Globalizing the Struggle: Women’s Voices from the Mesoamerican People’s Forum in Mexico

The Mesoamerican Peoples Forum was launched in 2001 in Tamaulipas, Mexico to combat Plan Puebla Panama. Over 500 people gathered for this year’s VIII Mesoamerican Peoples forum in Minatitlan, Mexico in April.


Martha Flores facilitates discussion on patriarchal violence and dominationThere’s a popular saying in Latin America that if they’re going to globalize commerce and capitalism, we’re going to globalize the struggle. With that pretext the Mesoamerican Peoples Forum was launched in 2001 in Tamaulipas, Mexico to combat Plan Puebla Panama, a neoliberal plan, replete with mega projects, launched by the Interamerican Bank of Development and promoted by former Mexican president Vicente Fox. Plan Puebla Panama has since been re-baptized as Project Mesoamerica incorporating Plan Colombia and the Mexican Merida Initiative, two U.S. conceived projects that funnel millions of dollars into army budgets supposedly to combat “narcotrafficking.” Therefore Plan Mesoamerica combines militarization with the promotion of the same mega projects including superhighways, dams, and open pit mines that have devastating consequences for the people and land across Mesoamerica.

Over the past 10 years the forum has traveled from Tamaulipas to meet in different cities and towns in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama to return back to The School of Social work in Minatitlan, Veracuz Mexico in April 2011. With the same spirit of resistance to neoliberal domination and commitment to defending the land over 500 people gathered for this VIII Mesoamerican Peoples forum. Participants included members of social justice organizations, human rights defenders, women, youth, indigenous peoples and campesinos, many of whom had to deal with lengthy processes of acquiring visas to enter Mexico. The central themes of the forum were:

The Crisis of Global Capitalism and Opportunities to Dispute Hegemony and Social Transformation, The Struggle for Food and Energy sovereignty, Land defense, The Common Good, and Popular Alternatives, Patriarchal Violence and the Struggle against Domination, and Militarization and Criminalization of Social Protest.

The forum was dedicated to Bety Cariño, founder of community organization, CACTUS, who was assassinated by paramilitaries in 2010 on a caravan bringing supplies to the autonomous indigenous Triqui community in San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, Mexico. Through heartfelt testimonies, delegates from across Mesoamerica paid homage to Cariño, her work with CACTUS and the organizing committee of the Mesoamerican Peoples Forum and demanded justice as no one has been held responsible for her death.

Cariño was just one example of strong female leaders in this anti-neoliberal struggle. As part of the forum, women from across Mexico and Central America asserted there role in these movements, as they often bear the hardest brunt of capitalist globalization and environmental devastation.

Martha Flores from the Nicaraguan based organization Another World is Possible helped facilitate a work group examining violence against women, youth, children and other gender-based discrimination that also touched on issues of the themes of femicide, legalized abortion and sexual diversity. Over 75 people, the majority women, participated in this discussion and shared their experiences from their respective countries.

Flores talked about the severe effects of mega projects on women’s lives and how dams deplete crucial water supplies and other projects pollute water supplies, making women’s lives much more difficult.

“When the water stops flowing in the communities, it’s the responsibility of the women, who are in charge of domestic things, to go and fetch it and walk long distances. This puts women at risk not only for abuses in their journey but also for bad health for the weight they bear transporting water and the unhealthy affects of polluted water,” added Flores.

This space served not only as a forum for people to talk about megaprojects, but also a space for these women, to talk about other pressing issues. These include the need to decriminalize abortion and especially “therapeutic abortion” and the need to recognize domestic violence as a crime, and provide women with options to leave their abusers. However there were differing viewpoints over what role the state should play in these matters. Flores added “We can’t just struggle against transnational [corporations]. We have to recognize that it all comes from a larger system of exploitation, written by men violating women’s rights. This is not just about rights to abortion, but also the right to live.”

Homage to Bety CariñoIsabel Ocelsia of El Salvador with the group Mesoamerica in Resistance for a Dignified Life says Free Trade treads hard on women’s bodies as it allows the spread of capitalism to spread. “Free Trade has nothing to do with freedom. Free trade is not only the transaction of bills, but also the objectification of people as a market good, a cheap labor force, the exploited bodies for work and prostitution and the imposition of maternity so that we will keep producing children who can be converted to cheap work.”

A consistent thread throughout this discussion was the need for men to recognize that women play an integral role in these struggles, yet their participation is often not valued and there is a general denial that machismo exists within these forums. Unfortunately, the type of patriarchal behavior these women were referring to manifested itself in the communal sleeping space, with a group of women were abruptly awoken by a drunk man urinating over their beds and another group of women waking up to a man masturbating alongside them. Three women came forward during the final declarations to denounce these actions, and asked the men in question to come forward and issue a public apology. While one man did come forward, it was clear that there were many issues that this brought up that needed to be worked out.

