At roughly the same hour on January 27 that Hans Blix was handing over his weapons inspection report to the United Nations, something like 15,000 people braved the stifling Southern Hemisphere summer heat here to pack the local Gigantinho indoor stadium to the rafters. Unfurling a sea of flags and banners, the crowd sweatily engaged in what had to be one of the most high-spirited peace rallies in recent times–replete with a series of rolling, rollicking audience “waves” ordinarily seen only at sporting events.
Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, sitting in front of a banner reading Bush, Powell, Cheney = Axis of Liars, further amped up the crowd with a back-to-back pair of incendiary speeches thrashing the Bush Administration and in particular its war buildup against Iraq. “The most powerful state in the world has announced its intentions to rule the world by force,” Chomsky said. “And while this doctrine is not new, it has never before been expressed with such brazen arrogance.” As night began to fall, the charged-up crowd poured out of the stadium and joined an equal number of demonstrators already waiting in the streets, and together they spent another two hours marching and protesting against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The double-header demonstration–against war and against corporate globalization–was a fitting finale to this year’s World Social Forum. The WSF was established in this city three years ago primarily by French and Latin American activists to run concurrently with, and serve as a sort of “people’s” alternative to, the elite World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland. While it’s impossible to summarize this year’s WSF, which drew more than 100,000 participants from dozens of countries and offered a kaleidoscopic array of 1,472 roundtables, lectures, seminars and workshops spread out among four venues over five days and nights, one firm conclusion is that the gathering accelerated and formalized the coupling of the emerging peace movement and the already established anti-corporate globalization movement. “This was imperative and natural,” says João Pedro Stedile, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement and a member of the WSF organizing committee. “When capitalism enters into crisis it always recurs to war.”
The dark clouds of conflict in Iraq shaded out any debate over the merger. Indeed, a number of key activists see the impending Bush Administration war with Iraq as a threat to much other crucial political work and therefore place a high priority on trying to stop it. “We have to be careful if there is war,” said Malaysian economist Martin Khor of the Third World Network, one of the top strategists in the global justice movement. “So much energy would be lost in following the war and in resisting it. It could shift attention away from what is happening in the World Trade Organization, and then you will find that the United States and Europe will be able to bully other governments into agreeing on other issues.”
Despite these very real worries, this year’s WSF seemed to float on a cushion of optimistic ether. Participation was twice what it was last year and five or six times greater than when the WSF debuted, in 2001. The contrasting malaise at the corporatist Davos conference did not go unnoticed. (With CEOs doing public perp walks, the stock market still tanking and the US economy still stalled, it was no accident that the theme of this year’s Davos gathering was “trust.”) Just forty-eight hours after Brazil’s newly inaugurated socialist President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva gave an emotional address to tens of thousands here, he flew to Davos and brought the same plea for the poor directly to the world economic elite. “We started off as the anti-Davos,” said a beaming Candido Grzybowski of the WSF organizing committee. “And now, three years later, Davos has had to become the anti-World Social Forum.”