January 20, 2014

Youth festival delegates learn about important international struggles

Rebel Youth's sister publication, People's Voice, sat down with Drew Garvie, co‑chair of the Pan‑Canadian delegation to the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students, held Dec. 7-13 in Ecuador, to talk about the experience.

So, finally, how many people attended? Was it a success?

            About 8,000 people attended from 88 countries, a very large number, although smaller than past festivals, because of the capacity of the Ecuadorian government. Overall, we would say it was a great success. Delegates got to learn about a host of struggles, ranging from the youth and labour fightback against austerity in Europe, the conflict in Syria, the occupation of Palestine and, in Africa, of Western Sahara, but especially the process of social transformation and battle against imperialism taking place in countries like Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba and, of course, Ecuador.

What were your impressions of Ecuador?

            One highlight was the chance to learn more and see first‑hand the political and social changes taking place in the country itself. The Ecuadorian government, led by Rafael Correa's PAIS coalition, calls this process the "Citizen's Revolution". They talk about applying the indigenous concept of "buen vivir" or "good living" as a way to change societies, thinking away from the individualistic values of capitalism and historic domination of the country by the United States, and towards more a social and pro‑people society, with sovereignty over its own affairs.

Could you highlight some of the features of these changes?

            Their new constitution, drafted by a citizen's assembly process, expanded democratic rights including recognizing the "plurinational" character of Ecuador with respect to its indigenous nations and enshrining the rights of nature and ecosystems to thrive. Ecuador has greatly increased funding to health and social services, eliminating tuition fees, reducing poverty and illiteracy. It has instituted a foreign policy reflecting respect for sovereignty against imperialist intervention. The country actively supports the regional integration of Latin America through different international agreements and organizations such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). These reforms were highlighted in many presentations by the youth of the PAIS coalition, workshops by the Foreign Ministry and even a speech by President Correa at the opening ceremonies.

How has the country felt the effects of the economic crisis?

            Like all capitalist countries, Ecuador was negatively effected by the economic crisis but not as hard as many other countries due to the rejection of austerity measures. Correa has enjoyed one of the highest popularity ratings in the Americas. An attempted right‑wing coup in 2010 failed, and electoral support for PAIS has gotten stronger with each election, including in February 2013, with a form of proportional representation. In fact, Correa is the first Ecuadorian president to win two consecutive elections without facing a runoff vote. At the end of his current term he will be the longest uninterrupted elected president in the country's history.

Would you characterize the changes as a socialist revolution?

            No, although we met with a number of progressive voices and groups, including left members of the national assembly who believe the revolution needs to develop in that direction. We also met with the Communist Party of Ecuador, who critically support the process, seeing the Citizen's Revolution more as a move towards more sovereignty and economic modernization, than to socialism and working class power.

            There are still many contradictions in policy and implementation. For example, there are debates around how to balance development of the economy in favour of the people with the protection of indigenous communities' right to self‑determination and nature's right to regeneration, without allowing big business and mining corporations to pollute in their drive for profit. These are some of the challenges and achievements that thousands of international youth got to see and discuss with a variety of Ecuadorian activists and organizations.

            Many real achievements have taken place since Correa and PAIS were first elected in 2008 on the back of mass protests against neoliberal-induced economic crisis. Poverty rates have been halved from 50% during the economic crisis in 1999. to around 25% today. The U.S. military bases have been kicked out of Ecuador, as were the local CIA offices who apparently ran the Quito police. Ecuador's "Dirty Hand" campaign has made important gains in getting Chevron to pay for massive environmental destruction, causing cancer and birth defects in the Amazon.

What about other international campaigns?

            A large delegation came from Colombia, highlighting the peace negotiations between the government and the guerilla fighters. The Cuban delegation highlighted issues like the blockade faced by their country and the imprisonment of the Cuban Five. The Festival got considerable international coverage because the Cuban delegation included Elian Gonzalez, who is a member of the Cuban YCL and who spoke eloquently at the anti‑imperialist court, testifying against the experiences of terrorism faced by Cuba.

            Since the second round of Chile's election was taking place, only about forty delegates were able to come from that country, but they spoke about the student protests which lasted over a year in their country, and also the current coalition for president, on a platform to make education free and accessible.

            Another important case, as in past festivals, was that of Western Sahara, the last colony of Africa which is occupied by Morocco. A number of delegates from the refuge camps in Algeria talked about their continued mistreatment at the hands of the Moroccans, including the displacement of tens of thousands of Sahrawi people from the country, imprisonment and suppression of activists fighting for a referendum on their sovereignty, with 500‑1000 people "disappeared," and abuses in the refuge camps.

How many people attended from Canada?

            In total 71 delegates from Canada attended the Festival. The Pan‑Canadian delegation, which included a national committee from Quebec, was a broad reflection of the youth and student movement and included delegates from Victoria to Halifax. Many organizations sent delegates: young trade unionists from the Vancouver District Labour Council, student unions like the Canadian Federation of Students‑Ontario, environmental justice groups like Guelph Anti‑Pipeline Action Group, as well as Idle No More, an Aboriginal rights organization.

            The Young Communist League of Canada is a member of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, one of the main international organizers of the Festival movement. The YCL played a key role in organizing the delegation and sent about twenty delegates to Quito. Many young activists also attended as individuals.

What issues did the Canadian delegation raise?

            Before the Festival we identified four key areas of struggle: exposing the oppression and genocide directed towards Aboriginal peoples and their struggles for sovereignty and self‑determination; the Quebec Student Strike of 2012 and the fight for accessible public education; the struggle against Canadian mining corporations; and environmental justice struggles against pipeline and tar sands expansion. We were able to raise these in workshop and conference presentations, as well as speaking from the floor, in meetings with other delegations, and at the anti‑imperialist court.

Tell us about the anti‑imperialist court.

            The last two days, as in past Festivals, saw the organizing of a very large and unifying event: the Anti‑Imperialist Tribunal, which basically placed imperialism on trial under the slogan "here impunity ends". Many respected Ecuadorian as well as some international activists and lawyers presided over the tribunal and issued the court's judgement. Each delegation had the opportunity to present to the court, giving thousands of delegates many lessons in specific crimes of imperialism around the world.

            Janice Makokkis testified on behalf of the Pan‑Canadian delegation. She is an indigenous activist and lawyer, Idle No More delegate, and member of a Cree nation in close proximity to the Alberta tar sands. Janice's testimony spoke powerfully about the hundreds of years of oppression that imperialism, and more specifically the Canadian state, has inflicted on Aboriginal peoples.

Where do things go now?

            There will be a number of local report‑back meetings in late January and February. On the last day of the Festival, the full Pan‑Canadian delegation gathered to discuss a joint declaration incorporating what they had learned, and also their diverse experiences in different struggles back home.

            The delegation committed itself to continue to fight for the rights of youth in our own country, including peace, democracy, employment, full equity, leisure and culture, and also a democratic, equal and voluntary partnership of youth movements from Quebec, Aboriginal nations, and English‑speaking Canada. The delegation had an extensive discussion about equity concerns as well.

            I think the final declaration puts our future work nicely: "throughout the WFYS we expanded our understanding of the world youth's capacity and desire for struggle against imperialism and for peace, solidarity and social transformation. We believe that a better world is both possible and necessary and we pledge ourselves to building this future".

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