Havana Hosts the Sao Paulo Forum
The crisis confronting the Cuban Revolution is nowhere more apparent than in the policy changes announced by Fidel Castro in his speech marking the fortieth anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks. Cubans will now be allowed to legally hold and spend U.S. dollars, and most restrictions on visits by Cuban exiles will be lifted. In announcing these changes, Fidel underscored the seriousness of Cuba's foreign-exchange crisis, with everything from food to fuel in chronically short supply. But these politically risky decisions also affirmed his faith in the Cuban people, in their level of support for the Revolution, and in the government's ability to manage the crisis.
That this faith is neither blind nor unfounded was apparent to me during the two weeks I spent in Havana where I attended the fourth round of the Sdo Paulo Forum-a series of formal meetings of dele- gates from a wide variety of leftist movements and parties from around the Americas. The crisis confronting Cuba-massive eco- nomic austerity precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and exacerbated by the tightened U.S. embargo-represents perhaps the greatest shock to hit any Latin American economy in recent times. But Havana has not experi- enced the "IMF riots" that occurred in Santo Domingo, Cara- cas or Rio de Janeiro when food became scarce, and the prices of basic necessities and public ser- vices were drastically increased.
Indeed, an astonishing sense of calm and normalcy is pervasive in the Havana of the "special period" in spite of high unemployment, an extremely limited (though ade- quate) diet, and scarce public transportation. Sacrifices are shared, public-spirited solutions-- like bicycles and urban gardens-- are improvised, and life goes on. The inequities of "apartheid tourism" may breed resentment, but the economic crisis has not filled the streets with the ragged wide-eyed urchins and homeless beggars found in much of the Third World.
Whatever one's analysis of the Cuban situation, it is clear that holding this round of the Sio Paulo Forum in Havana was a symbolic and historic decision. As expected, from the opening speeches to the approval of the draft declaration, solidarity with Cuba and its revolution was a central and recurring theme. But in the end, denunciations of the egregious injustice of the U.S. blockade and declarations of support for Cuban socialism may have diverted the attention of delegates from the task at hand.
The Sdo Paulo Forum was founded in July, 1990 at a meeting of 48 organizations from the Latin American Left who gathered in Sdo Paulo at the invitation of Brazil's Workers Party (PT) to take stock of the momentous changes confronting the socialist movement. The member organizations pledged themselves to the revitalization of socialism, the construction of authentic popular democracies, and the development of a new international economic order. By the third round, held in Managua in July, 1992, delegates had begun to try to elaborate an effective alternative to the hegemonic neoliberal project extensively criticized in the first two rounds. The goal for this fourth round was the development of policy ideas for electoral platforms in Latin America's upcoming round of national elections.
Unfortunately, expectations that a viable and dynamic new Left with a powerful new program would emerge turned out to be unrealistic, and perhaps inappropriate. No working papers were in evidence, and no space was provided for real debate. Speeches were made, principles enunciated, and resolutions approved. But whatever give-and-take there was in the creation of the final documents took place mostly in closed committee or behind the scenes. The draft declaration basically reiterated the contents of the Managua Declaration, but with even less substance and specificity.
That the fourth round of the Sdo Paulo Forum failed to make meaningful progress toward a viable alternative project was put into helpful perspective by Shafiq Handal of El Salvador's FMLN. The Sdo Paulo Forum, he said, is not a "new international," but a forum for exchanging ideas and establishing relationships. Political pro- grams have to be worked out in detail at the national level, on the basis of particular needs and situations. In the Managua round, he added, the significance of the collapse of existing socialism had scarcely even been absorbed, but only one year later, neoliberalism, which once appeared invincible, is effectively being challenged, and is showing signs of retreat. The Left is no longer on the defensive.
So while the potential of this vital new process has yet to be realized, and the Cuban Revolution remains under siege, a more dynamic and open process of discussion may yet bring about some exciting, concrete results.