Deborah James is the Fair Trade Director at Global Exchange and has recently become a close observer of the changes happening in Venezuela. I interviewed her during her latest visit to Venezuela, just after the conference on Indigenous and Campesino Solidarity and Resistance ended, at which she gave a talk on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
What is Global Exchange?
Global Exchange is an international human rights organization that is based in San Francisco. For many years it has organized a campaign against the World Trade Organization (WTO), to educate people in the United States, and to derail the WTO, with, as we say, our friends in the “our world is not for sale” movement, which is the global WTO NGO network. Also, in the past few years we have worked to stop the expansion of the failed fundamentalist trade agreement NAFTA, to 34 countries in the western hemisphere, through the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would bring, obviously, more poverty, more job-loss, more wage depression, and more environmental destruction to our western hemisphere.
What do you think was the significance of the Conference on Indigenous and Campesino Resistance that just ended here?
I think for the people who participated from Venezuela, it was very important, from what I heard, to actually share their perspective of what they are going through here with other people who have either gone through similar processes or are going through similar processes now. Also, to see some of the extraordinary leadership such as the Conaie in Ecuador or Via Campesina in Honduras, to see the struggles that these others are going through with absolutely no government support, not only that, but with massive government repression, massive corporate opposition – for them to see reflected the support that indigenous and campesinos are getting here, in comparison. I think it was very illuminating for a lot of the people here.
Folks here very much wanted to express that the land reform program is not moving fast enough, people want their land and they are often suffering terrible repression from the land owners and the high number of deaths that campesinos have suffered in trying to carry out the land reform program. And then to have an interchange with many campesinos getting up in a row, saying “we have the best government, we have the best constitution in the world, but our institutions are not living up to the same level. We need to demand that these institutions are in accordance with the constitution and accelerate the land redistribution process.” Then the compañera from Chile got up and said, “I totally understand your frustration. It’s wonderful to see such an empowered group of people actually take the time to say what their needs are because they know that there will be a response. But I just want to reflect from the perspective of someone from Chile, where we had a land reform program thirty years ago and hundreds and hundreds of our comrades died trying to carry out the land reform. Then our democratically elected president was overthrown and not only did the land reform stop, but we had a reversal of the land reform program. We now are still at the same place, thirty years later. So keep making your demands, but understand that from the perspective of someone from Chile what is happening here is an incredible beacon or model for what should be happening in other countries.” For some of the other indigenous and campesino leaders to see the incredible amount of support that the indigenous and campesinos here have – they can’t believe it.
What has been your connection to Venezuela?
I first started coming to Venezuela in May. I sort of ran into the president in the lobby of the hotel at the World Social Forum [in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2003]. That’s how we first met. I had seen the president of Venezuela speak in Johannesburg, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, last September, in 2002. He had spoken about a “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” there and he had also talked about an International Humanitarian Fund. They were very interesting plans I thought. He was the only head of state at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that came and addressed the civil society groups. I was very impressed by that—that he would come down to our space and contact us and share his thoughts and answer questions about what was happening in Venezuela.
Venezuela was on the radar for me, but I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to what was happening in Venezuela before that. Though, obviously, I knew that this terrible coup had happened the previous April. So, we met at the World Social Forum and he invited Global Exchange to come to Venezuela because we were organizing to stop the war against Iraq. We met him and said we said we were Women for Peace and we were organizing to prevent the war against Iraq. And he said, “we would love to have more women for peace in Venezuela. You should see the war that is being waged against my administration and against the revolutionary process we are trying to develop—the oligarchy and the media are organizing this terrible media war against the revolutionary process.” And so I came in May for the first time, right after a WTO conference in Mexico City and have been, since the very first moment that I got off the plane, more than impressed, kind of overwhelmed with what’s been happening here and with the people that I’ve met.
What do you think of Venezuela’s role in the struggle for global justice?
From the very beginning, I met with the trade ministry and they gave me a copy of their proposal. One of the most important things that they had been pointing out at that time is that the proposed FTAA is not just a trade agreement, but would create a free trade zone in the entire hemisphere and that you can’t create a free trade zone like that with the massive amount of inequality that exists, both between the countries and within the countries.
One of their main proposals was a fund for production and development that is very similar to what they had in Europe, when they integrated the economy in Europe—that is, that there is a massive transfer of wealth from the richer countries to the poorer ones, for them to be able to bring up their standard of living, so that when they unified and joined together there wouldn’t be a massive disequilibrium between the countries that would cause problems. This is one of the main proposals that Venezuela has in the FTAA negotiations, that if we are going to integrate, we should do it based on equality and some sense of equity and not with the massive inequality that exists right now, between most of the countries in Latin America and certainly between most of Latin America and the United States.
One of the other proposals they talk about is the issue of transparency and democratic participation—that people in the hemisphere, the 800 million people that are going to be “integrated” into this free trade ar