Letter From Pôrto Alegre
PÔRTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL--In their last full day of discussion and debate, the thousands of delegates attending the World Social Forum were asking themselves not only what they want but how to get it.
"We will not be listened to because we are right," said veteran Canadian organizer Maude Barlow. "We will be listened to only if we are powerful. What counts now is only what we actually do on the ground."
Barlow's sentiment seemed to sum up neatly what one might call the consensus feeling coming out of this weeklong conference--a conference deemed by all to be an inspiring success.
Thousands of activists, students and scholars from around the world who jammed hundreds of workshops and seminars during the week are leaving here with the feeling that something very important was accomplished. Not that a fixed set of marching orders for the global justice movement was fashioned and agreed upon. But rather that the movement is alive and kicking after the setback of September 11; that it is growing in both size and maturity. And that while the road ahead toward some sort of global equity and a better humanity is long, arduous and uncertain, it is, nevertheless, the only route out of barbarity.
"What we are doing at Porto Alegre is not building a new society of governments, nor a new society of nations," said author and activist Susan George. "What we are building is a new society of societies. That this task should be hard and difficult should come as no surprise, because no one has ever done this before in the history of the world. We have benefited from those who have come before us and fought and lost, just as they have from those who came before them. I will not see what we are building in my lifetime. And there still might be losses in front of us. But you only eventually win by fighting, and that is what we are doing. Nothing will be given."
Tomorrow morning, the forum attendees will rally in a massive closing ceremony and plans will be announced for the next World Social Forum, the third of its kind. Early word is that a smaller WSF will be held a year from now once again in Pôrto Alegre and that a larger event will be planned for India in 2004.
Now, it's off to the big march against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is expected to draw thousands.
Sunday afternoon, February 3
World Social Forum: All Eyes Fixed on Argentina
PÔRTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL--This morning, in a local police gymnasium donated by the leftist city administration, a coalition of hemispheric labor and environmental groups attending the World Social Forum officially launched a coordinated political offensive aimed at defeating plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Tomorrow, tens of thousands are expected to take part in a protest march through this port city in opposition to the hemispheric trade pact.
And in this part of the world, the fight against the pact--dubbed "NAFTA on Steroids"--is much more urgent than an abstract political concept. Just across the border from this southeastern corner of Brazil, Argentina writhes in financial and social agony--victim of precisely the same economic model enshrined in the proposed FTAA.
This afternoon, the immediate fate of Argentina is on nearly everyone's minds and lips. In just a few hours from now, provisional Argentine President Duhalde is expected to appear on national TV to announce an emergency plan to stave off total collapse of his country's banking system and national currency. In a move that staggered Argentina last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a measure enacted last year that severely restricts and limits withdrawals from personal banking accounts.
Tomorrow, Monday, will be the first day the banks will open since the ruling was made, and there are widespread regional jitters that the court decision could unleash a panic that could prove lethal to the country's entire banking system.
Whatever President Duhalde says this evening will still have to pass a reality test when the bank doors swing open tomorrow morning.
The dramatic news coming in all week from Argentina, as well as the continuing revelations of the Enron scandal, have only served to convince Forum attendees that the current international corporate-driven financial system is in dangerous disarray and needs to be radically reformed or replaced.
Saturday afternoon, February 2
Battle Plans Emerging From 'De-Globalization' Conference
PÔRTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL--With three full days still left to go here, anticorporate globalization plans for the post-9/11 period are beginning to emerge. Though there will not, should not and could not be a unified strategic blueprint surfacing from the literally hundreds of seminars and workshops that make up the World Social Forum, there does seem to be, nevertheless, some broad consensus on how to move the fight forward.
Here's a quick review of where there are areas of general agreement:
FOR INSTEAD OF AGAINST:
A general recognition that the time has come to reposition the movement in positive, affirmative terms--a need to move from purely exposing and protesting to proposing and solving. Calling the movement "antiglobal" only plays into the hands of the corporate elites. "Better we say what we are for," says Lori Wallach of Public Citizen. "We are for democracy, diversity and equity, while they are for the same old system that doesn't work." There's also recognition that post 9/11 the movement is operating in different psychopolitical topography and that there must be more clarity regarding the principles of nonviolence.
