Monday, January 31, 2005

Our Dreams Don´t Fit on Your Ballots

The last few days at the world social forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil have been really damn hot - it´s humid and temperatures often go above one hundred degrees. At night the low is usually in the seventies or eighties. As much as I wanted to disregard the heat and focus on the forum, the music, the people, it has become an enormous part of the experience, especially for us northerners who are used to the subzero temperatures.

The World Social Forum is mainly comprised of tents where activities, talks, discussions take place and the youth camp is smack dab in the middle of it all with 25,000 people camping out in the blistering heat. The forum is generally more orderly and structured than the youth camp. A lot of the participants of the forum are staying in air conditioned hotels and are cleaner and sleep more than those staying in the youth camp.

The youth camp is more primative, with dozens of outdoor showers, countless nylon tents and constant music. Drums circles, bands and impromptu concerts play day and night. Parties, dancing, singing and talking goes on non-stop. I can´t imagine that anyone has had a full night of sleep since they arrived here. It´s a lot like what I imagine Woodstock was like. There are not enough facilities for the number of people attending, but most people help each other out and try to spread a "positive vibe" throughout the camp.

***

Some of the most interesting events of the week were documentaries on a variety of issues. "About Baghdad" was done by an Iraqi man who left Iraq in the nineties and returned in 2003 to interview people about the US occupation in Iraq. I have heard various reports from unembedded journalists in the country, but nothing I have seen or heard portrays the complexity of the situation there more than this movie. It is a mistake to make generalizations about the ideas, dreams and views of people any country and Iraq is no exception. In the movie, Iraqi men and women discuss the horror of the Saddam regime, the torture and imprisonment they endured and fear they had to speak their minds. One poet interviewed said something like the following about the country´s recent history: "May I speak in metaphors? Well then, for years the Iraqi people were in a theatre with no lights (under Saddam). They waited and waited for the light to come on. One day, the new boss arrives (the US) and turn the lights on. Everyone is very happy, but they are still in the theatre. The new boss burns the theatre down."

Another Iraqi woman in the documentary said about the US occupation: "Iraqi´s know what they want, it´s their country. How could Americans come here and know what´s good for Iraq?"

By far the best part of the forum/youth camp has been the numerous conversations I´ve been able to have with people from all over the globe. One evening, a few people from Brazil, Canada and Israel were talking about the current environmental crisis in the world. One person pointed out that deep oil drilling produces earthquakes like the one that triggered the tsunami. This is a grave fact knowing that oil drilling is probably not going to stop any time soon.

Another night, an Italian living in Brazil explained why he thought another four years of Bush will be good for the leftist movements in the world. His rationale was that Bush would push more people to action through his negative policies. I don´t agree with this way of thinking. Too many people will suffer and die in the meantime, even if it does produce a revolution. You can´t explain this theory to a family whose home was recently bombed in Iraq, telling them that the bombing was worth it in order to instigate a revolution...

Others I spoke with had very convincing arguments that Bush stole the election. They were based on accounts of massive voter fraud and disenfranchisement across the nation. Some were sure Kerry did not want to be president at all. In their minds, democrats in the US like what the Republicans are doing around the world because they, as members of the American elite, they are gaining a lot from Republican policies without taking any of the heat.

Another great thing about the forum is being able to network with other activists and writers. I´ve been able to exchange email addresses with folks I hope to meet up with later in this trip and beyond, making contacts with people in Uruguay, Buenos Aires and Venezuela who can help me with stories I plan to write. This kind of networking is enormously helpful and solidifies the leftist movements around the world by bringing people closer, coordinating activities and ideas.

