2005 World Social Forum: Utopia confronts reality in Brazil

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Our cab driver, a disillusioned member of the Brazilian Workers Party, didn’t think much of the World Social Forum, an annual gathering of anti-globalization activists held this year in Porto Alegre from January 26-31. It was the same old corrupt politics, he said.

Too jet-lagged to argue, my companions and I — Eduardo Martínez Zapata, Hugo Orellana, and Stephen Durham — listened quietly to his scathing critique of President Lula da Silva.

Between a sudden snowstorm that derailed half our contingent the day before we left the U.S., a fire in the subway on the way to Kennedy airport in New York, lost luggage that wound up in Argentina, and a two-day delay in São Paulo caused by missing a connecting flight — well, we were just happy to be there.

Dropping our luggage at the hotel, we rushed to the Gasómetro, the center of the World Social Forum “territory,” as the organizers call it. Braving long lines in a blazing sun, sheer chutzpah scored us copies of the 80-page program listing over 3,000 events.

The agenda was broken into 11 areas of interest or “terrains” such as the environment, defending diversity, neoliberal economics, peace, arts and the integration of struggles. Activities included hundreds of workshops, panels, cultural events, films, art displays and rallies.

Monumental disorganization seemed to plague the event from the very start. When we finally located Radical Women’s literature stall, we discovered it had neither the table nor chairs that had been included in its hefty, close-to-$300 price.

Stephen and I placed a little pile of books and fliers on the dusty floor and went to find banner-making supplies. Hugo and Eduardo joined the raucous radical contingent in the festive opening demonstration.

So began our World Social Forum odyssey into the heart of the anti-globalization movement.

A global village. An estimated 155,000 people from 135 countries and 6,588 organizations took part in this year’s forum. Altogether they represented an exciting, colorful and sometimes bewildering array of politics, cultures, social movements, causes, religions, dress and opinions.

From Esperanto to Marxist-Leninism, from Trotsky t-shirts to iridescent plastic purses, from reggae bands to street poets and heads of state, it was all there.

In a single day, our contingent met indigenous people from the Amazon, trade unionists from Korea and Central America, Dalits (or Untouchables) from India, Afro-Brazilian civil rights activists, revolutionary lesbians and gays from Venezuela, and feminists from Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina and Cuba.

The next day we got lost in the Youth Camp, a self-contained community of 13,000 inhabitants, 2,180 tents, open communal showers and venders of every description.

Through five scorching days, the kindness of Brazilian strangers and the exhilarating sense of the world as a global village kept us going.

We were also propelled by our own mission: to let people know that in the heart of darkness, two dedicated revolutionary feminist organizations — Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party — were doing their level best to build a workingclass movement to overthrow U.S. capitalism. The passionate welcome we received made the whole trip worthwhile.

Trouble in paradise. Except for the one last year in Mumbai, India, earlier forums were held in Porto Alegre with the financial and political support of the Workers Party. However, as voters became disillusioned with Lula’s failure to keep his campaign promises and his capitulations to the International Monetary Fund, his party lost the city elections.

The new establishment viewed this year’s forum as little more than a way to generate income for local businesses. Prices at hotels skyrocketed, homeless people were kicked out of warehouses along the river needed for workshop spaces, and the poor were hired to pick up trash and set up hundreds of tents, thus temporarily easing unemployment.

However, by the forum’s end, local newspapers were questioning the value of hosting another one, given the high cost of policing and construction and the damage 155,000 people caused to public parks and open spaces.

The Youth Camp suffered a different kind of trouble. Nazi skinheads attacked punks and there were 90 reported instances of sexual harassment, including rape. Young feminists organized the Lilac Brigade to escort women safely through the camp and called a march against the violence. Men and women proclaiming themselves against “prejudice and moralizing” counter-demonstrated.

In post-forum analysis, feminists noted the underrepresentation of women on panels dealing with war, poverty and neoliberalism and called for “mainstreaming” women’s issues at the next global gathering, to be held in Africa in 2007.

Now for a word from our sponsors. The World Social Forum apparatus touted this year’s event as “self-supporting,” by which they meant no government money was given to underwrite it. Instead the money came from the Ford, Rockefeller and other foundations, billionaire George Soros, unions, banks and businesses.

Banco do Brasil was a ubiquitous presence, its logo adorning everything from “ecologically sound” golf carts, used to ferry NGO celebrities around, to booths and posters. At times, the whole thing looked like a gay pride march with ample corporate sponsorship. Let’s just say that a new world it wasn’t.

Not an organization but a process. The World Social Forum had its origins in the protests against the World Trade Organization kicked off in Seattle in 1999. It was conceived by eight groups, including the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil, as a counter to the yearly World Economic (free trade) Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The charter states that it is a space for “democratic debate of ideas” and “free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action.” No one is authorized to speak or make decisions on behalf of the forum. Its charter bans political parties and those who “advocate violence” from official participation in its gatherings.

Decentralized, ultra-democratic and anti-hierarchical in principle, the WSF nonetheless has an International Council made up of 129 intellectuals and representatives from high-powered international non-profits (NGOs), unions, media, and student organizations.

And despite the prohibition against parties, we met representatives of Trotskyist groups from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, and the Philippines. The Cuban and Brazilian communist parties had large contingents. And the Anti-Imperialist Camp called a boisterous demonstration in support of the Iraqi resistance and invited us to speak.

The familiar tyranny of structurelessness. It is a law of politics: in the absence of an elected leadership, some group or individual who is accountable to nobody fills the vacuum.

This point was proved once again on the last day of the forum when a small group of intellectual luminaries, including members of the International Council, issued the “Manifesto of Porto Alegre,” a list of 12 priority issues for the anti-globalization movement (poverty, water rights, debt cancellation, taxing financial transactions, etc.) decided upon in private meetings.

Telling the press it was “of the forum, not by the forum,” they avoided the issue of whom they were speaking for.

A better vision for a better world is possible. A mind-blowing international gathering should have a spectacular ending.

At the opening rally at Gigantinho stadium, Lula announced to the crowd of 20,000 that he was flying off to Davos, where he offered to be a “bridge” between the two forums. The booing was so intense it sparked a national discussion about the president having lost touch with his base.

On the other hand, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, addressing a packed closing rally, drew cheers when he proclaimed, “We need to transcend capitalism … via socialism” and create a “world social agenda” and “a strategy of power.”

These are words the anti-neoliberal activists drawn to the World Social Forum needed to hear. A better world is possible, certainly. But what better world, and how does humanity arrive there?

Even as planning gets under way for the next forum in 2007, figuring out the answers to these questions is the real challenge facing the movement against corporate globalization.

As international secretary for the Freedom Socialist Party in the U.S., Guerry Hoddersen works to initiate and deepen FSP relationships with radicals around the world. She can be reached at guerryh@mindspring.com.

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