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Letter From Porto Alegre | The Nation

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Letter From Porto Alegre

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Porto Alegre, Brazil
Monday Night

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Early tomorrow morning, organizers of this, the third annual World Social Forum, will formally close out the weeklong event to report their conclusions to the hundreds of international reporters gathered here. But this is merely a formality.

Having drawn more than 100,000 participants to scores of panel discussions and more than 1,500 seminars, debates and workshops on globalization and its effects, there will be no firm conclusions, resolutions or marching orders. Merely some consensual ideas and suggestions for how what is known as the global justice movement should move forward. More about those in a moment.

Looking back over this past handful of days, there were several emotional peaks that delegates and participants are bound to remember: Brazil's newly inaugurated socialist President Luiz Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva speaking softly to a local crowd of scores of thousands, his voice catching in emotion as he spoke of hungry children, and then--two days later--again watching Lula via satellite, as he passionately pleaded the plight of the global South to the assembled elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And then there was today's electrifying peace rally in a local indoor stadium packed to the rafters with thousands and awash in flags and banners, brought cheering and chanting to its feet by Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and MIT Professor Noam Chomsky. The stadium crowd then poured into the streets for a spirited and colorful march against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas--a joyous, noisy caravan, equal parts political demonstration and Brazilian street carnival.

Indeed, this session of the World Social Forum saw the definitive merger of the global justice and peace movements--an inevitability given the intense Bush Administration press for war in Iraq. Opposition to the war was beyond any debate here. But there are more than a few strategists and activists concerned that the war itself, if and when it comes, and the energies invested in opposing it, will distract from the fight around the more underlying issues of corporate globalization.

On that issue of distraction: There were several sideshows occurring this week that competed for the concentration of the assembled. The most clamorous was that of embattled Venezuelan President Hugo Ch´vez, who flew unexpectedly into town, clearly hoping to use the forum as a high-profile venue to argue his own case (the Venezuelan opposition is now about to enter the third month of a costly economic strike against him). But forum organizers stuck to their principle of not allowing any head of state to formally participate (even President Lula's appearance took place outside the formal structures of the WSF), and Ch´vez was kept out.

The former military officer turned populist president then staged his own show in a different part of town, and 200 journalists who turned up for his press conference were put through an arduous four-hour process of fighting their way in, only to eventually have the long-winded Ch´vez answer a grand total of five softball questions from pre-selected journalists during the hour he appeared. More disconcerting, a group of forum activists who agreed to participate the next day in what was billed as a daylong "independent" inquiry into the activities of the private and very anti-Chavista Venezuelan TV stations were later aghast to learn that one of the organizers of the hearing was himself a paid press "adviser" to the controversial Venezuelan president.

But despite these detours, much good work was accomplished. Marathon closed-door meetings of key activists from around the world hammered out detailed plans for action over the coming months. Networking and alliances were undertaken on just about every possible point on the international social justice agenda, from labor and human rights to the fight against war and militarization, against genetically modified foods and the privatization of water and other services, to defense of the environment.

But the two top issues at the core of the movement will be to stop the planned expansion of authority of the World Trade Organization, as well as the agreement on the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Both these issues will converge this fall with the next WTO ministerial meeting planned for Cancun in September and the FTAA ministerial meeting in Miami two months later. With those targets in their sights, a multinational coalition of NGOs and social movements will be ramping up coordinated campaigns, at once lobbying different national governments on these issues as well as trying to produce as much "street heat" as possible--so look for two more momentous, Seattle-like battles later this year in Cancun and Miami.

All of this year's work at the World Social Forum seemed to float on the still-present euphoria of Lula's landslide election--an event that the prominent Brazilian liberation theologist Frei Betto called "the first and most important ascendancy of the international left since the fall of the Berlin wall." Enhancing that elation was the undeniable sense that the upbeat tone of this year's forum was a sharp contrast to the gloomy atmosphere that pervaded the pro-corporate Davos conference held simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic. "We can't turn back the wheel of history," said Lula's chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, referring to globalization. "But maybe we can turn it around."

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