A Fete for the End of the End of History
Part of the challenge was that the organizers had no idea how many people would be drawn to this Davos for activists. Atila Roque, a coordinator of IBase, a Brazilian policy institute and a member of the organizing committee, explains that for months they thought they were planning a gathering of 2,000 people. Then, suddenly, there were 10,000, more at some events, representing 1,000 groups, from 120 countries. Most of those delegates had no idea what they were getting into: a model UN? A giant teach-in? An activist political convention? A party?
The result was a strange hybrid of all of the above, along with--at the opening ceremony at least--a little bit of Vegas floor show mixed in. On the first day of the forum, after the speeches finished and we cheered fanatically for the end of The End of History, the house lights went down and two giant screens projected photographs of poverty in Rio's favelas. A line of dancers appeared on stage, heads bowed in shame, feet shuffling. Slowly, the photographs became more hopeful, and the people on stage began to run, brandishing the tools of their empowerment: hammers, saws, bricks, axes, books, pens, computer keyboards, raised fists. In the final scene, a pregnant woman planted seeds--seeds, we were told, of another world.
What was jarring was not so much that this particular genre of utopian socialist dance had rarely been staged since the WPA performances of the 1930s, but that it was done with such top- notch production values: perfect acoustics, professional lighting, headsets simultaneously translating the narration into four languages. All 10,000 of us were given little bags of seeds to take and plant at home. This was Soviet Realism meets Cats.
The forum was filled with these strange juxtapositions between underground ideas and Brazil's enthusiastic celebrity culture: mustachioed local politicians accompanied by glamorous wives in backless white dresses rubbing shoulders with the president of the Landless Peasants Movement of Brazil, known for chopping down fences and occupying large pieces of unused farmland. An old woman from Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with her missing child's name crocheted on her white head scarf, quietly sitting next to a Brazilian soccer star so adored that his presence provoked several hardened politicos to rip off pieces of their clothing and demand autographs. José Bové, the French cheese farmer known for "strategically dismantling" a McDonald's, unable to go anywhere without a line of bodyguards protecting him from the paparazzi.
Every night the conference adjourned to an outdoor amphitheater where musicians from around the world performed, including the Cuarteto Patria, one of the Cuban bands made famous by Wim Wenders's documentary The Buena Vista Social Club. Cuban anything was big here. Speakers had only to mention the existence of the island nation for the room to break out in chants of Cuba!Cuba!Cuba! Chanting, it must be said, was also big: Not just for Cuba but for former presidential candidate and honorary president of the Workers Party Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ("Lula-la"). José Bové, after almost landing in jail for teaming up with local landless activists and destroying several hectares of genetically engineered soy beans, earned his very own chant: Olé, Olé, Bové, Bové, sung as a soccer stadium hymn.
One thing that wasn't so big at the World Social Forum was the United States. There were daily protests against Plan Colombia, the "wall of death" between the United States and Mexico, as well as George W. Bush's announcement that the new administration will suspend foreign aid to groups that provide information on abortion. In the workshops and lectures there was much talk of American imperialism, of the tyranny of the English language. Actual US citizens, though, were notably scarce. The AFL-CIO barely had a presence (John Sweeney was at Davos), and there was no one there from the National Organization for Women. Even Noam Chomsky, who said the forum "offers opportunities of unparalleled importance to bring together popular forces," sent only his regrets. Public Citizen had two people in Porto Alegre, but their star, Lori Wallach, was in Davos.
"Where are the Americans?" people asked, waiting in coffee lines and around Internet linkups. There were many theories. Some blamed the media: The American press wasn't covering the event. Of 1,500 journalists registered, maybe ten were American, and more than half of those were from Independent Media Centers. Some blamed Bush. The forum was held a week after his inauguration, which meant that most US activists were too busy protesting the theft of the election to even think about going to Brazil. Others blamed the French. Many groups didn't know about the event at all, in part because international outreach was done mainly by ATTAC, which, Christophe Aguiton acknowledged, needs "better links with the Anglo-Saxon world."
Most, however, blamed the Americans themselves. "Part of it is simply a reflection of US parochialism," said Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University and a speaker at the forum. It's a familiar story: If it doesn't happen in the United States, if it isn't in English, if it's not organized by American groups, it can't be all that important--let alone be the sequel to the Battle of Seattle.