“They tell us that it is a thing [concerning] women; that we have to resolve these issues ourselves. But if we want to create another world, we have to work together so women and men all have this space together and this confidence between us. There is a lack of respect. This was a compañero of our same movement,” said Maria Mateo Francisco.

For participants from across Central America to be able to participate in the forum they had to travel many days in bus caravans and navigate all of the complicated visa processes as it is commonly known that capital easily crosses borders, but not people. Mario Mateo of Guatemala of the Alliance of Rural Women said that there is a whole additional process for women with families to be able to participate in these types of forums.

“Many of our husbands let us go and participate but they say before you leave you have to comply with certain tasks. Three days before we go we have to make sure that the kids clothing is washed, that there is medication if they get sick, people to take care of them, the house and the animals. And of course if these things aren’t resolved, it’s your fault. Men just get to say I’m going to a forum and return in a few days or a week or whatever.”

In the final accords reached by this gender working group, most expressed a desire to stay connected and to organize actions, marches and denouncements together and to put a special emphasis on the rising tragedy of femicide. Various means of alternative media were proposed, including a radio segments and a monthly bulletin that could be printed for those without internet access and put on a blog and social networks for those with it. There was also a suggestion to create outlets to share information on abortion and birth control access and to create community run shelters with job training for people who have been victims of domestic violence. Within this group emphasis was also put on food sovereignty, and the revival of traditional systems of crop cultivation, to provide economic basis to communities and prevent further migration to other lands. Dalia Angel Flores, of the Rural Indigenous Women’s Group of Oaxaca said “it’s crucial that future forums allocate dedicated spaces for youth, and for women so we can share more of our common experiences and so that our voices as young people and indigenous women are heard.”

In the work group focused on The struggle for the defense of food and energy sovereignty, in defense of the land, communal property and popular alternatives participants celebrated a recent victory in Costa Rica, where the government outlawed open pit mining. Evelyn Alvarado of Costa Rica with the organization Agenda was involved with the struggle and said that it was a long process to win. “Many people were opposed to us because they were poor and needed jobs and saw this as an opportunity to obtain work. It was with the help of the campesinos whose land was going to be taken away and also University and High school students as well as the involvement of human rights defenders that helped us win the struggle.” As these compañeros celebrated their victory, other activists were announcing the start of their campaigns against open pit mining, including the CRAC (Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities) in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero who are fighting against Canadian mining companies’ contracts to mine their territories. In El Salvador, in the weeks leading up to the forum, activists were protesting Obama’s visit, demanding a repeal of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and especially the clauses that prevent them from challenging mining companies extraction of their precious minerals.

In the discussion on militarization, many forum participants were quick to point out that their governments have been waging wars against their own people, under the banner of fighting narco-trafficking and insurgency but really suppressing resistance to energy mega-projects and robbing people of their lands. Lawyer Gloria Vasquez Perez of Honduras says they are living under severe militarization following the military coup that took place in 2009 and has been in power ever since. She says she believes the coup was directly related to former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s rejection of policies of the United States, especially in regards to the rights of transnational and petroleum companies, as well as the country’s strategic position in the middle of Central America.

“We want an end to violations of our human rights, sexual violations of our women, it affects the women the most because we’re in charge of ensuring the safety of our children, we bring them to school and study with them, but it’s very difficult.” She said that Honduras is extremely rich in natural resources, yet one of the most important resources – water – is rapidly depleting with the increasing construction of dams.

Perez added that she found many commonalities with the other compañeros and compañeras in the anti-militarization discussion and their calling out of the false democracies in their respective countries. “We have the same problems across all of our countries. El enemigo comun, el imperio yanki. The common enemy, Yankee imperialism that doesn’t respect the self-determination of our communities, and we are all fighting for our natural resources to stay in our communities.”

Through a popular vote at the forum, participants decided that the forum needs to evolve into a movement. Mexican activist Sara Lopez Gonzalez, from The National Civil Resistance against the High Price of Electricity, said they need to form a popular plan, against this official regional integration initiative, “We want to launch a plan that includes all of us, as we will never surrender and give in to these bad governments.”

The forum concluded on April 10th, an important day for Mexican campesinos as it is the day that Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata died. There was a unified voice to continue to defend community lands and natural resources while confronting hydroelectric plants, mines, forest plantations and the displacement that accompanies these projects. Participants also agreed to continue the fight for human rights including those of women and gay and lesbian people as well as struggle against militarization and criminalization of protest. Moving forward as a movement they say they will destroy the “capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal system.”

Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist, popular educator and organizer.  She is a producer with the national Criminal Justice Dialogue Project Thousand Kites, a reporter for various news outlets including Free Speech Radio News, Radio Bilingue and TeleSUR and an organizer with the NYC Community/Farmworker Alliance who work in alliance with The Coalition of Immokalee Workers.