CARACAS AND BEYOND. A contribution to the debate
Warning: this is not a debriefing report.
Four months have passed since the end of the VI WSF held in Caracas. Ample time to write just a few lines about a Babels project that left both coordinators and volunteers with a package containing mixed feelings, hopefully a couple of lesson that could be of use for future Babels projects, and probably more questions than answers about a variety of issues.
Among those feelings, one of frustration occupies a rather conspicuous place. I speak for myself, of course, and as feelings go, this one takes nothing off the great, exhilarating thrill of sharing with many of those present in Caracas the edge of doing everything we did to the best of our abilities amidst all the difficulties we were confronted with before and during the event. And we did well. Indeed, sharing that enthusiasm was one of my most gratifying experiences so far.
But I must admit that whenever I look back to Caracas, frustration is one of the first characters to enter the scene.
As to its cause, it can be summarized as our failure or inability to occupy the space from which to properly play our role as members of the Caracas organizing committee, the famous Grupo Facilitador (GF).
As a result, we found ourselves unable to manage, control, supervise or even take part in some decisions taken within the GF which were crucial for our participation. In fact, if decisions were ever taken at all within that group, they remain a mystery to me.
Again, as a result, our project suffered a series of blows, both political and operational, some unexpected, while others were easy to foresee.
The foulest blow was, no doubt, the flight tickets affair. As it was, out of 200 volunteers selected to go to Caracas from abroad, Caracas provided for less than half that number of flight tickets.
Many of those who never got a ticket had declined remunerated or otherwise interesting job offers in favour of the WSF; some received mails apparently confirming their flights and even went to the airport with their luggage only to find that there was no such thing as a boarding pass waiting for them. The rest of them were simply very disappointed to learn that they wouldn’t go after all.
It was very painful, very humiliating. Big time, capital F Frustration.
In my case, my flight reservation was confirmed less than 24 hours prior to departure time. Having arrived to Caracas only hours before the first conference began, there was no time to ask questions but to sit down and work.
Of course, the GF told us that not only Babels, but many other issues about the WSF were left hanging in the air by the Govt. donor agency. And there is no reason not to believe that was the case.
But about other things we never really knew what had actually happened. We never knew why the vast majority of tickets were bought for volunteers from the Americas and scarcely a handful from Europe. We never knew why they chose to work with two travel agencies, one to purchase tickets for those coming from the Americas and the other, left pretty much idle, for those from everywhere else.
We know that the GF person who had volunteered to take care of transportation and accommodation for Babels eventually assumed responsibility for all that mess. But does that really matter? What counts is that we were unable to prevent that from happening, or at least from happening as close to the deadline as it did.
Nor does it count that after all and because of the staggering number of cancelled activities we could in fact provide for most of the meetings were interpretation was necessary. Indeed, in terms of coverage and the general quality of our work, all went pretty well and smooth, and it felt that way, although some lace-work was required and lots of midnight oil were burned to man the booths (tip top booths, by the way) with the proper language combinations. After all, those of us who made it to Caracas were not chosen for our language combination. In fact we were not chosen at all, we were just those who got tickets.
The fact remains that had the programme been followed to the letter, with only a few activities cancelled, we wouldn’t have been able to provide for half the meetings.
Other operational frustrations related to accommodations and food supply, but in hindsight these can be looked at as of minor significance when compared to the flight ticket business. It was good to be accommodated all at the same hotel, very well located for work purposes and all.
Some rooms were burglarized; one volunteer was relieved of as much as 500 US. As an anecdote, when notified of these incidents, the GF person I mentioned above thought of nothing better than to blame the opposition to Chávez and other dark forces of Imperialism who were sabotaging the gig. Yeah. Right.
Another source of disapointment concerned the array of languages used. A team of us did try for some time to establish contact with "originary communities" around Latin America to raise awareness as to the possibility and convenience for them to speak in their own tongue. It only yielded some promising results with the Guaraní community in the Paraguay region, and it included highly motivated interpreters, Sarah Zevacco and others, but then again, they were among those who never got to flight to Caracas. No serious contact was made with structured indigenous organizations taking part in the Forum, and when I popped at some of their meetings and spoke to a couple of speakers from these organizations about what a shame it had been that they could not make use of their own language, they both looked kind of bemused and seemed perfectly happy to communicate in Spanish.
All of the above in spite of the coordinators having previously reached a reasonable balance of political and operational awareness and consensus as to the goals of the project.
What went wrong, then? Why did our project failed to fulfill the ambitions we were prepared to achieve?
The anwser is simple: numbers. There were just not enough of us present in Caracas during the months leading to the Forum; not enough physical presence as to permeate the GF and its relevant sub-groups in a manner that would have made Babels and the WSF one and the same project, which is the way it should always be.
Only two local babel@s, Miguel Angel Sojo and Carlos Carrero, showed a true sense of commitement to the project and acted accordingly as coordinators. They both had jobs to tend to and personal lives to live. 2 local coordinators was just not enough. In particular if we take into account that the WSF International Council had left the GF to its own devices, completely alone, to organize the whole thing. The apparent reason being that Chávez would provide with whatever funding and means would be needed to carry it out. Two local coordinators to deal with a GF which had no experience whatsoever in these matters (usually the case when venues change from year to year) and a Hemispheric Council which acted as if Babels did not exist or it did but then as a nuisance. In fact, any autistic would've been more responsive to our many communications and appeals than the HC. Never did they reply or acknolwedge reception of our mails.
Dozens of us coordinators did not live in Venezuela. We all worked hard and steady to keep the project going and to keep us from loosing hope. Fernanda, Leda, Ivonne, Gatti, Cristina Saraiva and Cristina Santoro, Denise and so many others. We emailed each other constantly, and kept hoping that written communication was going to work just fine sooner or later with the GF and HC so that we could compensate for the scarce number of local Babels.
It did not, and here's a tip for future projects: Make sure that the vast majority of the coordination team is local. Miguel and Carlos were fully committed, but they aren't magicians. As Leda rightly said once, the whole difference lies on the number of times you had a beer or two with the "organizers" after each meeting. Not that it will preserve your project from all type of risks -like the flight ticket affair- but at least they will be less likely to come as as surprise.
But what if the next or any other venue, just like Caracas, is not precisely overpopulated with Babels enthusiasts? That could very well be the case in Nairobi, couldn't it? In spite of the valuable precedent Bamako has set for Nairobi.
The alternative for a "foreign" coordination -and Nairobi is just an example, not a case- would be for it to readily avail of funds allowing it to attend to as many preparation meetings as possible and to be pervasively present.
So, Babels having funds to be where it has to be? Funds to be reimbursed by the Forum budget at the first possible occasion?
Is that a possible matter to discuss at the Rencontres?
I truly regret not being able to be there, but here is a little of myself.
Have a good one
EN Project of International Meeting of Babels and Networks for Alternative Translation and Communication Systems. ES Proyecto de Reunión Internacional sobre Babels y Redes de Equipos de Traducción Alternativa. FR Projet de rencontres internationales des réseaux Babels et d’équipement de traduction alternatif.
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