Friday, July 31, 2015

The Pope’s message in Bolivia and to the world: Report by a Canadian participant


by Richard Fidler

In retrospect, it must be said that the College of Cardinals made an astute decision in 2013 when they chose Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the Vicar of Christ. Pope Francis, as he is now called, has emerged as a world leader in speaking out on the major social and humanitarian issues ranging from climate crisis to poverty and social exclusion.

Francis, the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere, is especially popular in Latin America, where the Church of Rome is contending with burgeoning evangelical sects and emerging secular movements around such issues as abortion and gay rights.

Early on in his papacy, Francis indicated his close affinity with President Evo Morales and the “Process of Change” that Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) are spearheading in Bolivia. When the initial World Meeting of Popular Movements was held at the Vatican in October 2014, Morales was the only elected head of state who attended.

In December, following the failure of the United Nations Cop20 climate talks in Lima to take meaningful actions to prevent catastrophic climate warming, Morales urged the environment ministers of the ALBA countries to organize a “world encounter of social movements” in 2015 that would develop “a proposal to save life and humanity.”[1]

It seems that the Pope’s scheduled visit in July to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay — three relatively peripheral nations with large Indigenous populations — became the occasion for this encounter. The Bolivian government and its supporting popular movements collaborated with the Vatican and the social movement organizers of the First World Meeting to organize a Second World Meeting, this time in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Held July 7-9, it drew 1500 participants. It coincided with the Pope’s 48-hour visit to Bolivia, and was the major event of both his visit and the meeting of the popular movements.

The Pope’s closing speech at the Santa Cruz assembly, a powerful statement of identification with the major objectives of the social agenda being pursued, unevenly, by the social movements and a few progressive governments of Latin America, continues to be cited and debated in the Bolivian media.

Among the 1500 participants at the Santa Cruz meeting gathering were two Canadian women: Susana Deranger, an Indigenous environmental activist from Regina, and Judith Marshall of Toronto, recently retired after two decades working on global labour exchange through the Steelworkers Humanity Fund. Judith contributes the following guest column reporting on their experiences in Santa Cruz and analyzing with insight the ways in which Pope Francis is helping to advance a progressive global agenda among broad circles seldom reached by the traditional left.[2]

* * *


Some of the participants at the Bolivian World Meeting

Pope Francis and the Protagonism of the Excluded

by Judith Marshall

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has arguably become the most articulate and critical leader of today’s global institutions. He is fearlessly and forthrightly tackling the urgent questions of our times.

His much-anticipated Papal Encyclical on climate change, Laudato Sí, does not disappoint. He tackles the “structurally perverse economic system” that creates a world of obscene rich-poor disparities. He makes a damning critique of a global economic system in which power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the few while the many struggle for basic needs. He calls attention to how the poor and excluded have become, in effect, the discards from the game plans of the rich.

Pope Francis is forthright about how the global economic system and the throw-away culture it has spawned are destroying not only the lives of the poor but also the planet itself, turning the earth into “an immense pile of filth.”

Pope Francis is now well-known for speaking out on global issues — Syrian war refugees, hunger, migration of Africans to Europe, austerity politics, Cuba. Less well-known are his organizational initiatives, many carried out jointly with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson. Reaching out organizationally to the poor and excluded is one of the most striking initiatives.

In 2013, the leaders in the Landless People’s Movement (MST) in Brazil began to hear signals that Pope Francis was interested in building working links with popular movements. [3] As Bishop Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Francis had been a constant figure among poverty activists, building strong ties with precarious workers and the solidarity economy.

Argentine activists like Juan Grabois, a lawyer based in the University of Buenos Aires who is on the coordinating committee of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers, are long-time collaborators with Pope Francis. Grabois and other popular movement leaders like Joao Pedro Stedile from the MST were invited to the Vatican for consultations.

An initial seminar was organized at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome in December 2013 to focus on global inequalities as experienced and understood by the excluded themselves. Plans were made for a larger gathering.

The First World Meeting of Popular Movements with more than 150 participants took place in Rome in October 2014. Grabois and Stedile, working with Via Campesina, became the co-organizers. They identified more than 100 activists around the world working on three key issues — land, housing and work. These activists from amongst the poor and excluded were invited to come to Rome to be heard and seen. They brought with them a broad plurality of religious beliefs, ethnic origins, gender, age and sexual orientations. The church co-organizers did not vet the activists list. Their own list included thirty bishops known for accompanying and support to struggles of the poor. A dozen representatives of labour and rights organizations vetted by the activists were also invited, myself included.

