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South Americans Wage Battle Against Economic World Order

Continent's People Optimistically Continue Fight Largely Abandoned by Western Activists

Ashifa Kassam

Across South America rages the battle the rest of the world forgot.

It's a battle for a change in the way that the world does economics. Its symptoms mark the beautiful cities of the continent: In Quito, Ecuadorians protest daily against a proposed free-trade agreement with the United States, while Colombians graffiti their cities' walls with slogans decrying privatization.

In La Paz, roads are blocked daily by Bolivians with strong opinions on foreign-owned oil companies. In Buenos Aires, factory workers flaunt a world without bosses as one factory after another is turned into a co-operative.

Their battle isn't confined to the streets. It's manifested itself in the politics of South America, as left-leaning leaders continue to dominate and be broadly supported. From Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, to Evo Morales in Bolivia, to Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, these men carry the dreams of South Americans onto the world stage.

Throughout my journey across South America, I have been continually struck by the intensity with which the continent yearns for change. My Global View column is saying goodbye to Asia — and turning to how South Americans are changing their lives.

Their stories are titillating. I've met Ecuadorian activists who are harnessing English to further their cause, spent time with a Colombian paramilitary who is struggling to turn his life around and stood in awe of a group of mothers who talk politics every Tuesday with the president of Argentina. I've witnessed elections across the continent and watched as South Americans fill their ballot boxes and occupy their streets in search of change.

Their struggle isn't new to us in the West. In 1999, thousands of protesters from developed and developing nations gathered in Seattle to counter a meeting of the World Trade Organization. At the heart of their protest was not a rejection of globalization, but instead a call for labour, environmental and human rights within globalization. Their collective presence laid the foundation for a movement that captivated the lives of activists around the world.

What brought these activists together was a belief that the current system of global economics marginalizes developing countries and further entangles them in poverty. Much of their protest is directed against the Western-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which provide loans to developing countries. The loans they provide are desperately needed to develop infrastructure and stabilize the economies of developing countries, but come at the price of agreeing to follow the rules of these institutions. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund believe strongly in the principles of free markets and demand increased privatization, decreased spending on social services and unfettered free trade in exchange for lending money.

While these demands have sometimes generated conditions that enable countries to escape poverty, more often they have further impoverished countries. The push towards free markets often forces vulnerable domestic industries onto a global market where they are competing with heavily subsidized products from the U.S., Canada and Europe. The institutions advocate a minimal role for governments in countries that borrow money from them, which inevitably erodes local services such as health care and education.


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The result, visible in countries across the global South, is often a collapse of local industries, and a population that has less access to education and is more vulnerable to diseases such as HIV/AIDS. It is this understanding that brought together hundreds of thousands of people around the world in what is commonly called the anti-globalization movement.

Two years after their first appearance in Seattle, the same groups brought down Quebec City. They stunned the meeting of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas with the largest protests Canada has ever seen.

From their movement stemmed the World Social Forum, an annual conference where the people behind the movement gather to plan international campaigns, formulate strategies and articulate their issues.

But while a few Western activists continue to be involved in the movement, the bulk of them have moved on. The recent World Economic Forum in Hong Kong was protested by people from Korea, India and Brazil, but Western protesters were far and few between.

South Americans are well aware that they have lost many of their allies in battle. Far from dampening their motivation, the loss has made them more adamant in their struggle. They have turned to new strategies, from political leaders to natural resources, to accomplish the changes they want to see in the world.

In Bolivia, everyone from cab drivers to street kids boasts that they have their first-ever indigenous leader, Evo Morales, to speak for their mostly indigenous population. Venezuelans speak highly of the increased social spending Chavez has devoted to them while in Argentina, Kirchner is revered for putting their economy on the right path without compromising the ideals of Argentines.

They are making use of their natural resources, especially oil. South Americans, who relentlessly complain of foreign-owned oil companies swooping in to collect their oil in exchange for only a small part of the profits, have started to think about their resources as their own for the taking.

Will it all work? South Americans think so. In these lands, where revolution was invented, re-invented and perfected, South Americans are banking on it. And despite the world's amnesia, they forge on. With or without our support, South Americans intend to change the world.

After years of experience in the field of human rights and social justice issues in Canada, Ashifa Kassam started to wonder how others around the world have been coping with their own challenges. With the intent of satisfying her curiosity, she is currently traveling across continents to volunteer with various grassroots development organizations. Originally from Calgary and educated at Queen's University, this freelance writer and activist aims to tell stories that will take readers far beyond tourism.

© 2007 CBC News

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