Dateline: Porto Alegre, Brazil. If the critics of globalization who
massed here are divided about the
world they want, there was
a single issue that united nearly everyone: the U. S. war
against Iraq. All
political groupings and delegations
from some 125 countries opposed the war.
Day 1 – January 24
Why Are We Here? What Do We Want?
Porto Alegre, Brazil. In Davos, Switzerland, they’re gearing up for the year’s biggest après ski hour: the World
Economic Forum. While Swiss officials unloaded the corporate cocktail party on the Americans last yearthey insisted that the
stopover in New York was intended as a gesture of solidarity after September 11the event has been kicked back to the
Alps in 2003.
Meanwhile, weighty deliberations await the 1,000 odd WEF delegates when they arrive in the Swiss resort town later
this week. While the rest of the world watches and listens for word of material breaches, moneyed movers and shakers will
mull menu choices at Alpine eateriestafelspitz anyone? Also on the agenda, a selection of lectures seemingly better suited
to a California spa vacation than a hegemonic retreat.
Highlights this year include sessions entitled "Love: A Matter of Trust," "Can’t We All Just Get Along?" and
"Humor in the Workplace." Conference planners also display an unusual preoccupation with aging; a reflection, perhaps, of
the advancing years of WEF founder Klaus Schwab. While residents in countries rather south of Davos battle infant
mortality and falling life expectancy rates, attendees can hear about the latest robotics technology ("Will people start replacing
worn body parts with robotic parts?" muses the official program) and reflect upon "Why do we age and why do we hate it?"
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, sight of the
3rd World Social Forum, the questions to be
addressed are rather more fundamental. To begin with there is the logistical nightmare of the gathering itself. While Davos is
confined to a relative handful of well-heeled delegatesand a smattering of handpicked NGO representativesthe Brazil
gathering has exploded in growth since the first WSF was held in 2001. Just how many people are coming to Porto Alegre? "We
think it will be 100,000, but we don’t know for sure," said a member of the Brazilian organizing committee. "For certain there
will be a lot," he said, wearing the dazed and frazzled expression shared by anyone with an official connection to the event.
Already the city is teeming with delegatesthose seasoned members of the globalization circuit armed with
trademark black canvas attaché cases; their youthful colleagues sporting Che T-shirts. 30,000 young peoplemany from
elsewhere in Latin America, others from as far away as Japanare expected to set up tent in the sprawling youth camp on the
outskirts of the city.
Then there is the larger question of the Forum itself. Why exactly are we here? What is it that we’re demanding? And
of whom? While organizers view the predicted size of the event as a sign of success, dramatic growth has also produced a
gatheringand a movementthat is increasingly unwieldy. While delegates to Davos share a single economic agenda (and even
the NGO reps attending this year’s Open Forum know better than to pick up any bricks), there is no such unity among
attendees at the World Social Forum. Reform or revolution? Not a question one asks in mixed company here.
As Porto Alegre prepares for a human deluge, members of the somewhat murkily assembled International
Councilthe body that ostensibly runs the Forum and other related gatheringshave been meeting behind closed doors. Among
the contentious topics: should next year’s forum take place in India, should the International Council come out against war
in Iraq, and what, in fact, is the Council authorized to decide?
While the closed-door sessions brim with internationalof the Third and Fourth varietyintrigue, outside it seems
to make little difference what Council members determine; the sense of movement is already undeniable. Should the official
body condemn Lula, Brazil’s newly elected president, for his decision to travel directly from Porto Alegre to Davos? The
youth camp is already planning a protest. Is the International Council opposed to war? Some 70,000 Forum participants are
expected to march against the war later this week.
But the most heated debate has been over the question of whether the Forum should leave Porto Alegre next year. A
plan to hold the next global meeting in India has yet to be agreed upon, and determination by the Brazilians, who currently
dominate the decision making structure, is strong and mounting. At a welcoming session attended by Porto Alegre’s Trotskyite
mayor and a representative from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazilian officials urged Council delegates to keep the event in
Porto Alegreand seemed to regard plans to move the Forum as ill-fated. "If it were up to me, the World Social Forum would
never leave," said the mayor. "But we will still be here in 2005 when you return."