Undoubtedly the most striking memory of the first meeting was the day when our motley crew invaded St. Peter’s Basilica. Meeting with us in the Old Synod Hall, Pope Francis thanked the participants, acknowledging them as men and women who actually suffered poverty and exclusion in the flesh. He told them that their presence in Rome had huge importance. The fact that the poor existed was known by all. The fact that the poor were on their feet, organized, active, planning, inventing, and resisting — this was what was new and made visible for all to see by their presence.

He focussed on the fact that the poor were not waiting with arms crossed for either NGOs or governments to solve their problems. Their protagonism was strong and creative. While some of it was simply to survive, in many cases, the survival strategies had in them the seeds of new ways of living on the planet, with greater social solidarity and more care of the earth.


Popular Movements Gather in Bolivia

The much-expanded Second World Meeting of Popular Movements held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia followed the same organizational logic as in Rome, It was a gathering to listen to the poor and discarded themselves, their stories of exploitation and exclusion but also their plans and strategies and proposals, We were to meet on the final day with Pope Francis who had committed himself to take these voices and proposals of the poor with him when he addresses the United Nations next September. Happily the organizers readily agreed to the inclusion of an indigenous delegate from Mother Earth Action Cooperative in Regina.

Land, housing and work had been the overarching themes in Rome. In Bolivia these became the “3 Ts” of Tierra, Trabajo and Techo, rendered not quite so happily from Spanish into English as the “3 Ls” of Land, Labour and Lodging. The approach to these basic themes was broadly conceived. The theme of labour, for example, differed strikingly from the very narrow conception that prevails all too often in trade union circles.

In Rome last October, a million people had flooded the streets the day we arrived for the first meeting, protesting austerity budgets. In Italy, the youth unemployment figure stood at 40%. In neighbouring Greece, it was even higher. Poverty and discarded people are not just a phenomenon of the South. Whole generations of young people in Europe are being sacrificed in the name of re-stabilizing the economic system.

At the Bolivia meetings, the reality of colonial conquest and the endemic poverty of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas were highlighted. Holding the meeting in the “Plurinational State of Bolivia” where Evo Morales is the first elected Indigenous head of state made a powerful statement in and of itself. The participants came from situations where loss of livelihoods through land grabs by mining or agro-business companies are common, where precarious work is endemic, where situations of migrant labour, guest labour, temporary labour and even slave labour and trafficking are prevalent.

Susana and I got an unexpected call to address the plenary during the first day. A surprise visit by Evo Morales resulted in cancellation of the scheduled discussions in smaller groups. Testimonials from the participants were substituted. Susana got the opportunity to put First Nations issues in Canada on the agenda, from residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous Peoples, and resource extraction on Indigenous Territories. I got the chance to highlight the role of big mining, companies like Barrick and Vale today operating in a tight embrace with national governments in the North and the South to carry out widespread destruction of both ecosystems and livelihoods. To the surprise of the Latino delegates, Susana spoke in Spanish, an acquisition from living and working in Latin America, and I spoke in Portuguese, acquired after many years of work in Mozambique and Brazil.

The two of us had been housed with the church delegation. Cardinal Turkson, who is originally from Ghana, joined us for breakfast on the second morning, and we were able to tell him about the thousands of Indigenous children in Canada who had been torn from their families and communities and forced into Church-run residential schools where they were deprived of their languages and cultures — the last school closing in 1996 in Saskatchewan. We also told him of the sexual abuse and torture in many schools. We spoke to him of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its conclusion naming cultural genocide and its recommendation that the Pope be invited to Canada to apologize for the Catholic church. Cardinal Turkson listened with attention and compassion.

Being housed and transported around Santa Cruz with the church delegation left me with different impressions of how the initiatives of Pope Francis play out in his own institution. The speech in Ecuador was being watched on TV during supper the first night. Every time Pope Francis made a strong point, cheers erupted around the table, almost as if a ref had shouted “goal.” A fellow priest from Argentina revelled in Francis’ transformation from the quiet, dedicated Bishop of Buenos Aires into a fearless, prophetic voice on the world stage. For those who lamented the demise of liberation theology, Pope Francis brought hope of its reincarnation. I asked some of the church delegates about how Pope Francis’ reaching out to the poor on the periphery was resonating in their parishes. Their responses left me with the impression that for many, it was pastoral care for the faithful as usual rather than hearing a radical call for systemic change and taking on new roles, reaching out to accompany and support the protagonism of the poor.

