An interview with Gerardo Cerdas by Beverly Bell
Gerardo Cerdas is coordinator of the Latin American- and Caribbean-wide social movement Grito de los Excluidos, Cry of the Excluded. He is also a sociologist and researcher. A native of Costa Rica, Cerdas lives in Brazil.
Q: Why is it important to build transnational social movements?
Of course, there are specific issues and power structures in each country, but it’s important to overcome borders and make a transnational movement because the root causes of injustices, of exclusion, of the violence and discrimination we face are the same. They are systemic issues. They are global issues.
As social organizations and movements, we need to move forward beyond merely the national level and see the big picture. And to understand how the specific reality we live in is related to the reality of other countries and other communities. Inasmuch as we’re able to realize that, we’ll also be able to raise peoples’ hopes, to strengthen the struggles of each other and bring about transformation, on a much bigger scale than anything we could do at a merely national level.
It would do no good or very little good to bring about some great transformation in just one country if things remain exactly the same in other countries. Because that would just mean that exclusion, injustices and exploitation would keep taking place as usual in all those other places. And that would be a continuous threat to any progress that’s been made in one specific country. So we need to move beyond the local and national level. The sort of transformation we need can only be achieved if we unite our efforts and join forces together.
Q: So talk to us a little bit about Grito, please, and what it works on.
Grito de los Excluidos has this vision of connecting forces, connecting agendas, creating spaces for unity amidst the diversity of movements and peoples’ organizations across the continent. The organization was established in 1995 in Brazil, and we have several different focus areas. We’re working on everything related to the defense of the common good and of nature, on militarization, and on the criminalization of protest. We do a lot of political education. We also do a lot of work on the rights of migrants. For instance, we established the World Social Forum for Migration, along with other organizations, in 2004. This has been a very enriching experience for us; it’s allowed us to work with organizations from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Q: For folks in the US who know nothing about this, what does it mean to have a continental social movement?
When we say “continental,” we’re primarily talking about Latin America and the Caribbean. But we’re aware that there is social, economic, and cultural exclusion in the US, even though there isn’t a group of people who are part of Grito de los Excluidos there.
Q: Gerardo, when you said “raise peoples’ hopes,” what did you mean by that?
I meant to really believe that transformation is possible. We are in a very tight spot – we’re screwed, you could say. There’s a great deal of poverty, a lot of exclusion, a lot of violence, a lot of injustice in our countries. Working people and our natural resources are being terribly exploited. We’re up against a huge monster, an economic, political machine of monstrous proportions. It would be very easy for us to lose hope, to lose heart, to just give up the struggle entirely and say “To hell with it. There’s no way we can overcome these massive forces, so let’s just go about our lives and forget about it.”
But we know that if we’re here today, it’s because our grandparents, our ancestors, didn’t give up the fight. They raised our hopes.
And we know that, sooner or later, things will start to change. Not just for us, but for humanity as a whole. This system that we all live in may continue to dominate us for a couple more centuries – who knows how long – but we believe in the transformative power that humans possess. Things weren’t always how they are today and things won’t always be this way in the future. Things change, they transform. Empires are born and they eventually die. Political and economic systems eventually fade away.
For now, we’re the ones in the thick of it. But then it will be up to our children, including those who aren’t born yet, to continue in the struggle. And if we don’t raise their hopes, give them hope, then what will happen in the future? Are we all just going to give up this struggle? No, we have to keep fighting, even if we aren’t the ones who are able to see the dawn break through the darkness. Economic systems take a lot longer to be transformed [than our lifespans]. It might be our children’s children who see it come about – who knows? But it will happen. We have to keep struggling and wait.
Q: But the powers that be, like the United States, are enormous. Why do you believe that people with no money, without institutionalized power of any sort, can change all of this?
First, like any other empire, the US is going to disappear because that’s just how history works. Sooner or later, all of the contradictions that exist in this economic-political system will cause it to fall. In the past, there were enormous empires that looked like they would last for all eternity. And all of them – all of them, with no exceptions – were transformed. Their economic and political foundations were transformed, their demographics were transformed. It’s just a matter of time.
A sector of people in the US are dyed-in-the-wool imperialists and capitalists, yes. But there is also a huge group of people there who are humanitarians, who are generous, good people, and full of love. You, for instance: you are from the US, and you are a person who has a different way of living, of thinking and feeling. The system wasn’t strong enough to overtake you. I’m sure there are many others in the US who are critical thinkers, who understand that there’s something wrong with the state of things in our world.
People in the US are victims of that same system that’s oppressing us here. It’s just that the way it oppresses us is different. I feel even more compassion for the people living in the US, because they’re even worse off than we are. They don’t have a lot of things that we have here, like our sense of community and our ancestral culture. We have a lot of things that they’ve already forgotten.
And it hurts me to see all those people working ridiculous hours to pay their grocery bills, to pay their rent. They don’t have access to good education, and they don’t have health insurance, if they get sick they don’t have access to health care, or they have to sell their house and lose all their savings and lose their dignity. And they want to tell me that this is the best possible system on earth?
So-called powerless people have the ability to make our bodies visible, so others will see what we stand for. I say so-called because all of us have power. If we decide to take over a highway in protest, for instance, we have the power of our speech.
We have achieved a lot. Working from the bottom up, the poor of this earth have brought about great change. And they didn’t have money, they didn’t have machinery or property or finances, and so on.
The powerless of the world have always been the ones to change it. The powerful of the world don’t change a single thing.
The [economic] system we’re living in right now has only been around for 300 or 400 years, whereas our species has been around for longer than 300,000 years. So we shouldn’t believe that this tiny 300-year stint we’re living in right now represents what humanity is really all about, that it represents our future. That’s a way of thinking that lacks historical perspective. We have to look behind us and ahead of us to not lose hope, to not lose perspective. And that’s the perspective we’re creating our movement from.
Translation by David Schmidt.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance and Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s New Divide. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.