(Note: The following is a report from the Second Intercontinental Encuentro For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism that took place in Spain during the summer of 1996. This documents reports on some of the discussion about networks of struggle.)
Background: The first encounter for Humanity and against
Neoliberalism was called by the EZLN. It was held in the jungle and mountains
of the Mexican south-east in the Summer of 1996. Some 3,000 people from
43 countries attended and at the end it was agreed to hold a second encounter
in Europe the following summer. This was held in the Spanish state in the
last week of July and the first week of August 1997 and this is the story
of those who came and what they did. This report with links and pictures
is on the web at
Imagine for a moment marching up a hill, lit only by starlight and a distant bonfire on a hot July night in August, in Andalucia, near the very tip of southern Spain. Looking at the stars you point out the red twinkle of Mars to the comrade whose arm you entwine. She comes from the opposite end of Europe. Behind you lies an agriculture estate, left derelict by its owner but now seized by agricultural workers. Behind you hundreds of comrades queue to try and ford the shallow river in the dark. On either side olive grooves stretch up the hills in neat rows, the red soil now dark and cool.
Someone on the road ahead starts singing 'A Las Barricadas' (To the Barricades) in Spanish, slowly this is taken up by others behind and ahead, in Italian, Turkish and other languages, sometimes just hummed or whistled by those who don't know the words. The Spanish version is familiar to me from a scratchy recording an Italian comrade passed on to me on tape. The original recording is of 500,000 people singing this working class anthem at a rally of the anarchist CNT in Barcelona, July 1936, days after the revolution there.
Those on this road have gathered from all over the world, over 50 countries in all. They have temporarily left the struggles in their own countries to come here to dream of a new reality together. Here the weather beaten features of a male campesino from Brazil, are found beside the sunburned features of an 18 year old female squatter from Berlin. Do you feel you are imagining something impossible, something from a Hollywood blockbuster or the past? Then add one more detail, a gasp goes up from those on the road for overhead a shooting star briefly appears. Were it not for the collective gasp each of us may have imagined this was a vision we alone were seeing. But no, we look around and realise we are marching, seeing and dreaming together.
In our modern world The Power tells us such dreams are no longer possible. History has ended, there is no dream just the reality of alienation, work and obedience. Yet the scene above is not from a film or from a history book, rather it took place on the evening of August the 2nd 1997. This was the 'Second encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism'. I could describe it in cold, political terms alone but this would miss the 'for humanity' part and in truth for every day we discussed organising 'against neoliberalism' we spent another 'for humanity'. In this text I'm going to try and give a sense of what it felt to be there. In the future I hope to write some further pieces taking up the political and organisational points it threw up
Like the first encounter the organisation of the second encounter in itself deserves a few comments. The encounter was planned and organised on a European level with three continental meetings, the first in Zurich in December of 1996, then in Prague and finally Barcelona. The encounter was thus organised without a central committee through co- operation on a continental level demonstrating the possibility of a different way of organising.
The news of the encounter flowed down many paths in many languages, It made huge jumps via the internet and fax and smaller ones as leaflets, pamphlets, on radio shows, in photo exhibitions and during a million conversations. In these ways the news of the encounter to be was put into the hands of those marching in Derry in February 1997 against the massacre of civilians by the British army there 25 years earlier, but it also reached landless campesinos occupying land in Brazil, refugees from the Western Sahara in camps in Southern Algeria, anti-road protesters in Britain, 1st nation activists in Canada, those running a 'pirate university' for workers in Turkey, environmental campaigners in Columbia, academics in South Africa, anarchists in Poland the list goes on and on. It echoed right down to the villages in the mountains and jungle of the Mexican South East where the idea of the first encounter had emerged from.
Back from all these places the same message bounced, I want to be there. It flowed back through postal systems, on horseback, down phone lines, out of fax machines onto the internet and found its way to Spain. We are coming. Alongside this came longer messages bearing titles like "Resistance to Neoliberalism: A View from South Africa" as dozens of papers began to arrive to be translated and circulated.