After two days putting together our perspectives on the questions of land, housing, work, global warming and peace, the participants prepared a statement of our concerns and proposals. We presented this document to Pope Francis during a meeting with him at the Santa Cruz Expo Fair on the final day where our contingent of 1500 had been joined by another 1000 activists from Bolivia.

His legendary simplicity and humanity were once again in evidence in Santa Cruz. The huge trade fair auditorium had constructed a walled off aisle down the middle through which he would enter. The participants vied for seats close to the shoulder-high wall with the hope that they might reach out and touch Pope Francis’ hand. When he passed by our section, a Latino activist across the aisle from us held out a calabash gourd of mate tea with metal straw. Pope Francis paused and took a sip, to the utter delight of the participants, and possibly to the absolute horror of those responsible for his security!

Bolivia was the second stop on a visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, each fraught with delicate politics among church, state and civil society actors. Despite a grueling schedule, Pope Francis gave a lengthy and powerful address to the popular movements, full of love and encouragement for the poor and excluded who were gathered, lauding them for the importance of their struggles and their care of Mother Earth.

He ended by challenging the popular movements to make a decisive and shared contribution to three great tasks. The first was

to put the economy at the service of people. Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. Let us say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.

The second great task was to “unite our people on the path of peace and justice.” He spoke of the world’s people wanting to be “artisans of their own destiny.

They do not want forms of tutelage or interference by which those with greater power subordinate those with less. They want their culture, their language, their social processes and their religious traditions to be respected. No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty.

He talked of historical restrictions on independence through colonialism and contemporary restrictions on sovereignty through a new colonialism driven by corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” agreements and “austerity” agendas.

The third great task he charged the popular movements with taking on was defence of Mother Earth.

Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity. Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin. We see with growing disappointment how one international summit after another takes place without any significant result.... We cannot allow certain interests — interests which are global but not universal — to take over, to dominate states and international organizations and to continue destroying creation.

Apology to Indigenous people for Church’s Role in “Conquest” of the Americas

The most startling moment in the speech came as Pope Francis developed the theme of old and new colonialisms. He did not spare his own institution.

Some may rightly say, “When the Pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the Church.” I say this to you with regret; many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.

After referencing acknowledgement of this by some of his predecessors, Pope Francis went on to say “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America....

To our brothers and sisters in the …Indigenous movement, allow me to express my deep affection and appreciation of their efforts to bring people and cultures together... in a form of coexistence … where each group preserves its own identify by building together a plurality which does not threaten but rather reinforces unity. Your quest for an interculturalism, which combines the defense of the rights of the native peoples with respect for the territorial integrity of states, is for all of us a source of enrichment and encouragement.

Susana had travelled to Bolivia tasked by her fellow-activists in Canada with lobbying the Pope to visit Canada and apologize for residential schools. She was seated in the front row when this unexpected and totally forthright admission of guilt was made. The apology and request for forgiveness for the role of the Catholic church in the conquest of the Americas had her jumping to her feet and joining others in embraces of joy. Susana later reflected on the experience:

I never thought I would hear these words in my lifetime. It was extraordinary. I know many will say that these are only words and that there is still much work ahead such as rejecting the Papal Bull along with the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius. This is true, but the Pope’s words are a first step. His words were not just read off a piece of paper. They seemed genuine. Let’s embrace the hope. Let’s move with the passion and hope he comes to Canada to meet with the same people he met with in Rome — the grassroots, the poor, the people on the front lines, and those affected the most by the colonialism he asks forgiveness for.

Pope Francis and Global Organizing

On their return to Rome, Pope Francis and Cardinal Turkson embarked on yet another organizational initiative, taking on the contentious question of mining. They had already engaged in conversations with mining company executives in 2014 and will do so again later this year. This time, they worked very closely with “Iglesias y Mineria” (Churches and Mining), a network of about 70 Latin American Christian base communities that have been accompanying communities affected by mining for many years.

The gathering was entitled “United with God, we hear a cry.” It was hosted in Rome by Justice and Peace from July 17-19 and attended by community leaders from mining areas in Asia, Africa and Latina America. In a hard-hitting message to the opening session, the Pope urged the participants to “to echo the cry of the many people, families and communities who suffer directly and indirectly as a result of the consequences, too often negative, of mining activities.” He spoke of

a cry for lost land;

a cry for the extraction of wealth from land that paradoxically does not produce wealth for the local populations who remain poor;

a cry of pain in reaction to violence, threats and corruption;

a cry of indignation and for help for the violations of human rights, blatantly or discreetly trampled with regard to the health of populations, working conditions, and at times the slavery and human trafficking that feeds the tragic phenomenon of prostitution;

a cry of sadness and impotence for the contamination of the water, the air and the land;

a cry of incomprehension for the absence for inclusive processes or support from the civil, local and national authorities, which have the fundamental duty to promote the common good.