Yesterday Venezuelan President Chavez gave a speech here. Thousands of people packed into the stadium to hear him, thousands more were forced to wait outside due to lack of space. The stadium itself was steaming hot. It has been hotter than hell around here for days, 100 degrees and more. We listened as different politicians and union leaders spoke, the whole crowd sweating profusely and waving papers and hats in their face to cool down. When a representative from a Brazilian union closely linked with Brazilian president Lula´s administration spoke, hundreds in the crowd started booing and screaming at him. Lula was hailed as a savior on the left when he came into office a few years ago, and since then has done little to fulfill his promises of raising the minimum wage, improving education, health care and land distribution. Therefore, many Brazilians, especially left-leaning ones are unhappy with the work he´s done, hence the booing.

Towards the end of his speech, Chavez responded to the crowds critical behavior by saying that early in his own political career, many of his fellow politicians kept telling him to be more radical, and make rapid changes. Yet, it wasn´t time for that, he explained. According to Chavez, there are certain phases that a government has to go through in order to make change and people should have patience. The attitudes and actions of other nations, corporations and international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF inhibit rapíd change that doesn´t accomodate to free trade policies.

It is interesting though, that Lula was received at the last world social forum here in Brazil as if he was a god, and now there are daily protests against him and I have not spoken to a single Brazilian that supports Lula.

At this forum I have learned to appreciate informal conversations. It is something I would like to continue doing after leaving the forum. Casual conversation with just about any stranger can be very rewarding. To hear someone´s political beliefs, what their work is, where they grew up, what they think of this or that politician, book or idea - having these types of conversations regularly over a long period of time can be a profound education. I have re-learned that here at the forum and would like to keep it up. People in general will almost always surprise you, particularly with their views on political and social issues. The political beliefs of one person will rarely fit into the framework of a single political party or simple stereotype. Graffiti in Argentina conveys this: "Our Dreams Don`t Fit On Your Ballots." Perhaps this is why so many people across Latin America are beginning to take things into their own hands.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Otro Mundo Es Posible

It is chaos at the fifth annual world social forum, but it`s the best chaos there is. Events from water privatization to Palestine, from community organizations in small Argentinian towns to how the Iraq crisis can be resolved. Two hundred thousand people have arrived from all over the world. Protests, puppets and marching bands weave in between tents and jewelry stalls. Things are going on around the clock, seriously all day and all night there is music, seminars, movie screenings, debates, speeches, theatre. I have been able to meet, interview and talk with so many of the thinkers, artists, writers and activists from Latin America that I have been admiring for years.

The night I arrived Manu Chao gave a concert. I am an enormous fan of his group and the show was fantastic. A dozen or so other bands from around the world played before he came on the stage around 4 am and played almost until the sun rose.

There is a camping ground right in the middle of the social forum and my friends and I are located right on the beach. Each morning a group of people wake everyone up with drums, flutes and singing. I am still not sure why, but this group seems to be abiding to the unspoken rule here of constant activity. It has been incredible to meet people from India, Argentina, Austria and just immediately start up conversations with them. It has been especially interesting to explain the Bush victory to people, many of of whom are relatively in the dark as to why he actually won. I am not exactly sure exactly why either, but I am able to offer some information on this dark aspect of the US.

Yesterday I went to a number of great activities including one of community organizing and participatory democracy in Argetine towns and cities. The people who ran the event were great, their stories of solidarity and survival in the midst of their 2002 crisis were inspiring. The dire situation of the economy drove many to look to their nieghbors for help and teamwork. At the end of this event, we all sat around in a circle, explained who were were, where we were from and asked questions discussed things and so on in a vary participatory way, all of which was interesting in part becuase of the diverse group of people from Latin America, the US and Europe present.

Today I learned a lot about water privatization issues around the world. One man from Ghana explained that the average person in the slum he lives in in Ghana pays 15 to 25 percent of his or her monthly salary to pay for water. In his country, the water is sold to people for a high price, the richer people pay this price for constant water access then they sell it to the poorer people for three times the original amount.