While the Forum has proved to be a cash cow for the city, not everyone in Porto Alegre will be sad to see it goif it
does; closed-door deliberations continue with no end in sight. Late one evening, a large group of U. S. delegates happened
into a restaurant in a decidedly middle-class suburb of Porto Alegre. As we shuffled in, dreary from jet lag and clad in
movement swag, a woman of obvious means was heard to sniff in our direction.
"Foro," she said derisively to her dining
companions, signaling the waiter for more meat.
Day 2 – January 25
Building the Party, Brazilian Style
"Can you imagine if the Left in the U. S. looked like this?" one American activist said wistfully, watching as the
opening march of the World Social Forum snaked its way through the city streets on Thursday. His envy was understandable:
the parade of political parties, civil society organizations, marching bands and dancers that clogged downtown Porto Alegre
for hours was a vivid, shimmying spectacle, a continent away from the dreariness that plagues most gatherings of the U. S.
left. Also absent: the tense standoffs between demonstrators and police that have marked nearly every recent globalization
gathering. Local police were merely observers at this political carnival.
So what makes the Latin American Left so different from its U. S. counterpart? Median age, for starters. The
youthor juventude as their signs and flags readwere everywhere. They marched by country, cause and political party. They
danced and drummed for communism, socialism, anarchism and everything in between. And while a small contingent of the
now-infamous "Black Bloc" appeared late in the parade, it was only an obvious lack of tropical clothing that distinguished
them at all.
Then there’s the rhythm thing. Even the clunkiest slogans somehow roll off the tongue when chanted in Portuguese
to a samba beat ("Stop Bush U. S. Imperialist Aggressor" was particularly catchy.)
Like previous gatherings held here, this one was about globalization, a loose gathering of folk united by a shared
belief that "another world is possible," the close to official slogan of the
anti-globo movement. But what kind of world? The
range of often conflicting visions was obvious. For many on the far Left, it’s a socialist world, or at very least "Death to
Capitalism," as one popular sign read. For the NGO’s and issue groups, it’s a world in which capitalism is better managed, trade is fair
and financial transactions taxed.
The distance between the two constituencies is immense, bridged here only by the savvy street vendors who
managed to sell cerveja, caipirinhas and Che garb to both. The split between the revolutionaries and the reformists is
fundamental; they do not speak the same language. One group of marchers had a novel solution: Esperanto. They carried signsin
Portuguese rather than Esperantoimploring us to speak the universal language.
If the critics of globalization who massed here are divided about the world they want, there was a single issue that
united nearly everyone: the U. S. war against Iraq. The war was the thing, opposed by all of the various political groupings, and
by delegations from some 125 countries. And while rumors of a large anti-American demonstration in the center of Porto
Alegre swept through a gathering of U. S. delegates earlier in the day, the warnings proved groundless. The U. S.
representatives carried placards opposing war too. Tacked to a telephone poll near the docks, a single sign condemning "Yankees, Jews
and Nazis," hung limply. But no one seemed to notice, not even the delegation of Argentine Jews that marched through the
streets urging peace, and waving the Israeli flag.
Enough about the marchers. What did ordinary
Porto Alegrenses think of the spectacle? For a country that routinely
shuts down for four days of Carnaval every February (March this year), this was no big deal: a fully-clothed preview of the
coming ritual. Still, curious onlookers were everywhere. Workers, done for the day, lined the streets, and residents watched from
their balconies, some showering the crowd with homemade confetti. A group of cafeteria workers pointed and waved to the
marchers from their restaurant window.
And what of the Brazilian elite, notorious for their resistance to any social and political change? They gave up the
center of Porto Alegre long ago, taking to the hills that surround the city where they live behind wrought iron gates. "We will
make them hear us," said one marcher, an AIDS activist from Rio. "Even if they can’t see us, they’ll hear."
Note: To sustain high spirits during a lengthy political gathering, a hefty shot of
cachaça, the Brazilian cane liquor is essential.