The Pope called on the mining industry “to effect a radical paradigm change,” listing the many who needed to heed this call:

A contribution can be made by the governments of the countries of origin of multinational companies and those in which they operate, businesses and investors, the local authorities who supervise mining operations, workers and their representatives, the international supply chains with their various intermediaries and those who work in the markets of these materials, and the consumers of goods for whose production the minerals are required. All these people are called upon to adopt behaviour inspired by the fact that we constitute a single human family, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.

While the mining activists gathered in the Salesian Conference Centre to testify to the destructiveness of extractivism, the Pope was engaged in yet another organizational initiative among the powerful. As another follow-up to Laudato Si, the Vatican had invited 60 mayors from around the world (including Gregor Robertson of Vancouver) to a two-day conference aimed at keeping the pressure on world leaders before December’s climate talks in Paris. The conference’s final declaration, reports the Toronto Star, demands that national leaders take bold steps in Paris, possibly “the last chance to keep the Earth’s warming levels still safe for humanity.” It states that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”

California Governor Jerry Brown had won applause earlier when he denounced the climate change deniers in the US who are “bamboozling the public and politicians.” Stockholm Mayor Karin Wanngard said the Paris talks must take fossil fuels off the table. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, a founding member of an alliance of world cities committed to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 or sooner, characterized the months until the Paris summit as a sprint to the finish line during which it would be necessary to “take every local action we can…to maximize the chance that our national governments will act boldly.”

Globalizing Resistance, Globalizing Hope

What are the most striking features of these gatherings in which Pope Francis is reaching out to the excluded and linking their fate to the fate of our common home?

First, perhaps, is the strength and forthrightness of his language, abandoning the diplomatic posture and deference to the powerful that has characterized the Papacy in times past. Pope Francis does not hesitate to lay the blame for global poverty and exclusion on corporate greed, irresponsible banks and international financial institutions, a culture of consumerism and individualism, a worship of money and a loss of compassion and humanity.

He names the inverted logic that normalizes societies being sacrificed to stabilize the economy, as in contemporary Greece, and calls for economies to be organized so that they safe-guard the well-being of society. Activists in popular movements derive hope and courage when a world leader of Pope Francis’ stature and integrity names the world as they experience it.

We discovered in Bolivia how challenging it was to craft a popular movement statement in which we were not outflanked to the left by the Pope! While our Santa Cruz statement contained important points, my first take on it found it a little prosaic, especially compared to the pungent prose, scope and challenges of the Pope’s speech. Susana reminded me, however, of how far-reaching it was:

The unity it called for and committed to was inspiring. They said when something goes down in one country, they will all stand up. They also said that they must turn to Indigenous Peoples to learn how to take care of Mother Earth….

Another striking aspect of these meetings is the framing of the issues The exploration of global poverty and exclusion through the lenses of land, labour and housing, with care of our common home as a cross-cutting theme, is instructive. Faced with the global reach and seeming impunity of transnational corporations, and their willingness to discard most of the world’s people from their game plans with full connivance of national governments, all concepts are up for redefinition. Take the theme of work, for example. At the First World Meeting, in Rome last October, the opening presentation on the theme of labour was expressed not in ILO parlance about decent jobs and labour rights but about cardboard recyclers in Argentina, many of them “illegal” migrant workers from Bolivia.

In Buenos Aires, they had been scavenging refuse, working in dangerous and dirty conditions for middle-men who bought the cardboard or plastic for a pittance and made profit from it by having a monopoly on transport and marketing. These cardboard recyclers had organized themselves into a cooperative and managed to take over the recycling business. Now they earn a little more, have proper recycling carts, uniforms with reflective tape for safety, a modicum of health benefits and the contacts with the buyers including Danone, which buys up the plastic for yogurt containers.

It is a far cry from a full-time, secure, well-paid, pensioned job. It is, however, work that feeds families and meets a basic need of Buenos Aires for recycling. The workers themselves are the protagonists who made it happen and control it. They are still poor but have regained a measure of dignity. They know the Pope well from times past when he both supported their cooperative and sorted out the red tape for baptizing their children. They were much in evidence again during the event in Bolivia, promoting the idea of a popular economy with autonomous groups inventing ways to provide for their own basic needs through self-employment.

