Iquique – Southern Cone. Sunday, November 7 2010. 11 p.m. The First Citizens’ Assembly of the Southern Cone has just come to an end, after three days of uninterrupted exchanges, parties, citizens’ caravans and artistic expressions on the premises of the Arturo Prat University and other symbolic places in the city of Iquique. The delegations of participants from the Southern Cone who, during the previous four days, had gone through several important cities in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and the south of Chile had a brotherly reunion with a dozen guests from Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, India and France. They have all begun their journey back home, hoisting the flag of the Citizens’ Assemblies and of integration of the peoples and nations of the region. The end of the Assembly appeared to turn into a new beginning. The caravans started up towards the four countries of the Southern Cone. The atmosphere was happy and ethereal. The energy and enthusiasm brought on by the meetings could be easily seen on everyone’s faces. The participants exchanged the final thanks and then hugged affectionately before getting on the buses with their delegations.
Iquique (re)structured into a "civilizing citizen oasis"
Iquique’s borderline and cosmopolitan territory, located on the northern region of Tarapacá, Chile, welcomed – from November 5 to 7, 2010 - the First Citizens’ Assembly of the Southern Cone. It is this very region which, way back in history, received the mixed races of such indigenous peoples as the Aymaras, Quechuas and Mapuches, thousands of years ago, and then the mass arrival of immigrants during the 19th Century - immigrants who came to significantly push forward the salt marsh productivity adventure and to prefigure the integration of the different ethnic groups and peoples of the region, in spite of the mining camps’ drastic exploitation conditions. It is that very territory of Iquique, connected with the rest of the world by the Pacific Ocean, heir to maritime and territorial disputes and to an excluding and uneven economic development, that allowed itself to be turned into a "civilizing citizen oasis" thanks to the arrival of 300 citizens both from the Southern Cone and from other continents, who gathered in order to jointly live an integration and citizen construction initiative.
The diversity of participants was already enough to create an enchantment of colors, faces and Quechua, Yuracare, Aymara or Mapuche accents, but all of the participants used Southern Cone Spanish during the Assembly. Each delegation was generally made up of women, native people’s leaders, academics, farmers, artists, educators, national and provincial officials, municipal and parliamentary councilors, young people and students, trade unions and politicians, immigrants, inhabitants, communicators and journalists. The networks and actors of the civil society were, in fact, widely represented. Most of them came from each country’s metropolitan regions, but an important group also came from the provinces. We should finally point out that the media was also mobilized by the organizing team in Chile, who were supported – before and after the Assembly – by several participants who were in touch with the local media.
What kind of Southern Cone do we want to build?
Each period invents its citizen and popular movement. The mobilization born in Iquique can no longer be reduced to the relation between 19th Century historical forces, opposed to industrial productivity on the one hand and the emancipation of workers and productive forces on the other. The Southern Cone Assembly’s flag, just like the flags of the other six citizens’ assemblies from the rest of the continents, entails the appropriation of the challenges, which had various forms, during the beginning of the 21st Century. The key issue is “to deeply rethink the established order” - as remembered by Janela García during the opening plenary session – in order to be collectively ready for the transition towards a sustainable and supportive Southern Cone, having social and environmental justice and being capable of integrating each and every one of its social components as well as of becoming an active protagonist in a world that is searching for new regulations. This historical challenge has been formulated by the Assembly’s organizers in a single phrase: What kind of Southern Cone do we want to build?. During the opening plenary session, Gony Sosa –coordinator of the Peruvian delegation – firmly came back to this idea and to the responsibility for “learning to be a citizen and an actor of their destiny,” building new co-operations beyond sector and national borders.
A very diverse cocktail of activities
Alihuen, Ula and Ricardo - the prime movers of the Assembly -, supported by about ten workshop coordinators, prepared a great cocktail of activities: visits to different places (Santa Maria de Iquique School, memorial site for the massacre of workmen and their families at the beginning of the 20th Century, salt marsh declared World Heritage); tributes and ceremonies (offering to the sea by the native peoples, tribute to Carlos Liberona - founder of the Assembly-, to the political activists who fell victim to the Chilean dictatorship, to former Argentine president, Néstor Kirchner); workshops and plenary sessions; festive, sporting and artistic activities (dancing, puppets, football matches, clowns, music, performances, traveling serigraphy, films, video studios), without forgetting the participants’ trips in citizen caravans by bus from their hometown to Iquique. Articulating all of these activities managed to create a true feeling of coexistence –in the strong spiritual sense this word is attributed by the world view of the native peoples of this region. Many participants have confessed that they discovered innovating experiences, the social and political realities of their fellowmen from the Southern one and critical approaches inspired by their respective actions. The artistic activities allowed for laughter, spirituality and emotions to be added to the process of dialog, and they played a key role in the experience. The idea of caravans coordinated prior and post assembly – a brilliant idea, but also very complex to implement in terms of organization (the Argentine and Peruvian caravans had many delays due to the difficult itinerary and migration controls on the border), favored the delegates’ mutual discovery as well as the dialog with others, thus allowing to raise consciousness of the diversity of the very delegations. The return trip by bus projected the feeling that “we were taking the Assembly home”: everyone could share what they had lived with their traveling partners, let the event sink in, continue going into the debates in depth, and so on. The delegations stayed in Iquique, mostly in group rooms either rented or made available by hotels and hostels from the city. This had an advantage: it strengthened the groups’ cohabitation and helped participants to move more fluently. This made schedule and appointment coordination harder as well.