Caipirinha: 1 lime quartered, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 shot of
cachaça (Brazilian cane liquor), cup of ice cubes with water
Place the lime and sugar in the bottom of a glass. Using the handle of a wooden spoon , crush and mash the limes.
Add liquor and ice. Stir well.
Day 3 – January 26
Lula: Savior or Sell-Out?
When Brazil’s new President, Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva, or "Lula" to friend and foe alike, took the stage at the Porto
Alegre amphitheater this week, the mostly Brazilian crowd welcomed him like a rock star. Teenage girls in midriff bearing
T-shirts sporting the Workers’ Party insignia screamed Lula’s name, while families waved small PT flags in the air. One
gentleman came in a gaucho costume, the baggy pants and tall leather boots of the Pampas, along with a homemade sign
proclaiming: "Lula? You Are My President." I couldn’t help wishing that he were mine as well.
The sense of hope that fills the air here is almost tangible. Lula’s victory last fall means more than merely a new
government; it is seen as a chance to try something different. And if poor and working class Brazilians are rushing to embrace the
new presidentthey poured into the amphitheater by the thousands, long after he had finished speakingthe Americans
who are here in Porto Alegre embrace him too. "Lula can represent the interest of workers in Brazil and in the U. S.," said a
labor activist from the U. S.. "There is no one in power in the U. S. that you can say that about."
But while optimism abounds, there are plenty of skeptics too. When Lula left the amphitheater, he exited stage right:
to Davos, off to attend the World Economic Forum. His decision to forego the people’s forum for the annual ruling class
reunion has been a source of bitter divisiveness here. Those representing the social movementsfrom Brazil and
elsewhereview Lula as the anti-globalization president, and expect him to act accordingly. "He’s making a terrible mistake by going to
Davos," said Chris Nineham from Globalize Resistance, the UK-based anti-war coalition. "It will lead to disappointment and to the
kind of compromises that let people down."
Another compromise certain to disappoint lurks in the not-so-distant future when Lula’s administration resumes
negotiations over the Free Trade Area of the Americas, known here by its Portuguese acronym ALCA. And activists in North
and South America who hope that Lula will simply kill the deal are likely to be very unhappy. "We will sit down to negotiate
the FTAA with determination," said candidate Lula on the campaign trail.
Not if the Brazilian far left can help it. While the unions that are Lula’s base take a rather more measured approach to
the question of FTAA negotiations, the extreme left parties want none of it. Signs reading "Não à Alca" are everywhere
around the city, and during the Social Forum opening march, members of the PSTU ((Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores
UnificadoUnited Workers’ Socialist Party), a left-wing split off from the PT, loudly demanded a national plebiscite on the
hemispheric trade deal.
Meanwhile, many of the U. S. activists present here have expressed disbelief that "their" president is likely to
sell-them out on the FTAA. "I keep hearing talk that `another FTAA is possible,’" said Canadian labor activist Michelle
Robidoux. "If that’s where things are headed, people are going to be devastated. Canadians have seen what has happened as a
result of NAFTA. We know what this is going to mean."
But Lula is not the anti-globalization president; he is the leader of sovereign Brazil. And for his anti-poverty agenda
to have any chance of successhe has declared, famously, that his goal is for every Brazilian to have three meals a
dayhe has to take on a larger opponent than either Brazil’s far left, or the very rich in his own country. Lula must go up against
the global economy.
When Lula announced from the stage that he would not be attending the World Social Forum, but was going to
Davos instead, the crowd fell silent. The PT flags stilled, and the soccer chants, "Lula, Lula le-oh-le-oh-le," stopped as well. In
his trademark baritone, Lula explained to the crowd why he felt that he had to make the trip. All my life, he said, people have
told me what I shouldn’t do. When I told them that I wanted to join a union, they told me not to, that unions were corrupt
and antiquated. In three years, we had the strongest union in São Paulo. I’m going to Davos to tell them the truth about
Porto Alegre, he said.