I interviewed Oscar Olivera from Bolivia as well. Olivera was intrumental in the waters war in Cochabamba in 2002. He was part of an event at the forum that included Eduardo Galeano, who is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. His talk about Uruguay, the new elections there and the referendum his country had on whether to privatize the water (they voted against it) was incredible. It brought tears to many eyes - the man is a poet. He has inspiring millions through his books and articles. There is something so humane, uncontrived and good about what he says. His humor, knowledge and hope for the world is as powerful as any of the best writers in world literature. He is one of the greats. (I recorded his speech and will transcribe it soon.)

Like many other people here, I have slept little in the past few days. It seems with every step I find myself listening to something new, meeting people from around the world and learning. The exchanges between people on the ground, not the organizers or the big names - are what makes this event great. To sit down in the shade of a tree with an activist from India, a writer from Canada, a student from Chile and talk about our views on life, politics and the world today - it creates this adrenaline that keep the whole forum buzzing. Someone said today that no one can come to this event and not leave a different person.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

La Patria Mundial

After a twenty hour bus ride from Buenos Aires, I´ve arrived in Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum. In many ways, the forum started on the bus. A lot of the people traveling from Buenos Aires were going to the forum, and we all ended up talking, discussing politics and our lives for most of the trip. It was incredible. There were people from about six different countries all sitting around talking in whatever language we could. People from Spain, Argentina, Peru, US, Germany, Chile, France, Brazil, all brought together by this one long trip.

One issue that stood out was the US´s role in the world, captilaism and civil liberties issues there. I was asked by one person if I felt like I was an American. I said yes, though I didn´t agree with many of my government´s policies. She asked what it meant to be an America - and I couldn´t really respond. There didn´t seem to be any values or philosophies that I related to that were only American and not global. She said she was from Chile and didn´t Chilean. Perhaps the problem arose from the idea of a nation state and patriotism, concepts which in such an international bus seemed irrelevant, fake. What is real is our political, philosophical, spiritual beliefs - perhaps these feelings of nationalism are all concoctions that we buy into for whatever reason. This was a big issue throughout the trip for me and will no doubt continue to be one as I discuss American foreign and domestic policies with people I meet at the social forum.

When the bus stopped, we all went into a grocery store at a border town in Brazil. A man in the line behind us heard our mixture of languages and asked where we were all from. When we told him, he explained that our nationality wasn´t important, and that we were all human beings.

It,s hard to describe the brief feeling of comraderie I felt with the people on this bus. Though we were only together for a relatively short period of time, the spontaneity of the conversations, mixed with our excitement for the upcoming forum added to this very ephemeral sense. It was all going to be over so quickly. When arriving in Porto Alegre at around 5 am, we met up with other activist folks at the bus station and walked together through the city to the camping site, which is on the edge of the water. It was a cool and breezy dawn, but once the sun rose, it became hot almost immediately.

For today, it doesn´t seem like there are many conferences and talks, just one big march later in the afternoon. Currently, most people are registering and orienting themselves to the city and the forum´s schedule, organization etc. There are people from all over the world here, but the majority are from Brazil. In order to bridge the language gap, many end up meeting each half-way linguistically. This results in a mixture of phrases in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and sign language, which in itself breaks down feelings of nationality and creates a stronger feeling of world citizenship. A good friend of mine from Argentina, Lucas Palero, wasn´t into patriotism for his own country, as much as he believed in La Patria Mundial - a kind of world patriotism.

It´s definitely going to be an interesting week of events, please stay tuned and thanks for reading!




Tuesday, January 25, 2005

arrived in buenos aires

Finally arrived, all is well. About to leave on bus for souther Brasil. Very nice weather. I'll write more later, for now, I'm trying to spend less time in front of the computer and more time absorbing this place.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Stuck in a Blizzard in New York City

As I boarded the bus to New York City, I said goodbye to my girlfriend, April. Our goodbye was interrupted by the bus driver who came out and yelled, “Hurry up, yer gonna rub each uh yer faces off.” “But it’s going to be a long trip,” I explained. “Is it forever?” he shot back. I shook my head. “Then you’ll see each other again, get on the damn bus.”