The discussions on work left me with all the questions that movements in Latin America and organizations like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain throw up. What does work look like when your starting point is a basic needs agenda and how to provide your citizens with food, water, housing, transport, education, health care — and income-generating activity?

Clearly any notions of “limitless growth” need to be set aside definitively. The same for any “development” fantasy that, with enough time and investment, all people on the planet can — or should — attain the material consumption levels of the 1%. Are there important lessons to be learned from aboriginal cultures or from peasant cultures about simpler ways of living on and caring for the earth?

Another striking theme from the two meetings is the moral project being promoted by Pope Francis and the centrality of human beings themselves. How much have we normalized the ideological trappings of neoliberalism that suggest that human beings are genetically competitive and greedy, hard-wired to be individualistic? How much have we internalized the idea that “having” more is “being” more, with annual acquisition of the latest Nikes or “smart” phone or tablet as the measure? What if “being” more is actually “having” more — being more compassionate, being more collective, being more in tune with Mother Earth?

Pope Francis locates these questions and their answers squarely in Christian teachings. Chilean social scientist Marta Harnecker in her new book on 21st Century Socialism, A World to Build, locates them in the classic Marxist texts about “integral human development” and “human beings as social beings.” She holds out a vision of the 21st century socialism in the imaginary and actual practice of several countries in Latin America. It is a socialism built from the bottom up by collectivities of socialists, women and men, elders and youth, as active participants and protagonists in their own rural communities, urban neighbourhoods, workplaces and classrooms. It is a vision of robust democratic spaces where citizens assume responsibility jointly for initiatives and projects to create the social life around them and to care for the earth that sustains them.

Another striking theme from the meetings was the reality of social exclusion as a global feature of contemporary capitalism. To be exploited is still to be integrated into the system, albeit negatively. Contemporary capitalism, however, expands and creates profitable enterprises and global supply chains while excluding and discarding more and more of the earth’s population, dispossessing them of their lands, their water, their air, their traditional livelihoods. It creates sacrifice zones from Detroit to Damascus, from rural wastelands to urban slums.

Some of the popular movement leaders are seeking to theorize more adequately this new protagonism of the poor and the importance of social movements as new social actors. Juan Grabois has recently written an essay entitled “Exclusion in Contemporary Capitalism.” He speaks as a Latin American from a generation forged not from fighting against military dictatorships as in Brazil, dirty wars as in Argentina, or a US-backed coup against an elected socialist head of state as in Chile. His generation grew up after the “democratic transition” and lived through the full-blown capitulation of government after government to the neoliberal mantras of deregulation, privatization, cuts in social sector spending.

The consciousness of my generation was born as wave after wave descended into the hell of exclusion. We saw our fathers lose their employment and never get another job. We saw our mothers go out to look for chicken carcasses in the shops to fill the cooking pot. We saw the plague of drugs, depression and alcoholism destroy families and damage lives until this became part of the landscape. Those living in the shantytowns and working class neighbourhoods suffered these things in their own flesh — or in the flesh of their brothers who, frightened to death by their own “insecurity,” watched from the barred windows of their middle class homes as people rummaged in garbage cans in search of scraps of food.[4]

Grabois argues that his generation was forged at a moment in history when the labour power of the proletariat was of little or no interest to capital. The political education of his generation came not through striking industrial workers but through the struggle for the basics, forged on picket lines of the unemployed, soup kitchens of the hungry, informal settlements of the homeless, occupations of abandoned factories by workers, barricades of peasant farmers confronting land grabs, occupations by indigenous communities fighting for their territories.

These new forms of exploitation operate through a wall of exclusion. People were first dispossessed of their land. Then they were dispossessed of their jobs in factories. As Occupy Wall Street made starkly visible, 99% of humanity today lives on the side of this wall characterized by poverty, homelessness, with jobs that are at best precarious, dangerous, without legal protection.

Grabois goes on to argue that an important new social actor is being formed from this historical moment, an actor that has been dispossessed of land and livelihood but refuses to cease struggling. Barricades and blockades against mining companies are a good example. Many of the struggles focus on resolving basic needs for land and housing and for work that generates enough income to feed a family.

The poor and discarded are inventing forms of self-employment, cooperatives and worker-owned factories. The robust popular economy that has emerged in Argentina is one example of this new protagonism. The solidarity economy network that was constructed in Greece to withstand the extremities of the austerity measures is another. The community resistance from below that makes South Africa the protest capital of the world is part of the same phenomenon.

These initiatives of Pope Francis provide an opportunity for the Church and the world to listen to the voices of the poor and excluded. They give visibility to the iniquity of a global system that discards human beings as waste. For activists in the popular movements, these initiatives not only globalize resistance. They also globalize hope.

