of communism’ demonstrated the determination of the left not to give up on its progressive goals. The declaration, which was adopted by the 48 parties and organisations present, confirmed their wish to ‘renew the concept of the left and socialism, to reassert its emancipatory character, to correct erroneous conceptions, to overcome all manifestations of bureaucracy and to counteract the total absence of real social democracy for the masses’. They rejected ‘all ambitions to harness the crisis in Eastern Europe to the promotion of the capitalist establishment’, as well as feeding people false hopes vis-à-vis to ‘the inexistent positive aspects of liberalism and capitalism’. In addition, changes in the world order were analysed, as were the repercussions of these changes on Latin America, the impact of neoliberalism and the crisis of ‘real socialism’. Furthermore, a first approximation to the question of political strategies was made.

    This political platform, which was ultimately named the ‘São Paulo Forum’, will soon hold its 20th meeting. The meeting will occur in the historical context of the left’s coming to power in the majority of Latin American countries as a result of the Forum’s contribution in the 1990s to the resistance against the neoliberal offensive.

    During the neoliberal offensive of the 1980s and 1990s, which followed the debt crisis, IMF remedies were administered: structural adjustments were made and economies and countries which had been built during the ‘structuralist’ years were dismantled. These structures had sought to help the countries in the region become more independent through increased industrialisation and import substitution. After this, the experimental model applied during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was transformed into a model for all civil governments in the American continent, and eventually this ideological assault promoted the idea that in a ‘free society’ the ‘free market’ and ‘representative democracy’ form an insoluble whole, which thus excluded Cuban socialism as well as other attempts at alternatives to capitalism.

    In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by the United States, Mexico and Canada. It represented the first step towards one great continental market: the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). This huge geopolitical project was proposed by George Bush Sr. and was born within the context of the Initiative of the Americas which united the presidents of the American countries, with the exception of Cuba. The Organization of American States (OAS), a political instrument of US hegemony, was transformed into an institutional framework in which the neoliberal model was cemented in a ‘Democratic Charter’.

    It was in this political climate, characterised by neoliberalism and a new offensive of political and economic domination from Washington, that the Latin American political and social left developed its resistance. Confrontation with the neoliberal forces paved the way for the conquering of new political spaces. The prospect of winning power in several countries fostered debates during the FSP on questions of political strategies: What alliances will lead to victory?  Do we need to get closer to the political centre? What parties can be part of the Forum? What degree of openness is necessary?  Are armed organisations given a platform within the Forum? What should be the tenor of the programme’s content? How should the FSP work?

    After victories in Venezuela (1998) and Brazil (2002), the forces of the left came to power in Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Paraguay.

    There were improved election results in other states which led to victorious regional and local governments in a number of countries, including Mexico. This period also saw the development of great struggles in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina and a few lessons learnt during failed attempts to form alliances with parties of the political centre. These events caused the Latin American left to initiate a more focused debate on specific transformation policies. A rapprochement with the social movements began to form, and the FSP started to participate in the World Social Forum.

    The Forum confirmed itself as a pluralistic platform for the coordination of political initiatives, witnessing the dawning of a new political era. To enable the FSP to operate, coordinate its activities and organise its meetings, a Working Group formed of a core of parties and an Executive Secretariat, which is based in the city of São Paulo, has been charged with these tasks. New parties may be admitted if they declare commitment to the documents adopted by the Forum and if the existing member countries collectively approve their admittance.

    The progress achieved was important from a democratic, economic, social and cultural point of view. US hegemony and neoliberal ideology have receded and, thanks to the efforts of progressive governments, new platforms for regional integration were formed, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). All three are platforms for political reconciliation, conflict prevention and cooperation. Cuba, which in 1962 had been excluded from all regional political entities for having chosen a socialist path, today holds the CELAC presidency. Besides representing the rectification of an injustice, Cuba’s integration was a political event of great importance – it was an act of sovereignty on the part of the governments in the region.

    Another important event was the resounding rejection of the agreement on the Free Trade Area of the Americas by the majority of Latin American countries. Since then, the OAS has lost a great deal of its political standing, despite efforts by Washington and its allies to lend it new legitimacy.

    With the current crisis which began in 2008/2009, difficulties and obstacles have become more evident; the political and economic model which rests on the redistribution of wealth through the exploitation of natural resources on a capitalist basis is revealing its limits – and they are becoming increasingly obvious. The São Paulo Forum debates demonstrate the need for left governments to collaborate by expanding their transformation policies, and it emphasises mutual solidarity in part as an aid in enabling these countries to persuade other governments.

    Now more than ever, the question of regional, political, economic and social integration is considered a question of the greatest importance. 

    An important element in opposing the offensive launched by the Obama administration and its allies is the recently created Pacific Alliance which sees Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile united against the neoliberal integration project. 

    During the last meeting of the Forum, which took place in the city of São Paulo at the end of July 2013, an action plan and a political declaration were adopted, paving the way for a series of campaigns and initiatives, including solidarity actions with parties taking part in the 2014 elections and a campaign for peace in Colombia. Further campaigns included sending a delegation to countries of the Middle East.

    The crisis policies adopted by European countries are a cause for concern for the parties of the São Paulo Forum. After speaking about recent popular movements which shook all of Brazil earlier this year, Brazilian ex-president Lula da Silva warned against the left distancing itself from its peoples in a speech given during the Forum’s opening session. He cited the governments of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and of Italy’s Democratic Party as examples of left governments with a rhetoric approximating that of the right.

    For numerous years the FSP and the Party of the European Left have established relations to encourage political cooperation which are now bearing fruit; a dialogue on various issues has enabled a better understanding of the respective realities and party strategies. This cooperation strives to be tangible and relevant rather than just formal and rhetorical. In this spirit, two seminars were organised on questions related to immigrants’ rights and forms of participation in struggles and in the political life of the countries in which they are being integrated. Other meetings have enabled an exchange on questions of the crisis of capitalism, the forms of regional integration and peace.

    These kinds of meetings between left forces of different continents could be another contribution to the renewal of progressive thinking and the creation of cooperation platforms for a new form of internationalism.

    In a quarter of a century, the São Paulo Forum and its constituent forces have managed to change the relations between political forces across the whole continent. The transformation accomplished has legitimised the Latin American left in the eyes of people throughout the world.

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