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Members of government, social movements and community groups met in the Venezuelan industrial city of Valencia, last weekend, to debate the content of a proposed Social Charter of the Americas.

Initially proposed in September 2003 at a meeting of the Latin American Parliament in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, the Social Charter was subsequently proposed to the 34th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) by Venezuelan ambassador Jorge Valero last June.

The OAS resolved to “prepare a Social Charter of the Americas and a Plan of Action, which includes the principles of social development and establishes specific goals and targets... for the consideration of the next General Assembly.”

As an essential part of this process of preparation, member countries have been holding forums to present and debate ideas of what the Social Charter should include, and indeed, what it should represent. Between September 25th and October 9th, Venezuela has been holding three forums in different parts of the country where “government, inter-government, non-government, legislative, multilateral, institutional, academic, and civil society organizations” can debate and discuss the existing draft of the Social Charter of the Americas.

According to Deputy Rafael Correa Flores, Secretary General of the Latin American Parliament, the current draft is being presented to these organizations for their “elaboration, perfection, and promotion,” in the hopes of countering the “accelerated process of disintegration caused by marginalization, inequality and social exclusion,” that Latin America is currently experiencing.

In a report released last spring, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) noted the effect of institutional poverty on Latin America’s democracies. A regional rate of 42% was credited in part with the alarming abstention rates in many Latin American countries.

“América Completa”

At last weekend’s forum, participants separated into six different thematic workshops based on rights: social (two different workshops), economic, political, cultural, and indigenous. According to Alfredo Mayor, a social worker from the impoverished community of Guyacare in the state of Carabobo, who participated in the economic workshop, “in the Americas we have a series of countries with an institutional level of extreme poverty, and the Social Charter is designed to address that.”

He and 6 other social workers, community activists, and members of government institutions went through the draft of the Charter, discussing it point by point and adding suggestions as they saw fit. Their suggestions and those of other groups were then presented to the entire workshop, and will be presented once again in the closing ceremonies to be held in the Venezuelan state of Bolívar next weekend.

More than merely drafting an ideological document, Lorenza Rodrigues, President of the Sucre District Committee in the poor Caracas barrio of Catia, provides an example of the kind of concrete recommendations her group is making.

“In this workshop on universal and community economic rights,” notes Rodriguez, “we are proposing that the government facilitate the transfer of basic products directly by the producers, in order to eliminate the increase in prices due to middle-men who aren’t producing anything but who are dealing a tough economic blow to the consumer.” In Catia, Rodriguez has direct experience with this strategy where a cooperative from Venezuela’s Andean region travels to Catia, “selling everything for only 50 cents” she exclaims excitedly.

“Carrots, onions, everything sells for 50 cents. It’s a very cheap price, and this represents a possible solution for other parts of Venezuela, and not only Venezuela but for all Latin American countries where the people that are the hardest hit economically can benefit using cooperatives. Informal workers can also benefit from this by being brought into the formal economy in a collective spirit.”

The Solidarity Economy

Making up 52% of Venezuela’s economy, the informal sector is a primary concern. Vice minister of Planning and Development José Felix Ribas, who chaired the discussion on economic rights, describes the importance of the Social Charter in addressing the economic rights of informal workers noting, “legally, Constitutionally Venezuela is committed to the social economy, to the solidarity economy.”

Yet according to Ribas, “this is not something that we can do alone, isolated, as a single nation. It must be a collective project pursued by many countries, perhaps by all countries of Latin America. And many current governments do not share this position, and that makes the Social Charter of the Americas all the more important.”

While the Social Charter, once formally adopted by the OAS, will not be legally binding, it will form part of a regional effort at presenting concrete strategies and guidelines for countries fighting poverty in what is recognized as a struggle that necessarily transcends national boundaries. Quoting Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar, secretary general of the Latin American Parliament Rafeal Corres noted, “for us, the motherland is America.”

“Feeding the Spirit”

In one of two workshops on Social rights, retired teacher Maria Chirinos discussed the importance of education with colleagues from all over the country. “I’m here participating in these discussions and workshops,” she confided, “to make a humble contribution, from my experience in the field of education.”

According to Chirinos, “for Venezuela, it is very important to debate the Social Charter because it will be the instrument we use to establish greater societal integration in the hopes of creating a more just society. We are an oil-producing nation where 80% of the population lives in poverty...A real democracy cannot exist when the population does not have social rights, a large percentage don’t have access to work, and many are without access to education.”

“But now things are changing,” said Chirinos, smiling. “With the election of our President Hugo Chávez Frías, the whole Venezuelan people are contributing towards changing these conditions...in my humble way I am also making my contribution in the area of educational information...We must begin thinking of education as obligatory up to and including the university level, because it is the only way to guarantee people social mobility...to transform the economic, political, and social norms of the country.”

According to Maria Chirinos, the importance of the Social Charter is in its diverse foci, addressing all sectors: work, community participation, and culture. “Why culture?” she asks, “because, culture is organically joined with feeding our spirit. We need knowledge, certainly, but we also need to feed our spirit.”

A Democratic Solution to Poverty

Next weekend the traveling debate over the Social Charter will stop in Puerto Ordaz, Bolívar state, for the final public forum. Suggestions, amendments, and other results of the first two forums will be presented at Puerto Ordaz in the closing ceremony. From there the debate will return to the Latin American Parliament, and-in its 35th General Assembly-to the OAS.

It is not yet clear exactly what the quantifiable effect of the Social Charter will be. But if the forums held in Venezuela are any indication, powerful rhetoric against social exclusion will be inseparable from coordinated and direct practical measures.

As a concrete step in fundamentally linking the practice of democracy with the elimination of poverty, it is hoped that the Social Charter will achieve what the myriad existing declarations, resolutions, and charters aimed at rectifying Latin America’s long and painful history of inequality have so far been unable to.

Central to this hope is the recognition of the profound link between democracy and inequality, and the recognition -by the Latin American people, if not by all their governments- of the inability of capitalist democracy to solve their problems.