Flowing to Spain
And so in July people from everywhere began to prepare and to travel. The came on boats, by plane, by car and bus and train, even a few by bicycle. They dug out multi-coloured ruck sacks and crammed them with toothpaste and documents, sleeping bags and videos, they got out their maps and compasses, took their bearing for Madrid and started off. As we got closer the streams started to merge until a river of people arrived from the Metro station to fill the public buses to San Sebastian de los Reyes a small and dusty town outside Madrid. On the bus we started to exchange smiles and questions like 'and you..where are you from'
We were all headed to the registration centre at the Leon Felipe public school, where the Madrid organisers were confronted with a Tower of Babel of delegates trying to register in dozens of languages. Under the pressure people were tired and arguments flared over seemingly pointless bureaucracy or stupid on the spot decisions (like the brief but quickly defeated one to charge people coming from the '3rd world' the full subscription rate). But then again this was a massive international gathering of thousands of people organised with almost no funds by unpaid volunteers. So let's not dwell too much on such mistakes but instead learn from them for the next time.
That night we had the first of many fiestas in another nearby school where we drank our first beers and exchanged our first experiences. Another area of debate that, the attempt by the organisers to fiesta us to death. By my reckoning I was at a minimum of 6 organised fiestas in the course of nine days. As we also spent two nights travelling between venues, this, added up to a punishing schedule. Again a point to be consider next time in particular as the cost of some of these fiestas could have been used to help finance people travelling from poorer communities.
The inscription continued the following day and that evening the opening ceremonies were held in the Plaza de Toros a nearby bull ring. There the two delegates from the Zapatista communities read out greetings in which they prophetically warned us that "As companions in the struggle for harmony in our world, we say that it is necessary to put up with heat, thirst and tiredness, like a farmer who puts up with everything because he has faith in his work in the fields." These were indeed prophetic words for the week ahead of us.
By now everyone had arrived who was travelling to Madrid but all were not yet registered. The first of those registering that morning at 7.00 were passing the survivors limping back from the party the night before. Then it was onto the buses to transport people to the massive Embajadores squat in the centre of Madrid where we stored our bags while we demonstrated through the centre of the city. There were banners in many languages and once the march started a very impressive singing of Bella Ciao by the hundreds of Italians who had come for the encounter.
>From the end of the march we returned to Embajadores to eat and collect our bags before we split up for the five different locations in the Spanish state the tables were being held in. I set out for the train station alongside others heading north to Barcelona for the economics and culture subtables. In the station itself we sung and chanted as we waited for our train to be ready. We travelled overnight on a specially chartered train to Barcelona.
Arriving at 8.00 in the morning we first formed a cordon through the train station for the 'security' of the Zapatista delegates who had travelled with us. The we marched in a long column through the streets, at one point passing under a squat from the roof of which large exploding fireworks were being fired in welcome. This of course brought the neighbours out on their balconies along the route to wonder what this motley, tired and unwashed sample of the worlds population were up to. In a local Sports hall we were fed and arrangements for the week were explained to us. At this point the two Zapatista delegates addressed us before we split up into our respective sub-mesas and travelled to the squats, schools or community centres they were located in.
Many of us felt Barcelona was a fitting location for part of the second encounter. It was the centre of the anarchist revolution that had swept much of Spain some 61 years earlier, a revolution that in the last few years had become a point of redefinition for sections of the left. Some of the Italian and Spanish activists related how they had marked this convergence of the past and the present that morning
"...at the Le Pertuse frontier post on the Spanish/French border, a frontier post through which members of the International Brigades and Spanish exiles were forced to flee after the Civil War. Here there is a monument which records their passage, a pyramid-shaped monument with a broken apex. The Catalan, Italian and French comrades already present in Barcelona that day brought banners... and placed them at the foot of the monument."
The information sub-table of the culture mesa consisted of a hundred people meeting as guests of the Ateneu Popular (Popular/peoples centre) in the Nou Barris suburb of Barcelona. The first and only item on our agenda was how we were going to conduct the discussions. Put 100+ activists in a room with this alone in front of them and your asking for trouble, and indeed this resulted in an afternoon of discussion on whether we should meet as one large group or not and the following morning what areas of discussion each group should have. We came up with quite a novel solution which recognised the different reasons people had in coming to the encounter and the particular needs they had. There were three topics of discussion
Our period in Barcelona ended with all the sub mesas gathering in a public park to read back their conclusions and with yet another fiesta before departing for Andalucia. I spent much of my time rushing around finding people I'd met in Madrid and asking them how their tables had gone. A common overall pattern emerged of the first day being spent in a frustrating debate over how to organise the discussion followed by a few days of discussion that was only really getting going before it had to end. Facing a long journey right down and across to Spain many people expressed reservations about the amount of time being used up by internal travel in Spain. Time which could have been used to give another day or more worth of discussion.