[1] For major excerpts of Evo Morales’ address at the COP20 summit, see “Environmental Destruction is a Result of the Capitalist System.” ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, seeks to consolidate regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare. Initiated by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004, it now includes 11 member countries.

[2] Judith Marshall reported on the First World Meeting of Social Movements, which she also attended as an invitee, in this article first published in Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Another recent article by Marshall is “Contesting big mining from Canada to Mozambique.”

[3] See the recent article by Joao Pedro Stedile, Landless People’s Movement, Brazil, entitled “The Importance of a Historic Reaching Out: Pope Francis and the Popular Movements.”

[4] “La exclusión en el capitalismo contemporáneo,” in Francisco y los movimientos populares: Tierra, Techo y Trabajo.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Québécois solidarity with Greece

Fontecilla at Greek solidarity rally

Québec solidaire president Andrés Fontecilla speaks at Montréal rally in solidarity with Greece.

Greece’s battle for relief from its European financial creditors has attracted substantial sympathy and solidarity in Quebec, especially among those fighting the austerity blitz of the Couillard government.

On July 5, Greek voters resoundingly rejected the ultimatums of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, a.k.a. the Troika, opening the way for the country’s left-wing Syriza-led government to pursue a course toward regaining economic sovereignty and relief from neoliberal austerity.

On the eve of the Greek referendum, several hundred Québécois assembled in front of the Greek Consulate in Montréal to show their support for the country’s government, which had appealed for international solidarity in its confrontation with the Eurozone leaders. Among the sponsors of the demonstration was Québec solidaire (QS), the only party in Quebec that has come out in firm support of Greece.

“The Greek prime minister and his party Syriza cannot accept the plan submitted to Greece by the Troika without renouncing their democratic mandate,” QS deputy Amir Khadir told the crowd. “No one knows what Sunday’s vote will produce. But for the first time in decades a country crushed by international finance has an opportunity to defend its sovereignty by democratically taking a position on some important decisions that concern it.”

Other speakers included Dimitrios Roussopoulos of the Committee for Solidarity with the Greek People (“We are all Greeks”), Alain Ouimet, first vice-president of the Montréal Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) (“This initiative [of the Greek government] gives us new hope”), and Ronald Cameron of Alternatives, who noted that his organization had recently organized a Festival des solidarités in Montréal with the participation of a representative of Syriza at a panel on international struggles against austerity.

QS president Andrés Fontecilla of QS reminded the crowd of the high stakes involved in Greece’s battle. “We in Quebec also have a Liberal government that is an enthusiast of austerity and cutbacks in public spending.... So in their successes and in their setbacks, the struggle of the Greek people is also our struggle. Whatever the outcome of the vote on Sunday we will be in solidarity with them.”

When it was announced on July 5 that the Greek people had voted by 61% to 39% for the “No” to the Troika, Québec solidaire issued a statement hailing the result as “a formidable victory for democracy and, on a European scale, the greatest setback for neoliberalism up to now.” It called on the European powers and creditors to recognize and respect the decision of the Greek people.

Noting its own links with “our cousin Syriza,” QS hailed that party’s “political courage in holding this referendum in the face of hostility and blackmail” from Europe’s capitalist leaders and media. This historic vote, it said, “turns things around and proves it is possible to stand up to international finance.... It is a major victory that heralds substantial changes in the European political dynamic, and even elsewhere.”

In an op-ed article in the July 8 edition of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, QS president Andrés Fontecilla said “the victory of the No highlights the fact that Greece’s economic crisis is de facto a political crisis for the European Union.” The “permanent financial blackmail” of the European powers, he noted, reflects their fears of the potential domino effect on other countries in southern Europe.

“Syriza has created a political space that we had forgotten. Now that the No has won, the new European dilemma is what will happen with Italy, Spain and Portugal, which are in similar situations, once the Greeks have called their creditors to order and given themselves the right to decide their economic orientations themselves....

“The results of the Greek referendum place on the agenda of financial Europe a conception of popular sovereignty that necessarily encompasses the economic field. This sovereignty is incompatible with the euro zone but also with austerity in general.”

And Fontecilla noted that “the people of Greece, the cradle of western democracy, have chosen Syriza, a small party and close cousin of Québec solidaire, to remind the financial elites and their political servants of this inconvenient truth. What comes next is uncertain, but we must salute the Greek audacity.”


Photo: Jacques Nadeau, Le Devoir

Greek flag becomes symbol of popular resistance at a rally at Montréal’s City Hall in support of social housing construction and an end to austerity.

