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Growing Pains, Gains for Global Solidarity

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Issue: 26 Section: Accounts Geography: Latin America Brazil, Porto Allegre Topics: social movements

February 12, 2005

Growing Pains, Gains for Global Solidarity

2005 World Social Forum was largest ever

by Jennifer Besner

Forum-goers discuss free radio and free software in Porto Allegre. Photo by John Perry Barlow; used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

It was a cool, cloudless day in Porto Alegre, and Avenida Borges de Medeiros - where thousands were gathered for the Peace March that kicked off the fifth World Social Forum - was bristling with energy and expectation. A swarm of brightly coloured flags, shirts, banners and placards competed for the eye's attention while a mishmash of languages filled the air. In the distance, from the window of a tall building, a thousand small scraps of white receipt paper fell over the crowded street, twirling brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. On the corner of Rua Dr. Jose Montaury, the pounding drum beat and megaphone of the Partido Comunista do Brasil demanded attention, all but drowning out the rest of hubbub.

Though many of the Forum's one hundred fifty-five thousand participants may not have understood Portuguese, the PC do B's anti-Bush slogans needed no translation. Their sentiments were echoed in many of the signs carried by other groups and individuals, including some which read "Bush is the #1 terrorist," something which prompted one American participant to comment, "you can't see that in my country."

Indeed, conceived as a meeting place for "groups and movements of civil society opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism," the Forum has opened a space for the expression of ideas that challenge existing power structures. Mounted as a protest against the World Economic Forum in Davos and as a response to a world order dictated by the demands of capital, the radically reasonable mandate of the WSF is to build "a planetary society centred on the human person."

Over six days, the Forum offered an incredible diversity of over 2500 workshops, panels and other events presented by some 4000 organizations from 112 countries. Hugging the shore of the Guaíba river, the grounds were divided into eleven thematic pavilions with such designations as "Communication: counter-hegemonic practices, rights and alternatives" and "Peace, demilitarization and struggle against war, free trade and debt."

Though loosely unified under the broad banner of anti-capitalism/anti-neo-liberalism/anti-imperialism, the Forum is also a space for people to "debate ideas democratically" and there was plenty of room for controversy. One of the major flashpoints for disagreement was Brazil's president Luis Ignacion Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, and his relationship to the Forum and the values for which it stands.

Welcomed by jubilant crowds at the 2003 Forum, which followed the Brazilian elections and the victory of Lula's Partido dos Trabalhadores by only a few months, Lula has since disappointed many of his former supporters with what they perceive as an acquiescence to pressure from the United States, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, and his adoption of conservative fiscal policy. While many at the Peace March sported bright red T-shirts reading "100% Lula," the walls along Av. Borges de Medeiros displayed graffiti in three-foot high letters reading: "Abaixo as reformas anti-povo do Lula" (Down with Lula's anti-people reforms).

In his address on January 27th of this year, Lula stressed the importance of the struggle against poverty and his commitment to bringing this issue to the table at Davos. The crowd greeted him with a mixture of applause and jeers. (The local press made much of this booing and of the opposition to Lula from within his own party; the Porto Alegre paper Zero Hora even went so far as to speculate that Lula may be subject to threats and that he may have been wearing bullet-protective clothing under his suit, which they deemed exaggerated for the hot weather.)

Even Lula's decision to attend both the WSF and the World Economic Forum had public opinion divided. While some saw him as an emissary set to carry some of the Forum's social messages to the power brokers in the Swiss mountains, others simply viewed the move as a cynical political manoeuvre. Either way, noted Terra Viva, the independent newspaper produced for the WSF, Lula was "perhaps the only known link between the two forums."

In contrast to this lukewarm reception, the welcome received by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was overwhelmingly positive. Speaking before a crowd of over twelve thousand on January 30th, he spoke of the need to "transcend capitalism by way of socialism" and denounced the interventionist actions of the U.S. The people's consciousness of the need for profound changes is greatest in South America, he said. "When these people choose freedom, there is no force capable of stopping them." His remarks were met with wild applause.

Chavez also announced a proposal for the creation of a Latin American television network which would provide a space in the media for perspectives which diverge from the world view imposed by the North and which, he said, could more accurately represent Latin American realities. Such a plan would certainly pose a threat to the current balance of media power, as UNESCO's New World Information and Communication Order once did in the 60s and 70s. That revolutionary initiative, designed to democratize media by addressing the one-way flow of information from North to South, and supported by the Non-Aligned countries of the South, was opposed by Britain and the U.S. The withdrawal of funding and political support by both nations ultimately forced UNESCO to abandon the project.

If Chavez is able to implement such a plan, it will no doubt be in the face of substantial opposition from the Rupert Murdochs of the world. But for those who believe, as the Forum tagline goes, that "Another world is possible," such a feat would only serve to increase Chavez's rising star power.

* * *

While the WSF certainly provides space for the exchange of a diversity of ideas, its critics argue that this is its weakness, that the Forum is little more than a talking shop, an ideology fair which produces a cacophony of voices but little concrete action or results. There were also complaints among participants that the Forum lacked organization and that the infrastructure was inadequate for the sheer number of participants. In the Youth Camp, where thirty-five thousand participants pitched their tents, a lack of security was blamed for some eighty accusations of sexual assault and rape.

However, say Forum defenders like Ramesh Singh, Chief Executive of Action Aid International, the WSF's basic importance is as an event which has "facilitated various movements, processes and protests to come together, converge and synergize." Beyond providing a place for like-minded people to rub elbows, Singh says, the WSF also "sent a message of formidable challenge, creating a sense of insecurity in the minds of the dominant power and discourse."

In 2006, rather than holding the Forum in a single venue, there will be four or five events taking place simultaneously in different parts of the world. It was rumoured that one of these will be held in Caracas, Venezuela, but nothing will be officially decided before the meeting of the International Council in April. The Council has already decided that in 2007 the Forum will be held in Africa, though the exact whereabouts are as yet unknown. With over 120,000 attendees, the fifth World Social Forum was the biggest ever, and it's clear that popular support for the WSF continues to grow. It remains to be seen what effect this burgeoning movement will have on the neo-liberal agenda it seeks to derail.

» Peace Magazine: Whose Media? Whose New World Order?

» Indymedia Ireland: World Social Forum 2005: An Irish Eyewitness Report

» San Francisco Bay Indymedia: The Global Media Democracy Movement

» Z Magazine: The Future of the World Social Forum Process

» CounterPunch: Tale of Two Presidents

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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