WTO: SHRINK IT OR SINK IT:
STOP THE FTAA:
ENVISION AND ARTICULATE AN ALTERNATIVE INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC ARCHITECTURE:
Friday evening, February 1
American Delegates Show the Flag at Pôrto Alegre Forum
PÔRTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL--In its first full day of formal sessions, the World Social Forum unfolded as an intellectually bewitching kaleidoscope of panels, speeches and workshops. Seven major plenary sessions ran simultaneously this morning, several drawing more than 1,500 participants each.
I went to the four-hour panel discussion on world trade and heard rather brilliant presentations by Lori Wallach of Public Citizen and Martin Khor of Malaysia's Third World Network, among many others. The atmosphere was serious, and all down to business as the debate centered not only on what's wrong with corporate globalization but how a new world financial and trade architecture might be constructed.
The conference ran on strictly professional lines. Logistics ticked like clockwork and more than 300 translators fanned out across the city to provide simultaneous interpretation of most major events in three, four and sometimes five languages. Truly staggering in its complexity.
Throughout the afternoon, literally scores of other workshops on a wide range of social and economic topics flared throughout this leftist-administered port city of 1.3 million people. I spent most of the afternoon at yet another panel jointly organized by the Institute for Policy Studies and the International Forum on Globalization. Philippine economist Walden Bello offered a spellbinding analysis of the ups and down of the "de-globalization" movement and spoke of the urgent need to conceive of new models of development that "avoid both of the catastrophic failures of the last fifty years: centralized socialism and corporate globalization."
From there it was off to the Plaza Pôrto Alegre Hotel for a press reception with a part of the US delegation attending the forum. Last year, at the first-ever World Social Forum, Americans barely had a presence here. This time around, the gringos are the fifth-largest delegation here--about 400 credentialed reps out of a total of 12,000.
Jobs With Justice (JWJ), working with other American NGOs, put together a special delegation--about forty Americans calling themselves New Voices. "The idea was to bring down a group of real, front-line activists and organizers from the US," JWJ executive director Fred Azarcate said at the press reception. "The idea is to link them up in the broader, global activities and at the same time to give the world a more accurate picture of who's doing the work in the US."
Among the New Voices participants, I found SEIU healthcare organizers from Florida, living-wage activists from LA and environmentalists from New Mexico. All seemed pretty cranked up to be in Pôrto Alegre where spirits are still buoyed from last night's outdoor opening ceremony that drew tens of thousands from around the world.
Some forum organizers are still hoping that this week's confab will be able to come up with at least some sort of minimal program. I think it will be a miracle if that occurs. There's so much going on every hour in so many places I can't even imagine how the 50,000 or people here would be brought together to approve any such plan. But we'll see. On tomorrow's early morning schedule is a hemispheric-wide pow-wow on how to kibosh Dubya's plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Let's see if the plans get beyond the talking stage.
Thursday, February 1, MIDNIGHT
50,000 Celebrate Official Opening of the World Social Forum
PÔRTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL--Flanked by swaying palms and under a sky streaked with flaming orange and pink, more than 50,000 people from around the world filled a water-side amphitheater and, singing "Another World Is Possible," celebrated the official opening of the second World Social Forum.
The state's elected governor, Olivio Dutra--decked out in traditional "gaucho" cowpunching garb, welcomed and thrilled the crowd with a fiery, radical speech that condemned what he called the "profound dehumanization and systematic banalization of civilization" wrought by a global economy driven by market ethics. "We are among millions of other people," he said, "who now proclaim that humanity is not for sale!"
An infectious optimism rippled through the crowd, and the evening was punctuated when an Internet video hookup broadcast live greetings from AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who was among those protesting in New York City against the corporate World Economic Forum.