Among some leftist commentators in the U. S., it is already fashionable to write off the new President. "Is it right to
scream ‘sellout’?" asked one such commentator. Like the Brazilians, I think I’ll wait and see. For now, he’s all they and we have.
Day 4, January 27
Another Left is Possible
Porto Alegre. In the waning days of any large
anti-globalization event, talk turns naturally to accomplishments: what is it
we’ve done here and where do we go next? To this end, reams of documents (fondly
referred to as "documentados") have been produced, proposals proposed,
methodologies reviewed and official texts released. But the real accomplishment
of this, the third World Social Forum, is not to be found in these words,
translated into multiple languages. The magic of this gathering has been far
more ethereal, the kind of spark and energy produced when some 100,000 people
come together around an idea.
What was created here was a kind of civil society, a term so often bandied
about–abused really–but rarely experienced. The overwhelming majority of
people who came to Porto Alegre were not seasoned veterans of the
anti-globalization circuit (most were attending their first social forum). Nor
were they political movers and shakers. They came here out of curiosity and to
explore a possibility. People packed into theaters to hear streamed testimony
from newly-freed death row inmates in Illinois. They crammed into classrooms to
learn about the war on Iraq, the privatization of water, and what globalization
will mean for them.
It may sound vague ("simpleminded" was the description that one American lent to
the event) ; far more time was devoted to talking about demands than to figuring
out how to make them. But for once, the phrase "another world is possible"
seemed like more than trite globo talk; we were watching it unfold here. As in
the US, much of public life in Brazil has been eroded by privatization, income
inequality and a relentless process of malling. There are few places where
ordinary Brazilians of all walks of life can simply go to mingle together.
"Public life has moved behind walls and gates," explained my friend Gianpaolo, a
sociologist who grew up in Porto Alegre and now lives in the US. For five days,
though, Brazilians and the people who’d traveled from countries all over the
world to join them took that world back.
Not everyone in attendance was satisfied with the breezy solidarity that ruled
the day. Some in the crowd wanted rigor, lots and lots of rigor. On the
Brazilian left, the award for "best display of militancy" goes to the PSTU, or
the United Socialist Workers Party. The party held hourly rallies during the
forum condemning Bush and Sharon and effectively utilizing the march as just
another means of transportation. The PSTU also had one of the best chants of the
entire event, roughly translated as ‘Bush, assassin, go back to the place where
your whore of a mother gave birth to you.’
From the North American left, the demands for discipline came from the Life
After Capitalism contingent, a forum within the forum organized by Michael
Albert and Z Magazine. While elsewhere in Porto Alegre, attendees were
preoccupied with merely describing the world, Life After Capitalism was intended
to present the way forward: a systematic exploration of what we want and how we
can get it. The highlight of the gathering was to be a debate amongst political
perspectives including socialism, anarchism, participatory democracy, and
something called "par polity." I sided with that, having never heard of it
But due to organizational snafus–namely that official forum information
included nothing on the Life After Capitalism confab–few seemed to know how to
find the way forward. Early sessions took place in cavernous auditoriums, while
the sessions on political visions and the much anticipated debate took place in
a location no one connected with official event seemed ever to have heard of.
Meanwhile, life during capitalism continued apace. Tens of thousands of
forumistas milled about on the campus of Porto Alegre’s Catholic University,
temporary home to perhaps the world’s single largest collection of leftist swag.
Che’s visage could be seen everywhere, adorning tiny t-shirts and halter tops,
buttons and berets. Lula was just as popular. Beautiful women tied their hair
back with PT headscarves; their boyfriends wore the number 13, signifying the
PT’s spot on the electoral ballot.
"There are so many attractive people on our side here," mused one labor activist
friend, taking in the scene. I nodded and pointed out that it wasn’t just the
model good looks shared by so many of the juventude that distinguished
the crowd from a left gathering in the US, but that so many people were smiling.
"Do you think another left is possible?" he asked as we prepared to head north.
"I hope so," I said. "I really hope so."
This article was originally published by Counterpunch –
Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about globalization and immigration. She
loved Brazil and hopes to return soon. She welcomes comments at
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