Québécois observe Greece’s referendum campaign

In the days preceding the historic referendum, a number of Québécois travelled to Greece to observe firsthand the political dynamics. Among them was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a well-known leader of the 2012 student strike and “Maple Spring” upsurge in Quebec. Thanks to contacts in the Greek diaspora living in Montréal, the Québécois were able to meet with elected officials, activists and others involved in the campaign.

“I am fascinated to see to what degree the context of austerity has provided an opportunity that the left decided to grasp,” Nadeau-Dubois told a Le Devoir reporter. “It was the end of the logic of resistance and counter-power. The discourse was modernized and updated, becoming clear, accessible, pragmatic. The party [Syriza] decided to really take over the government. It is wonderful to see this.”

In an article Le Devoir published on its front page June 27, Nadeau-Dubois wrote from Athens about his impressions.

“You never really get used to poverty, but with time societies learn to administer it. In the central neighborhoods of Athens, some scenes of extreme deprivation have disappeared. ‘Now, I no longer have to jump over entire families sleeping in the street while I go to work,’ sighs Theodora Kotsaka, a political scientist and researcher at the Poulantzas Institute, a think tank associated with Syriza... We have learned to manage poverty. Networks of community solidarity have been established to give people relief. There is mutual assistance.... But insecurity is a concrete reality for a major part of the Greek population.’”

Nadeau-Dubois described the recent experience of a typical young militant.

“Venetia, 22, is part of a generation that knows its future is grim but who has decided to remain to fight. In the summer of 2011, when her family was hit hard by the austerity measures imposed by the Troika, she went into the streets with thousands of other Greeks of all ages and milieus, occupying public squares for weeks. Since then, she has never stopped fighting. A member of the left wing of Syriza, she harshly criticizes her leader, Alexis Tsipras: ‘He underestimates the Greek people. In every home, someone is unemployed. We are ready to do what we must in order to escape the politics of the memorandums.’

“Questioned about the unpredictable — and potentially catastrophic, according to some — economic consequences of an exit by Greece from the euro zone, she snaps back, referring to the European creditors: ‘It’s unpredictable for them too! Syriza must stay firm, or else it will lose power!”

Her views are shared by an increasing number of MPs in the Syriza-led government, Nadeau-Dubois reported.

“In recent days, many of them have openly criticized the offer tabled by Athens to its creditors, which in many respects represented a significant retreat from the party’s election promises. This was the price the Greek prime minister was prepared to pay in order to return to the country with an agreement, but the response of the European ‘partners’ was merciless. With a few pen strokes in red ink they demanded of the Greek negotiators massive reforms in pensions that they knew very well were politically suicidal for the government. A few hours from a default in payments, Tsipras found himself faced with a terrible dilemma: to give in, as the Greek politicians before him had done, or to stand firm and risk an exit from the euro zone....

“‘More and more activists and MPs in Syriza are ready for a ‘Grexit,’ but they forget too often that a majority of Greeks are still profoundly attached to Europe,” says Vassilis Kosmopoulos, a documentary producer and long-time observer of Greek politics, whom I met in an Athens restaurant.

“While a recent poll reported 48% support for the Tsipras government, he is adamant that no one should be deceived by this surprising popularity. ‘Syriza’s vote is more volatile than that of the traditional parties. Tsipras knows his government is fragile that is why he is currently trying to gain time, to consolidate its power.’”

The difficult situation facing the Tsipras government, wrote Nadeau-Dubois, “reflects the profound paradox that characterizes Greek society. In many people’s minds, participation in the European monetary union is still perceived as the sign of belonging to the European family, a synonym for modernity and prosperity.

“Nikos Raptis, 86, has never been a member of a political party although he has always considered himself a militant and he knows his country’s history like no one else. Seated in the chic Athens Café, which he tells us is ‘the meeting place for the Greek elite over the last 30 years,’ he speaks to us with passion of his people and their contradictions.

“‘Our national identity, wrongly or rightly, is in part based on the idea that we are the cradle of western civilization. For many, above all the youth of the Tsipras generation, Europe appears today as the embodiment of that origin. To be expelled from the euro zone would be interpreted by many Greeks as a rejection, a punishment.’