Earlier in the day, MIT professor Noam Chomsky--one of the forum's big draws--said he had hopes that the Pôrto Alegre conference would become "a new International" for global social justice movements.
The real work of the WSF begins on Friday. Literally hundreds of seminars, workshops, panels and presentations are scheduled to take place throughout the city for the next five days. The tabloid-sized program of the forum runs a fat 151 pages and boggles the mind in its variety of topics.
Some organizers of the event are hoping that the forum will conclude next week with at least a set of broad strategic blueprints pointing the way for the movement in the post-9/11 world. Other attendees are content just to have gotten here and to have the chance to hear and learn and share with so many others. I'll have more reports from the actual workshops tomorrow.
In the meantime, one of the hot topics here is just what constitutes a proper diet. Indeed, among the many attractions here is something called "The Healthy Feeding Area." Such a space sends shivers of fear up the back of practicing carnivores, its very name evoking images of bland and chewy tofu burgers and soy-based hot dogs.
But it seems the Brazilians have come up with the perfect way to unite vegetarians and meat-eaters. The most common sort of restaurant here is the so-called Churrasqueria. You pay a flat fee--about the equivalent of $10--and first you wade over to what seems like an endless salad bar. Perfect fare for the celery-chompers. But then squadrons of waiters pass by your table holding saberlike spits in their hands, each one with a different chunk of charred meat: beef filet, ribs and flank steaks. Then come the sausages, chicken, giblets, pork roasts. If you can take it, get ready for the lamb and goat. You merely sit and wait and, like in a dim sum house, the waiter will keep piling the cuts on your plate until you say "when."
A good friend calls these restaurants Bovine Eradication Units. I bit--literally and otherwise. And now, as a committed carnivore, I can chow down guilt-free. As one more slab of ribeye fell into our plates, my friend chuckled. "Back in the 1960s when volunteers went to Cuba to cut sugarcane, they would say every machete cut is a blow against US imperialism," he said, in between big chews. "But I think this is more comfortable. And now I can say 'Every slash of the knife is another blow for vegetarianism!' At this rate, cows will be extinct by the end of the decade."
Pass the horseradish.
Thursday, January 31, NOON
Leftist Leader & Presidential Candidate "Lula" Opens Forum Activities & Promises to Resist FTAA
Meeting a crowd of international reporters this morning, Luis Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva, leader of the leftist Workers Party (PT) and a top presidential candidate in this fall's election, spoke of what he hopes will come from this week's World Social Forum. "Peace," he said. "No fight is more important in this century than peace."
Small and stocky, now with a graying beard, the former Metal Workers Union leader attracted rock-star attention as he strolled into the local Sheraton Hotel this morning, site of his press conference. Finishing second in the last three presidential elections, Lula is now leading the polls for the October election. But victory will still be an uphill fight, as he is likely to become victim of a last-minute, well-financed right-wing media blitz--the sort of scare campaign that has stunted his previous runs.
"Never before in the history of Latin America has a government sponsored a citizens' event of such magnitude," he said proudly, referring to the underwriting that the city government of Pôrto Alegre and the state of the Rio Grande do Sul have given to the forum. Both administrations are controlled by his party and represent a major leftist electoral stronghold here in Brazil.
Lula promised that one of the central issues he will be working on during this week's gathering is the fight against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Pushed aggressively by the Bush Administration, FTAA would be a sort of super-NAFTA, bringing all thirty-three countries of Latin America into one unified market. "The problem with FTAA," Lula said, "is that it isn't really a free-trade policy. In reality, it is a policy of annexation of Latin America by the United States."
Lula's nonprofit group, the Citizenship Institute, along with numerous trade unions and other hemispheric groups--including the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies--will be conducting several workshops, seminars and strategy sessions this week all aimed at defeating the corporate-driven Americas-wide pact. More about that as it develops.
And later tonight: a report and review of local restaurants. I call them Massive Bovine Eradication Units, and they fulfill a valuable social function for vegetarians and carnivores alike.