Many people had chosen not to make the long journey to El Indiano so this was also the time to say good-bye to both old and recent friends. The rest of us, carrying bags of fruit and sandwiches as well as 5 litre bottles of water for the long, hot journey south set out for the train station where true to (recent) tradition we passed the time singing and chanting. Rumours were flying at this stage, the journey was 18 hours, it was 50 degrees in Cadiz, we would have to walk to El Indiano from the train station etc, as we boarded the train, grabbed carriages and settled down for the night and the long journey across the Spanish state.
Not everyone was as sensible. Some took refuge in the 'dining' carriage where throughout the night and into the next day vast amounts of liquid refreshment were consumed to the sound of revolutionary songs from every corner of the globe. If the truth was told, by the early hours of the mornings the songs were becoming shorter as word were forgotten but the spirit was there. It is probable that on that long train journey south many friendships became more 'involved' as kindred spirits living in this temporary and mobile 'free world' reached out to each other in the dark of one hundred compartments. All through that night and into the next day the train rolled south and as the sun rose so did the heat and it kept rising and rising as further south we went into a land of red soil, sunflowers and olive trees stretching into the distance.
The journey took 20 hours by train and another 30 minutes or so by coach to the small town of Puerto Serrano. Here we were to stay for the night in public schools and our arrival in the town was like that of locusts, as hot and thirsty from the journey, we descended on the local kiosks and shops to strip them of ice cream and everything cold. Here too we ran into that most humorous form of (dis) organisational chaos in the form of two gates each guarded by a large bearded men shouting at us to go to the other one. Eventually something was sorted out and the thousands of a activists flooded into the schools and their grounds to stake out spaces for tents and sleeping mats before heading for the showers and the legend of a local swimming pool.
That evening there was the inevitable fiesta. We formed into a long column outside the schools and marched there, although definitely more of a manifestation then a demonstration. The locals turned out in force to watch the world pass by. At one point an old man stood outside the house, both arms above his head, cheering those marching by. >From his age and obvious joy we speculated that here was a participant whose eyes had seen the struggle that Spain represented to so many of us, the Spanish revolution of 1936. We were after all in the olive groves of Andalucia where a previous generation had fought and died for their vision of a new world.
An end, a beginning or a process?
The final day of the encounter confirmed the rumour that we were to walk to El Indiano, a agricultural estate squatted by the union 'Sindicato de Obreros del Campo'. We were assured however that if we rose early to miss the sun the 3km walk would not be difficult. So up we got and off we marched being passed at one point by a JCB digger its front bucket crammed with several punks who had hitched a lift from a local. Revolutionary Spain briefly met Mad Max on that road.
The end was an anti-climax, throughout the long, hot day each table reported back in three languages, Italian, Spanish and English. This was an idea that had been lifted directly from the last encounter and this time around it worked out even worse than then. Basically each statement started with a neoliberalism is generally bad, its bad for the issue that concerned our table because blah, blah, blah and we need to create and alternative. The wiser or lazier amongst us spotted this early on and vanished down to the river for the day where to the neglect of out revolutionary duty we made the most of the sun, the water and the surrounding nature. Which is not to say no work was done, we choose to spend the day exchanging experiences (gossiping) and making links (cementing friendships). In the evening we returned to hear the closing words of the Zapatista delegates before making our way back along the road, this is where the shooting star appeared and this account begin.
>From here there is little to tell or there is everything to tell, the 2nd encounter ended but the encounter for humanity and against neoliberalism goes on. Each returning activist is telling this story in their own words, in their own language to their friends, their organisations and within their struggles. From there perhaps many more will take interest and come to see the need for
This intercontinental network of resistance, recognising differences and acknowledging similarities, will search to find itself with other resistance's around the world. This intercontinental network of resistance will be the medium in which distinct resistance's may support one another. This intercontinental network of resistance is not an organising structure; it doesn't have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist."
We have fulfilled the promise of the first encounter through the act of meeting again, let us continue this meeting and exchange into our future, for humanity and against neoliberalism.
More articles by Andrew