The World Social Forum: Protest or Celebration?
Sitting on stage, many of the forum's luminaries, including Focus on the Global South's Walden Bello, ATTAC's Bernard Cassen, Che's daughter Aleida Guevara and antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan (whose presence was second in celebrity only to that of Chávez), seemed small amid the pageantry. Finally, with calls from the crowd of Se siente, se siente, Chávez está presente! ("Feel him! Feel him! Chávez is present!"), the man himself took the stage, wearing a bright red shirt and waving his arms ecstatically. As Chávez took his seat, air-raid sirens and machine-gun fire filled the stadium and a row of people dressed in black emerged from the wings with a black banner reading Bush and covered with the logos of multinational corporations. After a moment, young people with fake swords emerged from the other side of the stage and ripped the banner apart, afterward raising white banners against war and neoliberalism.
As broad as the pageant was, the stadium's electric atmosphere made it strangely moving. Finally, to the self-conscious strains of "The Internationale," Chávez took the podium. "Welcome to people from all over the world who have come here to Caracas. Feel at home here!" he began. The two-hour speech that followed (short for Chávez, who has been known to speak for up to seven hours at a time) was powerful, if sometimes rambling. It included a long history of Bolívar and other Latin revolutionaries, a sung tribute to recently deceased Salvadoran leftist leader Shafik Handal and quotes from Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Noam Chomsky, Polish Communist Rosa Luxemburg and philosophers Bertrand Russell and Thomas Hobbes.
Chávez reserved his harshest rhetoric for President Bush, whom he repeatedly referred to in English as "Mr. Danger" to appreciative titters from the crowd. (Later turning to Cindy Sheehan, he kissed her and called her "Mrs. Hope.") "The empire is the worst we've faced in history," he thundered, fists pumping downward. "This is a cynical empire. At least the Roman Empire admitted it was an empire, but Mr. Danger's empire talks about democracy and human rights." Later he made a more direct challenge to US hegemony. "The empire is very powerful, but it is not infallible. This country, we will bury the US empire. We will bury the US empire. Against this force of imperialism, we say stop."
US imperialism wasn't the only thing Chávez challenged. He also goaded the social movements to come together to endorse a proposal for action stemming from the forum. "We can't allow the World Social Forum to become a folkloric and touristic event," he said. "A forum in which debates are held without conclusions is just odd. I insist on this. Respecting the autonomy of the social movements, I believe we need to set up an alternative movement." He left no doubt about what conclusions he would like to see the forum reach, ending his speech with the invocation "Socialism or Death!"
The event sent shock waves through the forum, as participants later debated how much, if at all, it should ally itself with a government entity. That challenge was the latest salvo in an ongoing debate over whether the forum should issue joint declarations. At last year's forum in Porto Alegre a group of nineteen intellectuals, including liberation theologian François Houtart and Egyptian neo-Marxist Samir Amin, stirred the pot with a document called the "Porto Alegre Manifesto," which called for debt cancellation and reformation of the WTO, among other demands. This year at the African forum in Bamako, many of the same thinkers released a longer document called the "Bamako Appeal," with dozens of concrete proposals split over ten subject areas.
In Caracas, meanwhile, a group called the Assembly of Social Movements, a largely European-led coalition of some 300 organizations, issued a statement praising Latin American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia that "have permitted political alternatives born in the heat of popular struggles to reach government." The group continued with an action plan calling for protests against the Iraq War as well as the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July and the World Bank and IMF meetings in September.
Demands for action are sure to intensify as the World Social Forum matures--starting with a unified gathering in Nairobi in 2007, in which the challenge will be to connect with civil society in Africa. As Houtart put it, "If the forums don't want to become the Fifth International, they should also avoid becoming a social Woodstock. Therefore other initiatives must be taken." These joint initiatives, however, are a far cry from speaking in the name of the WSF itself or allying with specific governments, both of which are prohibited by the organization's Charter of Principles. The day after Chávez's speech, at a session on the future of the forum organized in part by Ponniah, the majority of participants spoke out against the WSF's issuing a statement in the name of the gathering. "If you look at the history of the left, these are the debates that happened in the internationals, and they explode when they try to impose that unity on everyone," observed Ponniah afterward. "It makes sense that a political leader like Chávez would make that appeal, but even though we admire him, we can't repeat the mistakes of the past century."
After all, three years ago the champion of the forum was Brazilian President Lula, who was given a hero's welcome in Porto Alegre. Since then he has been criticized by social movements for cutting deals with neoliberal institutions and falling short on social programs--to say nothing of a corruption scandal that has undermined his government. Regardless of the route the forum takes in the future, the Caracas edition seemed to make the gathering newly relevant in its dialogue with living, breathing examples of the alternative world it's always described. As the title of one event declared, the slogan for the World Social Forum may need to be changed from Another World Is Possible to Another World Is on the March! It remains to be seen where it's going.