Wednesday, 6 PM
The Perks of State Power
PÔRTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL--Don't get me wrong. It's nice to have even a little piece of state power. Rolling into this seaside, heavily industrialized but quite elegant town, you know you are a long, long way from Seattle, Quebec, DC or Genoa. The Workers Party city and state governments have rolled out the red carpets, so to speak, for the expected 70,000 Forum attendees.
Before you leave the baggage check area of the airport, Forum staff have tables, maps and programs ready. As you taxi through town to the hotel, the streets are lined with colorful billboards put up by the city and by the CUT, the Central Workers Union--indeed--proclaiming "another world is possible."
The Forum doesn't open up until Thursday night, but already, thirty-six hours early, there are several thousand delegates, journalists and panelists thronging the grounds of the central conference site, The Catholic University.
And talk about the perks of state power--I open the 100-page tabloid-sized program (about as thick as a large weekly newspaper!) and I see that several workshops, including those on working for peace, are slated to be held in the local Army Gymnasium. Try that in Seattle!
Wednesday, January 30 NOON
Is Another World Really Possible?
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL--I'm laid over in the International Airport waiting for the local connecting flight that will take me south to Pôrto Alegre--site of the second annual World Social Forum--and I needn't look any further than the news-rack to measure the challenges ahead.
As many as 70,000 of the most varied folks from around the planet are expected to jam the WSF this week, in a sort of anti-globalization theoretical/activist summit. And all under the fuzzy slogan of "Another World is Possible."
But is it?
It's tough enough to get so many fragmented movements to agree on a joint manifesto, or a statement of principles, or a common plan of alternative routes to development and equality (all on the wish list of many who will attend the WSF this week.) But that's a cakewalk compared to actually achieving, or implementing any of the above.
For that you need political power.
Which brings me back to the airport newsstand. The magazines and tabloids beaming from the racks luridly drip red with blood. From where I sit, I can see three covers with a bloody corpse on it. Another sports a smoking AK-47. Yet another screams with a headline: "A NATION IN SHOCK." The tab next to it reads "Brazil: A Nation of Impunity."
For the second time in just a handful of weeks, an elected mayor has been bloodily assassinated. In both cases, the mayors were members of the Workers Party (PT), a uniquely Brazilian creation that is part social democratic, part Marxist, part populist, but--in the end--something that most analysts agree is what modern, post cold-war socialism might look like.
The same Workers Party governs both the city of Pôrto Alegre (population 1.3 million) and the state that surrounds it. And that leftist administration offers itself as gracious host, promoter and partial underwriter of this weeks WSF.
During last year's first-ever Forum, delegates came away mightily impressed by the grassroots democratic reforms initiated by the PT. Local and state budgets, spending priorities, development plans are all approved in genuinely democratic community meetings and town halls. It might not be exactly Socialism in One City--but PT government in this southern corner of Brazil at least offered a glimpse of some other possible world. Especially considering that--once again--PT leader Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva is expected to run for President of Brazil, and once again he's not to be counted out.
Lula's national prominence, and the pockets of already existing Workers Party local government, have come only after much political suffering by Brazil. The military dictatorship that took power here in the mid-60s and that lasted more than a decade, became the model of ruthlessness that soon swept the entire continent. Armed guerrilla resistance to the regime collapsed in costly failure. Transition back to democratic rule was hesitant, arduous and erratic. Three decades of political and social turmoil finally laid the foundations for the emergence, over the last ten years, of a mass-based, leftist opposition party that could operate peacefully and legally and effectively compete for power in a relatively democratic system.
But PT mayors, as you can read in today's papers, are gunned down. And their killers run free.
Another world is certainly possible. But even as it slowly emerges, its enemies fight back with all at hand.
This meditation is not one of pessimism. But merely a reminder that what before is--as Susan George writes in this week's Nation--serious business. The joyfulness that has accented the organizing against corporate globalization is bracing and inspiring. And we should never eschew it.
But after all the workshops, plenaries and debates are concluded, even if people figure out what they want, they're still going to have to take very seriously the question of how they are going to get it. It's never handed to you.