Thousands attend world social forum in Brazil

by Dick Nichols

What exactly was the World Social Forum (WSF) that ended in Porto Alegre on January 30 after sixteen plenaries, 400 workshops, twenty testimonials and endless concerts, artistic exhibitions and “happenings” dedicated to the theme, “Another world is possible”? What did the 4500 delegates and 20,000 participants get out of it all? What contribution did Porto Alegre make to the struggle against neo-liberal globalisation, symbolised by the latest round of police violence and arrests in Davos?

The WSF was nine or ten things rolled into one, but the final product was a strong boost to the morale and fighting spirit of the global movement against neo-liberalism—in all its variety and contradictions. From anarcho-punks to members of ATTAC (the campaign to impose a tax on speculative financial transactions), from African fighters for land reform to Korean trade unionists, from Galician nationalists to opponents of Plan Colombia—the WSF showed that we are not alone in our particular struggles.

At its broadest, Porto Alegre was “us” against “them”—the values of solidarity, democracy, equality, sustainability and participation against those of competition, greed and injustice. This was expressed most powerfully by Hebe de Bonafini, the leader of Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in the televised debate between a team from the WSF and one from the World Economic Forum in Davos. “You gentlemen are our enemies”, she told financial speculator George Soros. “You are monsters, hypocrites.”

The exploitation of the underdeveloped South by the imperialist North (crystallised in the former’s US$2.6 trillion debt to the latter), the avoidable deaths of millions of children, the relentless spread of militarism, the juggernaut of environmental destruction, the uprooting of traditional communities and agriculture—whoever denounced the intolerable immorality and cruelty of the global status quo won stormy support.

A chance to learn

Secondly, the wsf was a chance to learn, a huge teach-in reminiscent of the 1960s teach-ins against the Vietnam War. The menu was overwhelming, with up to 100 topics being treated at any one time. In the coffee shops around the WSF site, the Pontifical Catholic University, activists could be seen tearing their hair out as they faced choices between debates over Plan Colombia, the Porto Alegre participatory budget experience, Brazilian Workers Party (PT) state administration successes in making the rich pay taxes, environmental struggles in the Amazon, how to fight the World Trade Organisation, the plight of Brazil’s street children, fighting domestic violence in macho Latin America and dozens more.

For the thousands of non-delegates, particularly Porto Alegre’s young people, such workshops were hugely educational. “I just didn’t know anything about (topic X) before I came here”, must have been said tens of thousands of times. This feeling of beginning to understand the world was especially strengthened by the attendance of around 2300 young people at the WSF’s youth camp (the organisers had expected at most 1500).

Despite a few tropical downpours, discussion continued there until dawn. The indigenous camp nearby, with 700 in attendance, also received endless visits from delegates anxious to understand the struggles of Latin America’s part of the “Fourth World”.

Particularly popular were the “testimonials”, reflections on the history and experience of struggles by well-known activists and writers. Chaos broke out when the room for the presentation by Eduardo Galeano (author of The Open Veins of Latin America) proved hopelessly small. “In our Catholic spirit that suffering elevates the soul, I’m prepared to repeat this all again tomorrow”, Galeano joked to the squeezed-in audience.

Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman reduced the audience to tears with his account of the pain of those whose sons and daughters had been “disappeared” by the Pinochet regime, while English-Pakistani author Tariq Ali’s attacks on the “McDonaldisation of culture” had everyone rolling in the aisles, even though his jokes had to suffer simultaneous translation into four different languages.

Thirdly, the WSF was a vast networking exercise. Refusing to be intimidated by language barriers, activists from different continents strained to understand each other’s experiences and to battle with differences. This process was helped by the decision to group the non-Latin language speakers into continental groups (Asia, Africa and Northern Europe and North America), where they were also able to have input into the “Call from Porto Alegre for Ongoing Mobilisations”.

The WSF was also an occasion for demonstrations: women demanding the right to abortion (illegal in Brazil) followed on speak-outs against the holding of political prisoners in Argentina and for the rights of Latin America’s indigenous people.

Mass leaders on show

With its vast audience and intense coverage by the local media, the WSF was always going to be the site for appearances by mass leaders, both Brazilian and international. The testimonial of Lula, the historical leader of the PT, was more election rally than reflection on history. “Brasil urgente, Lula presidente” the 2000-strong crowd chanted as he entered a room swirling with PT flags.

