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A Movement Map: The Puerto Rican Social Forum

By: 
Iván J. Broida-Fontánez
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

It felt like a different and new Puerto Rico. For one weekend, November 17-19, 2006, all kinds of people—organizers, rebels, community members, environmental and political activists, casual onlookers, students, artists, and anybody that happened to walk by—met and talked and listened.

The first Puerto Rican Social Forum took place at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras and was modeled after the World Social Forums. For many, the Forum was a hope that a new kind of politics and a new kind of conversation would be created from within the social movements—outside of the discourse of the three major parties and their traditional ways of corruption and vague promises of change. This hope was realized simply in the number of people at the Forum: over 1,300 people registered to participate and almost 100 organizations presented more than 150 events, including panel discussions, debates, round tables, artistic performances, strategy sessions, trainings, workshops, and much more.

We discussed political alternatives, including those that community organizations had already implemented in their living and working spaces, and those that should be implemented but haven't happened because of government or corporate sabotage.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the experience was not just the event itself but also the process leading up to the Forum. It took nearly two years to plan, organize, and integrate the various social and community organizations and movements in order to hold such an event. This meant holding public meetings in all regions of the island (including the municipal-island of Vieques), writing letters, setting up a website, doing fundraisers, and getting press coverage. It was not easy and was done almost entirely by volunteers.

The organizing process was also adjusted to go hand in hand with a new and alternative way of doing things. Since the work was being done in a coalition, most decisions had to be reached by consensus, using voting only as a last resort. Everybody had a right to speak, be heard, and make proposals for events and for organizing improvements. As for fundraising, no corporate money was accepted and only organizations akin to the Forum’s ideals—such as unions, political, social, religious, and community groups, NGO's, and others—were allowed to donate money and/or human resources. This type of organizing, which is rare in other movements in Puerto Rico, reinforced the notion that “another Puerto Rico and another World are possible.”

On the morning of November 18, 2006, people began filing into the University Theater to listen to a panel of community leaders and activists who discussed the changes and the challenges facing their communities because of the neoliberal and privatization agenda of the government. The keynote speaker of the panel, the well-known economics professor and Haitian activist Camille Chalmers, argued for a sovereign and unified Caribbean, without the intervention of foreign troops in Haiti or the United States in Puerto Rico and other islands. He also connected the Latin American struggles to those happening in our vicinity.

The events at the Forum were incredibly diverse. The Citizen's Coalition Against Militarism held a counter-recruitment workshop and presented their campaign to potential new volunteers. Puerto Rico Para [email protected] (Puerto Rico For Everybody), a GLBTT organization, exposed the discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Puerto Rico. The Sindicato Puertorriqueño de Trabajadores-SEIU (Puerto Rican Workers Union) invited an Uruguayan and a Guatemalan union organizer to talk about their experiences in their respective countries. The Movimiento Agua Para Todos (Water For Everyone Movement) discussed the right to equal and affordable access to water and the alternatives available to make this possible. The list goes on with topics ranging from spirituality to economics, alternative political parties to environmental activism, breastfeeding and bomba dancing.

Action plans

The closing plenary focused on proposals presented by the organizations during the Forum. These proposals included a boycott of multinational corporations, the denunciation of Filiberto Ojeda Rio's assassination by the FBI, the strengthening of the cooperative movement as an alternative economic model, an invitation to all social movements to participate in the upcoming US Social Forum, a suggestion to put the proposals by youth front and center, and many others.

The proposals are still being analyzed and distributed among the numerous organizations and individuals who were present, and will serve as a road map for the social movements of the Island. There is already talk of a second Puerto Rican Social Forum, and some people are suggesting a more radical approach. This is the same debate that is happening internally and publicly around the World Social Forum. There are proposals to be more proactive against neoliberalism and capitalism and to have a less conciliatory approach. Some have also argued for fewer testimonial-based forums. The issue of sovereignty and independence for Puerto Rico was not center stage at this gathering and there is a proposal that a next Forum should discuss this more openly. At the very least, the Forum should serve as an example of coalition building and community outreach and organizing in hopes of a more just and more peaceful Puerto Rico in which social movements work together to make the necessary changes happen.

Iván J. Broida-Fontánez participated in the V and VI World Social Forums and has helped organize the Puerto Rican Social Forum since it's inception in October of 2005. He is currently working with the Caribbean Project for Justice and Peace based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, sits on the Advisory Board for the Not Your Soldier Project, and is a part of the AFSC Youth & Militarism Program Committee.