By Michael Mottern
It is not every day you get to travel to Spain with the help of your comrades as the first vice chair of a national organization like Social Democrats USA – a “guest organization” at the 26th Congress of the Socialist International held in Madrid.
The trip began smoothly when I arrived at JFK airport on the busiest travel day of the year – the day before Thanksgiving, meeting with comrades like Sheldon Ranz, Susan Stevens, and Carolyn D. Hoffman. Whoever says train travel is bad has not ridden economy class on a commercial airliner. FYI – if you are claustrophobic this trip is not for you. But we managed to arrive there safe after a short layover in Brussels. There, the customs inspector told me his positive opinion of our itinerary, and who the next president should be of the United States and that he was also a member of the Blue Knights, an international motorcycle club started by law enforcement in the United States. That is when I told him my dad’s Navy buddy was in the Red Knights, a similar club for firefighters. No problems getting through customs there!
When we arrived in Madrid, with the help of Susan and Carolyn and their knowledge of Spanish we were able to make it to the hotel. The breakfast buffet, 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., was utterly amazing! Spain is like that, you get your food in 10 minutes – sometimes in just 2 minutes – and it is all fresh as can be with a variety of things from cold cuts to cereals, to eggs and croissants. The Thanksgiving evening meal was octopus with a very good salad. Tipping in Spain is sometimes seen as not necessary, the waiters being happy with only $5 possibly because their social democracy includes health care and education expenditures being taking care of, whereas in the United States wages are lower and those benefits are excluded.
We were able to navigate the subway better than expected. So when it came time not to take a taxi because it would cost more money, it was my job as a hunter and a guy who’s good with directions to find the nearest Metro station. On the first night we were a little lost, but on the second night Google maps came in handy!
During free time between events, we got to know the young volunteers at the merchandise table, selling SI T-shirts, posters of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, etc. They were quite intrigued that such a delegation would come from the United States, where social democracy is a comparatively small movement. The woman who was most excited about our stay in Spain was a government worker and a Party member who asked us how we relate to the Democrats in the United States. My answer was always, “we’re all registered Democrats in our organization, you have to be…”
As we got more acquainted with the SI Spanish delegation of youth government workers, the terrific Latifa Perry, who had been in touch with Sheldon over the years for our visit from the SI’s London office, escorted us right into the plenary hall, ushering us into the back with the other non-voting observers, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), mostly.
There was our name plate, sitting on a long table, in a room with the largest group of socialist heads of state – and other party chiefs – I have ever seen in my entire life! I mean meeting the Spanish youth was one thing but having a place at the table as guests is another! So we sat through every speech from every delegation from full member parties, whether it was Mexico or the Dominican Republic. I even got to shake hands with the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez of the Socialist Workers Party, after the first day’s event when he was being sworn in as the SI’s new president – how awesome!
During the social hour, I met Mustapha Ben Jaafaar of Tunisia, several delegates from Africa and Spain and spoke to the delegate from Costa Rica, Ricardo Sancho, as well as the delegates from Colombia. All very nice people! Sancho went to Harvard and I could only imagine what the delegations from Colombia and Palestine were thinking specifically because of the hardships economically and the many dangers that lie with being a leftist in the Middle East and Latin America. There were four delegations from the DRC – all fighting for full member status.
I was proud to represent my country at the Socialist International: the Congress of Karl Marx and the original German SPD. It was an honor I hope to do again someday!