Lula’s main theme was the natural unity of the Latin American people, as symbolised by the aspirations and struggles of its heroes, from Simón Bolívar to Che Guevara. The US plan to extend the North American Free Trade Association to cover all the Americas made the creation of a “Latin America for Latin Americans” all the more urgent.

Most controversial was Jose Bove, the leader of the French Peasants Confederation, and famous for such stunts as handing out Roquefort cheese to the delegates to the failed 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation. Accompanied by Joao Pedro Stedile, the national director of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), Bove took part in an MST-organised invasion of an experimental agricultural farm near Porto Alegre, where the multinational Monsanto had planted genetically modified crops. Pictures of Bove uprooting the plants appeared all over the Brazilian media, accompanied by outraged editorials comparing the attack to book-burning. When Bove’s entry permit was cancelled on the last day of the forum, there was much satisfaction in the conservative press.

The WSF was also a chance to put Porto Alegre on show. The municipality and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, both under PT administration, provided vast infrastructure support and deluged the delegates with information about the processes and history of the city’s participatory budget, through which citizens’ meetings establish spending priorities. Local PT leaders gave workshops on the details of Porto Alegre’s gains in the areas of public health, education, transport and housing—all achieved by rejecting the standard neo-liberal recipe of privatisation and deregulation.

Lastly, the WSF was a hugely popular event in Porto Alegre itself, a place where young people in particular just had to go. “Why did you come?”, I would ask. “Because everyone’s coming”, was the frequent reply. The huge turnout, combined with the wide range of left, environmental and progressive products on sale, at times gave the WSF the atmosphere of a carnival, as people snapped up their MST caps and badges, organic honey and PT flags as well as more weighty literature on all the globalisation issues.

What politics?

But what was the political result of the WSF? In one sense, the expectation of a final statement of position from the celebration of diversity that was the WSF would be misplaced. Nor was the WSF organised in a way that could allow thorough debate and decision making. More to the point, however, was the great diversity of opinion represented at the forum. A few examples will illustrate.

While the French Peasant Confederation is opposed to reductions in European Union agricultural subsidies and non-tariff barriers, the rural exporters of Brazil call for their removal. The US labour unions apparently “threatened” by cheaper imports from the countries of the South also support protectionism as the alternative to neo-liberal “free” trade.

Everyone was opposed to Plan Colombia, a huge threat to life and environment not only in Colombia but in the whole of Amazonia, but there was a lot of disagreement on the need for armed struggle, both in Colombia and in neighbouring countries like Ecuador.

Some political forces at the WSF were trying to bring about dialogue between Davos and Porto Alegre. This was especially the case of the French government, which had two ministers present at the WSF.

The French Green MP and minister for cooperative economy, Guy Hascoet, claimed that both forums represented differing sections of “civil society” and that between them “the logic of proposal should prevail over that of contestation”. When French trade minister François Huwart was invited to speak, Argentinian activist Alberto Pujals attacked him for supporting non-tariff barriers against the products of Latin America.

Many of the most radical non-government organisations (NGOs) continue to baulk at the term socialism as a summary of the new society the anti-globalisation movement should stand for. Thus the WSF, while strongly anti-capitalist in sentiment, probably equally divided between those who identify as socialist in some sense and those who don’t.

However, while the WSF didn’t adopt any final communiqué, some felt it was necessary to issue some call for action. Organisations like the Brazilian Workers Confederation (CUT), the MST, ATTAC, Thailand’s Focus on the Global South, the anti-debt movement Jubilee South, and the World March for Women, took the lead in drafting the “Call from Porto Alegre”. This endorsed a forthcoming list of actions against neo-liberal institutions, and proposed April 17 as an international day of protest against dumping and June 20 as an international day of protest against the Third World debt.

Parallel meetings of parliamentarians and town councillors also produced declarations.

The mood throughout the WSF was radical and anti-capitalist. When Ahmed Ben Bella, the historic leader of Algeria’s war of independence against French colonialism, recalled his days with Che Guevara and stated that “there is no democracy within the framework of the present world system” and invoked “the sacred right to take up arms”, the main hall shook to the applause. Cuba’s Ricardo Alarcón and Javier Cifuentes, the representative of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), received similar support.

The World Social Forum will be held again next year in Porto Alegre, and after that, it was agreed, different countries should have the experience of hosting this invaluable event on the anti-globalisation calendar.