Porto Alegre, Brazil
Little surprise that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva used his address during the first session of the World Social Forum on Thursday morning to emphasize his foreign-policy achievements. Even among an adoring crowd packing a sports stadium in Porto Alegre, he was unlikely to dwell too much on the campaign promises to lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty that swept him into office two years ago but have been impossible to fulfill in such a short time.
If Lula was urging patience for his domestic efforts from his critics to the left–who decry his allocating more to foreign debt payment than to social programs–his boasts of stronger relations with the rest of Latin America and with Africa spoke directly to those in the audience of 11,000 visiting Brazil for the six-day bazaar of workshops, debates, panels, performances and parties that take shape under the slogan “Another world is possible.” Now in its fifth edition, the WSF builds its program through an open process: Anyone can sign up to convene a session. There are more than 2,000 this year, among them: “Cooperativism as a Tool of Change,” “Citizen Debt Audit,” “Experiences of Non-Violent Resistance in Palestine, Israel, Colombia,” “Slow Food,” and “Art Solidarity.”
In the world Lula was imagining (in a speech officially meant to introduce the international initiative “Global Call to Action Against Poverty”), countries of the Southern Hemisphere would organize their own political, cultural and trade agreements and “find our way out together.” From what, Lula didn’t directly say, but it was obvious enough: out from under the boot of Europe and the United States and their neoliberal spurs, the WTO, IMF and World Bank. (Members of the PSTU, a far-left faction that split from Lula’s Workers Party, jeered the president throughout his speech, charging, in essence, that Lula is now off to the World Economic Forum in Davos merely to shine that boot and beg for change.) “The so-called developed world,” Lula told the crowd, need not have a domineering–or even any–role in their multilateral agreements.
This decentering of the United States and Europe is a major, if undeclared, achievement of the WSF. There’s no way to determine how many of the more than 100,000 participants come from that “so-called developed world,” but Portuguese and Spanish dominate the presentations. It’s not that anyone regards the United States as irrelevant to the struggles described, debated and developed here–indeed, a prominent image in Wednesday evening’s kick-off march was a picture of Bush with the caption “Number 1 Terrorist.” But as this motley movement has self-consciously shifted from protesting problems to proposing solutions, it has shoved the United States upstage. Without issuing manifestos, developing a joint list of demands or even trying to create a consensus political program, the WSF serves as a laboratory for new approaches to entrenched problems, favoring bottom-up organizing to party politics, participatory democracy to old-style hierarchies.