“So why did Greece, as recently as January and in historic numbers, elect a party that was distinguished by its combative tone toward the European creditors? ‘That’s the tension, the contradiction, the antithesis! By voting for Syriza, the Greeks renewed their long and left tradition of resistance,’ he exclaims, remembering again that he celebrated the departure of the Nazis from Athens at the age of 14. ‘They wanted to put an end to the regime of the memorandums and they were right, of course! But if they really want to finish with the spiral of austerity and the dictatorship of Berlin, they will some day or other have to say good-bye to neoliberal Europe, or at least to the euro zone. They cannot have both.’”

Among the Québécois in Greece just prior to the referendum was Francine Pelletier, a feminist writer and documentary film-maker who writes an often insightful weekly column in Le Devoir. She attended the Resistance Festival 2015, an annual event in Athens hosting left political parties, popular leaders, intellectuals and progressive movements from a broad political and geographical spectrum. A major speaker last year was Alexis Tsipras of Syriza. This year the featured speakers included Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera and long-time writer and activist Tariq Ali, among others.

In a report from Athens published in Le Devoir on June 27 and headlined “The blackmail of the banks, or how to become a Marxist in five days,” Pelletier portrayed a polarized Greece in terms similar to those of Nadeau-Dubois. Bolivia’s García Linera, she said, had told his Festival audience that the Greek people held “the destiny of Europe in [their] hands,” and that another way was possible. “The people owe nothing to the IMF, it’s the IMF that owes us something,” said “the former guerrilla.”

“No one there needed to be convinced. It is precisely the rejection of the ‘memorandums’ that explains the growing popularity of Syriza, which has gone from a puny 4% in 2004 to 48% today. The majority of Greeks have had enough of the measures imposed” by the Troika.

“Since 2008, Greece has seen its GDP drop by 42%, unemployment climb to 27% (50% among youth), its public broadcasting system closed, its health services amputated. The ‘longest recession ever experienced in Europe in peacetime,’ according to the Truth Committee on Public Debt.[1] The debt is not the result of excessive spending — lower than the public expenditures of other countries in the euro zone — but of a set of circumstances including the extremely high interest rates of the European banks and a drastic increase in private debt following the adoption of the euro in 2001.”

Pelletier noted that “90% of the money loaned to Greece already returns to the creditors — ‘sometimes the same day’— since it is repayment of the debt. Also, the agreement linking Greece to the European banks obliges it to comply with English law, another ‘blot to its sovereignty,’” she said, quoting Stélios Kouloglou, a journalist and Syriza deputy in the European Parliament.

The failure of the Euro group summit on June 18 had opened the door to a “strategy of terror” on the part of the financial authorities, said Pelletier. Reviving the scenario erected by Goldman Sachs shortly before Syriza’s election, there will be talk of an “uncontrollable situation,” of flight of capital, bank closures, economic trusteeship and new elections.

She quoted Greece’s then finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, speaking last April: “The government is facing a new kind of coup d’état. Our assailants are no long tanks, as in 1967, but the banks.”

“According to Stélios Kouloglou, this ‘silent coup’ is mindful of what happened in Chile in the early 1970s. ‘Make the economy scream,’ Richard Nixon ordered, as a warning to anyone in America’s back yard who might be tempted by the Marxist adventure that they should behave.

“Under a starry sky in Athens, Álvaro García Linera seized the opportunity last Saturday, saying: ‘Southern Europe is now experiencing what we went through in South America 30 years ago.... We were told ‘There will be no investments, no jobs, no technological development if you persist in taking the socialist road.’

“The very elegant vice-president then went on to list what Bolivia had managed to do since the election of Evo Morales ten years ago: free university education, basic services (water, electricity) now guaranteed as fundamental rights, the rights of the indigenous and the environment, not to mention a government that collects 50% of the profits of the banks, 54% of the mines and 86% of natural gas. ‘Don’t let them tell you that another way of doing things is impossible,’ he concluded.”

But, Pelletier reminded her readers, “economic sovereignty is not part of the mandate inherited by Alexis Tsipras last January. People want to end austerity while remaining in the euro zone. A mission that is increasingly proving to be impossible, given the European intransigence. Which of the two parties will yield? Will the hardline neoliberalism advocated by the new empire dare to show itself more human, more understanding toward Greece, if only out of fear of pushing it into the arms of Putin? Or will Syriza put enough water in its wine to lose its soul, and quite probably the next elections?”

[1][1] The Truth Committee on Public Debt was established on April 4, 2015 by a decision of the President of the Hellenic Parliament, Ms Zoe Konstantopoulou, who confided the Scientific Coordination of its work to Dr. Eric Toussaint and the cooperation of the Committee with the European Parliament and other Parliaments and international organizations to MEP Ms Sofia Sakorafa. The Committee’s preliminary report can be accessed here.