Seven debate axes as connecting thread
Seven debate axes structured the Assembly through thematic or socio-professional workshops, all of which were nourished by brief introductory presentations aimed at stimulating the debate:
- 1. Integration, constituting powers and knowledge dialog: how can societies and popular forces be allowed to build a constituting power and to renew their instituted frameworks?
- 2. Popular communication: how to develop alternative, popular communication networks in the Southern Cone and put them at the communities’ disposal?
- 3. Youth and education: how to promote education (and new educational devices) which may favor social motility, equality and social inclusion?
- 4. Popular ecology: which answers can be arrived at as energy, mining and agro-industrial projects expand and as bio-diversity and natural ecosystems are threatened?
- 5. Women: how can women play leading roles in society, especially in issues related to health, economy, food safety and political participation?
- 6. Native peoples and nations: how can native peoples and nations be allowed to become autonomous and to value their cultural identity without creating new separations from the mixed-race populations?
- 7. Migrants: how to make new economic, inter-cultural and citizen conditions emerge so that the immigrants in the region may be finally included and valued?
Participants were invited to choose only one of the debate axes each day (each of which were two and a half hours long), and had the chance to change axis on the following days. Artists coordinated several artistic spaces outside the workshops, according to the program of activities, but also in an improvised and spontaneous way.
Building an innovative dialog as the first challenge
During each of the seven axes, an effort was made to coordinate a horizontal debate, going for the socialization of innovative experiences, of key issues, of obstacles for action and of proposals from the participants. A team of about twelve methodological facilitators came to support the coordination of the workshop and help with the note-taking during the exchanges (about two facilitators per workshop). This arrangement worked well in some workshops, while in others it was rather difficult to put into practice. The heterogeneity of participants, the difficulty to constantly install an inclusive dialog between participants and coordinators, the density of the program and the delay in the previously organized schedule placed a limitation on the fruitfulness of the work. Several participants felt that some of their expectations had not been met in terms of the workshop dynamics and their capacity to build common perspectives. The Assembly itself showed that the first challenge is to build a truly innovative dialog, that is, a lively circulation of words, of the respectful and equal pooling together of viewpoints during a set time limit. In spite of these limitations, each axis managed to express - at least - the bare minimum viewpoints and proposals (including the differences and disagreements), which were later on returned to during the “flow of exchanges in the plenary session” (de-centralized plenary session) on the second day, and then briefly during the final plenary session. These testimonies closed the Assembly, together with the projection of a video clip that portrayed a global outlook of the meeting without arriving at closed or predicative conclusions.
The assembly must be progressively and organically constituted by everyone
Finally, we can say that the Assembly of Iquique managed to achieve its first mobilization and debate initiative with the presence of a very diverse group of actors from the Southern Cone and more. Participants expressed great satisfaction with the general atmosphere, with the intensity of the exchanges and with the quality of the teachings derived from them. Let us always remember that this is a move forward within the process which began in 2007. The fact that the list of participants has risen to 300, together with the regional coordinators’ prior mobilization, has multiplied even further the variety of political subjects who were present as well as the forms of dialog and political construction, whose differences are highly marked in the region. The challenge becomes that much bigger as we try build a constituting, inclusive debate. Like José Acuña and Stella Mangione perceptively pointed out on returning from Iquique, "We are creating a new collective subject. The Assembly must be built progressively and organically by everyone; there are no ready-made recipes for it". The Assembly is necessarily a long-term learning adventure, which must transform its consecutive attempts into teachings. What is to be expected after the Assembly is quite clear: shaping and restoring the range of proposals and themes touched upon during the Assembly; setting up a clear, structured project; continuing with the articulations and mobilizations on territorial and national scales.