The weather was bad and getting worse. A huge snowstorm was underway and apparently was already dumping on NYC, where my plane was leaving from. The bus driver was in a hurry to get the trip over with. I watched as April disappeared behind us in a cloud of snow. I’ll miss her a lot.

The driver issued a torrent of curse words as the bus shrugged off into the slush. We immediately passed building with cheap vinyl siding on it and a sign that said, “Stop Here for a Better Smile.” It was a run down plastic surgeon business. The bus rolled cautiously down the back roads of the Catskill Mountains as the snow pounded at the road, visibility was horrible and it didn’t show any signs of letting up. I wondered if my plane to sunny Buenos Aires was canceled.

We arrived without incident into NYC, I boarded the subway to the JFK airport and started talking with this guy sitting next to me named Norman, from Jamaica. He commuted a few hours back and forth each day from Brooklyn to New Jersey, where he worked as a barber. “Amazing how you can go to college for years, and then you end up having trouble finding work.” We talked a bit about politics. “All politicians are liars. They are crooks, but get away with it.” I agreed, I just had to pay a hundred dollar parking ticket, why shouldn’t big corporations and politicians who break the law pay their fair share when they do something wrong? “Because we’re suckers!” Norman answered. He went on to describe growing up in Jamaica. “It was all farming and agriculture, now it’s all tourism and the money isn’t as evenly distributed.”

At the airport, I realized most of the flights had been canceled, including my own. The clerk booked me another flight leaving the following night. I had to wait 24 hours to leave and wondered where I would stay. Employees at the airport started hauling out cots. The place began to look like some refuge from a natural disaster, and it was in way.

I called up some friends in Brooklyn and they said I could stay with them for the night. I stopped off to grab some food in the airport and met this guy Mario, from Colombia who was a medal-winning wheel chair racer. He had raced all over the world and was currently waiting for a delayed flight to Miami where an international race was to take place in the coming week. “I train in Bogota, Colombia because it is at a high altitude and gives me stamina for when I come down to lower elevations.” He was planning on staying at the airport for the night, many people began setting up camp around the terminal.

The air train, which transports people to the various terminals from the subway and parking lots, was paralyzed by the snow. A crowd of about fifty people ended up waiting for the train for about an hour. To add insult to injury, the sign above to door said, “a train arrives every five minutes.” The snow was creating this crisis that slowed everything down, and brought people together in a way I imagine the NY electricity black out did a couple of summers ago.

In the airport terminal, people who normally would never talk to each other were striking up conversations, exchanging phone numbers. When the train finally did arrive the whole place was almost roaring with laughter, complaints and conversations. Under normal circumstances, these people probably never would have said a word to each other. But the delays gave people a topic to break the ice with and time to talk.

JFK airport is an amazingly international place. In the course of about two hours, I probably heard people swear and complain about the weather in about twenty different languages. I eventually made it back to Brooklyn and ended up drinking Budweiser with my friends, watching the snow fall and fall on a quiet city.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Blogging from South America, Plane Leaves Manana

Hello!

This will be my blog for the next couple of months as I travel around South America, working as a freealance writer for various websites and magazines. The first stop is the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil

From this blog, I hope to report on the conversations I have on the bus, the food, experiences, people I meet, interviews, politics, economics, social movements, and other topics from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela...

The site I operate and edit is www.upsidedownworld.org , a collection of my articles is located at www.upsidedownworld.org/bendangl.htm Check out the site regularly, it's full of great articles on politics, human rights, activism, civil liberties and all that good stuff.

I hope you enjoy this blog. I chose this format, (www.blogger.com) because it is easier for me to use, access, update at any computer while I am on the road, in the jungle and far away from my own computer and home in the cold, snowy north eastern US.

My plane leaves manana, and so I am busy running everywhere, finishing up the final details of the trip - packing, money, malaria pills, saying goodbye, paying bills. It's below freezing here, but 80 in Buenos Aires...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Lawyers, Guns and Money

Hello and welcome to the blog. Please check out my other site, www.upsidedownworld.org