Getting High in Porto Alegre or If Only Lula Were My President

    
Getting High in Porto Alegre or 
If Only Lula Were My President

    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.

    by:

    Jennifer C. Berkshire

    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 year—they insisted that the
    stopover in New York was intended as a gesture of solidarity after September 11—the 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 eateries—tafelspitz 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 delegates—and a smattering of handpicked NGO representatives—the 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 delegates—those seasoned members of the globalization circuit armed with
    trademark black canvas attaché cases; their youthful colleagues sporting Che T-shirts. 30,000 young people—many from
    elsewhere in Latin America, others from as far away as Japan—are 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
    gathering—and a movement—that 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
    Council—the body that ostensibly runs the Forum and other related gatherings—have 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 international—of the Third and Fourth variety—intrigue, 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 Alegre—and 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 go—if 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
    youth—or juventude as their signs and flags read—were 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 signs—in
    Portuguese rather than Esperanto—imploring 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 president—they poured into the amphitheater by the thousands, long after he had finished speaking—the 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 movements—from Brazil and
    elsewhere—view 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
    Unificado—United 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 success—he has declared, famously, that his goal is for every Brazilian to have three meals a
    day—he 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
    before.

    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 – 
    www.counterpunch.com  


    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
    jenniferberkshire@hotmail.com

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